Not an ex woodpecker!
Ornithologists from the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have become the latest group to challenge the notion that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct. Academic wisdom has proclaimed the bird extinct since some time in the middle of the 20th century. Yet mysterious “sightings” have continued to suggest that reports of its extinction are wrong.
The latest study was published last month (May 18, 2023) in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
The last “widely accepted” sighting of the bird – Campephilus principalis – came in 1944. But reports from experienced observers continue to this day. Perhaps the best-publicized flurry of activity came after a supposed sighting in Arkansas in the early part of the 21st century. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, which was involved in a multi-year search for the bird after that, explained:
Teams searched more than 523,000 acres in eight states, beginning in Arkansas where multiple compelling sightings and a few seconds of video were captured in 2005. No definitive evidence of a surviving ivory-billed woodpecker population was found during the subsequent searches.
And now the National Aviary ornithologists – authors of the new paper – have continued the search. The evidence they’ve gathered during the last decade is extensive. They told the New York Times, in a story by Catrin Einhorn, than ran on May 18:
We provide multiple lines of evidence, including visual observations, audio files, trail camera photographs and drone videos, with evidence suggesting the intermittent but repeated presence of multiple individual birds with field marks and behaviors consistent with those of ivory-billed woodpeckers.
The possible proof was gleaned from around 70,000 hours of audio, nearly half a million hours of monitoring via trail cameras and more than 1,000 hours of drone video footage. It was gathered at an undisclosed location in the Louisiana bottomland hardwood forests. The researchers told the Times:
Our findings, and the inferences drawn from them, suggest that not all is lost for the ivory-billed woodpecker, and that it is clearly premature for the species to be declared extinct.
And, of course, not all experts agree, leading to a somewhat Monty Python-like existential disagreement. Is the ivory-billed woodpecker dead or not?
Ivory-billed woodpecker is blurrier than Bigfoot
Even with the paper’s large volume of evidence – showing the ivory-billed woodpecker might still fly in the forests and wetlands of the U.S. southeast – other experts say the evidence in the paper isn’t convincing.
According to the New York Times article, many endangered species experts remain skeptical. That includes Chris Elphick, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology. The evidence in the new study isn’t good enough to satisfy Elphick, who told the Times:
There are these incredibly rare birds that live in the middle of the Amazon that people can get good, identifiable photographs of.
And yet people have spent hundreds of thousands of hours trying to find and photograph ivory-billed woodpeckers in the United States.
If there’s really a population out there, it’s inconceivable to me that no one could get a good picture.
Despite criticism, Steven Latta, the study’s lead author and head of conservation and field research at the National Aviary, is certain Campephilus principalis hasn’t gone the way of the dodo. He told the New York Times:
It’s this cumulative evidence from our multiyear search that leaves us very confident that this iconic species exists, and it persists in Louisiana and probably other places as well.
Besides, he says, he saw one himself in 2019. And, afterward, he said:
I couldn’t sleep for, like, three days.
US Fish & Wildlife to decide bird’s status
The question of whether the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists or not has taken on greater importance recently, as U.S. Fish & Wildlife is proposing removing the bird from the list of endangered species. Its final decision is expected later in 2023.
The paper’s authors say removing Campephilus principalis’ protected status could threaten the remaining population, if there is one.
Leaving it on the list, however, could be bad for other threatened species protected by the Endangered Species Act. That’s according to Richard Prum, professor of ornithology at Yale University, who told the New York Times:
Whether or not limited federal conservation funds should be spent on chasing this ghost, instead of saving other genuinely endangered species and habitats, is a vital issue.
Bottom line: A recent paper presents evidence the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct. U.S. Fish & Wildlife will decide whether to remove the bird from the list of endangered species this year.