Or have scientists just held a seance?
TALLULAH, Louisiana––“Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana,” insist a nine-member team in a newly posted paper by that name.
The lineup of co-authors, headed by Steven C. Latta, director of conservation at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, includes several other heavy-hitting ornithologists.
Among them are Jay Tischendorf of the American Ecological Research Institute, John Trochet of the Museum of Wildlife & Fish Biology at the Davis campus of the University of California, and Bob Ford, Partners in Flight coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Vague & fuzzy images
But the paper by Latta et al nonetheless falls well short of offering persuasive proof that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist in the United States.
This is largely because the trail camera and drone camera photographs furnishing the evidence in support of the paper are much dimmer and fuzzier than the images typically offered to “prove” the existence of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness lake monster.
Drone images of cockfighting and dogfighting activity, pigeon shoots, and rodeo animal abuse, captured by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi from much farther away, in no better light, tend to show far greater detail.
So do the trail cameras used to detect and count many other rare species worldwide, often at night.
The difficulties inherent in trying to photograph an exceedingly rare bird who lives high in shadowy tree canopy, among trees growing deep in swamps, are easily understood; but the quality of evidence presented for the survival of a purportedly extinct species should nonetheless exceed the capabilities of illusionists such as the late Siegfried & Roy before being taken as gospel.
10 years of search effort
Recite Latta et al, “The last widely accepted sighting of this species in continental North America was in 1944. Reports of ivory-billed woodpeckers have continued,” as many as 200 such over the past 75 years, “yet in 2021 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed declaring the species extinct.
“We draw on 10 years of search effort, and provide trail camera photos and drone videos suggesting the consistent presence of ivory-billed woodpeckers at our study site.”
Ivory-billed woodpeckers, Latta et al explain, “historically inhabited mature bottomland forests associated with river basins throughout the southeastern United States, with a small, separate population in Cuba,” believed to still exist, though also seldom seen.
“Widespread and perhaps very locally common at times, the ivorybill was severely impacted by collectors, subsistence and other hunters, and cutting of bottomland forests in the U.S.,” Latta et al continue. “By the late 1930s, a range-wide search in continental North America resulted in an estimated population of 22 individuals in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana,” chiefly near Tallulah, where the majority of sightings in the decade preceding the last widely accepted sighting occurred.
Why no DNA from guano samples?
“In 2005,” Latta et al remember, “a highly publicized video of a possible ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas was published, but the identification and the survival of the species was strongly debated. A two-year follow-up search did not produce additional imagery or documentation widely considered conclusive, despite at least 15 reported visual sightings.
“Most recently,” Latta et al continue, “evidence suggested that ivory-billed woodpeckers were present in the forests along Florida’s Choctawhatchee River, and a morphometric analysis of a 2010 photo pointed toward an ivorybill in Louisiana.”
But as Latta et al acknowledge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “defines the objective evidence needed to verify the continued existence of the species as ‘clear photographs, feathers of demonstrated recent origin, specimens, etc.’”
Anything with DNA in it would help. Since birds, including woodpeckers, typically defecate before taking flight, collecting DNA samples from droppings should not be difficult if Latta et al have actually seen ivory-billed woodpeckers who flew off before they could be photographed or videotaped; but “Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana” contains only one passing mention of DNA research as something the team might try in the future.
More eyes with more cameras needed
“The second issue in consideration of the persistence of ivorybills is the lack of repeatability of observations,” Latta et al recognize.
Seeking to gather “clear photographs, feathers of demonstrated recent origin, specimens, etc.,” Latta et al haunted “bottomland hardwood forests in Louisiana from 2012-2021.”
However, Latta et al say, “Because of the endangered status of the species and ongoing research concerns, we omit specific location details.”
Though their concern is understood, more eyes with more cameras, and in particular more experienced drone pilots with much better equipment may be what Latta et al need most to make their case. Most drone pilots with state-of-the-art skills and equipment, Hindi of Showing Animals Respect & Kindness being the sole exception, are working outside the animal and habitat conservation advocacy community, but perhaps could be recruited for a price.
Wrote Oliver Milman, U.S. environmental reporter for The Guardian, “Steve Latta said each member of the team had encounters with the ivory-billed woodpecker and often heard its call, which has been described like hearing a child puff into a tin trumpet.
“Latta himself saw the bird fly upwards in front of him, showing the distinctive white edges to its wings.”
Said Latta, “It flew up at an angle and I watched it for about six to eight seconds, which was fairly long for an ivory-billed woodpecker. I was surprised. I was visibly shaking afterward. It reinforced to me that, yes, this bird does exist and left me feeling a sense of responsibility to protect it for the future.”
Woodpeckers & wild turkeys for lunch
Ivory-billed woodpecker numbers “started to drop sharply in the 19th century due to human interference with their habitat and overhunting, with their scarcity spurring collectors to hunt them further as valuable specimens,” Milman explained. “They were also eaten by poverty-stricken people of the time, who turned to devouring the woodpecker, wild turkeys, gopher tortoises and other wildlife” that became rare.
Elaborated Auburn University biologist Geoffrey Hill to Milman, “No one has held a camera and got a picture of one in years because it’s a scarce bird in tough swampy habitat and they don’t want people close to them because they’ve been shot at for 150 years.”
“They have better eyes than we do”
Hill, mentioned Milman, “took part in another, largely frustrating, trip to find the bird in Florida in 2005.”
Added Hill, “They have better eyes than we do, they are high in the trees, and they actively flee people. They aren’t great thinkers but they have developed a pretty simple strategy to avoid people. Some people cannot believe a bird can defy documentation by modern humans because we have such dominion over nature, but it is endlessly interesting because if it has done that, it’s one pretty impressive bird.
“People who are into birds are fascinated by them. Ivory bills couldn’t care less, though. They hate all people,” Hill finished.
Gene Sparling, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, on February 2, 2004 reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a relatively dense and impenetrable swamp, not far from U.S. I-40, which runs in an almost straight line from Memphis southwest to Little Rock.
Ornithologists Tim Gallagher of Cornell University and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, confirmed the Sparling sighting after accompanying Sparling to the vicinity. David Luneau, of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, on April 25, 2004 videotaped an apparent ivory-billed woodpecker taking off from the trunk of a tree.
Before announcing the find, the scientists enlisted the help of The Nature Conservancy to purchase more habitat.
No more than one ivory-billed woodpecker was reported to have been seen at a time during the flurry of reported 2004 sightings, and all of the reported sightings were of a male––although turkey hunter, forestry student, and National Rifle Association intern David Kelivan, 21, claimed to have seen a pair in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area of Louisiana, well to the south, on April 1, 1999.
That location is comparably dense swamp, not far from the junction of U.S. I-10, I-12, and I-59. Kelivan’s account, apparently not an April Fool, convinced enough experts that teams of biologists repeatedly searched the area for three years seeking confirmation.
Their hopes were dashed when rapping sounds recorded by remote listening devices turned out to be distant gunfire.
No definite ivory-billed woodpecker nests have been discovered in the many years of searching.
Yet a breeding population must have existed long after 1944, if any of the reports were accurate, since the maximum lifespan of an ivory-billed woodpecker is believed to be no more than 15 years.
Even the oldest wild bird known to be still alive, a 69-year-old Laysan albatross, would not be old enough to be a remnant from 1944, let alone from 1939, when 22 ivory-billed woodpeckers were seen at the Singer Tract in Louisiana, after they were twice before believed to have been extinct.
The Singer Tract was clear-cut in 1948. That act of ecological vandalism, believed to have ended any hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker might ever be seen again, helped to impel the 1950 formation of The Nature Conservancy, now the biggest of all animal-and-habitat-related charities.
After the reported Arkansas sightings, the Nature Conservancy was rightly quick to claim credit for preserving the Big Woods habitat, but was dead wrong in claiming these sightings in defense of its longtime policy of attempting to eradicate non-native species by any means possible, including fire-setting and inundations with herbicides and pesticides.
Had the Nature Conservancy attempted to kill feral razorback hogs around the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge with the same zeal and same methods used to “protect” the habitat now incorporated into Channel Islands National Park, for example, the last ivory-billed woodpeckers might have been among the casualties.
The habitat where an ivory-billed woodpecker was believed to have been found survived not because it was “managed” to preserve native species, nor because it was remote wilderness, but because it was mostly left alone, being mostly too wet and full of insects to either “manage” or exploit.
Not a case for private conservation
Many other partisans in the perennial battle over how best to preserve endangered species quickly claimed the 2005 rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker as a victory for their positions, regardless of contrary evidence––as may again occur after publication of “Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana,” shaky though it is.
The White House, then occupied by George W. Bush, argued that finding the ivory-billed woodpecker showed the importance of privately funded conservation.
Yet the George W. Bush administration actually did little or nothing to encourage private conservation, except by default, as public lands were opened or re-opened under Bush to hunting, trapping, fishing, logging, mining, grazing, oil and gas drilling, off-road vehicles, and military training at a pace exceeded only by the Donald Trump administration.
Then-Interior Secretary Gail Norton promised a $10 million federal effort to promote the recovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long listed as an endangered species but without a recovery plan or critical habitat designation. That never happened.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
While the Endangered Species Act is now the front line of legal defense for the ivory-billed woodpecker, it was first protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This is still the only protection for most migratory birds in the U.S.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended in November 2004, at request of The Nature Conservancy and other hunter/conservationist organizations, to exempt from protection any human-introduced “non-native” migratory species deemed problematic by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The Fish & Wildlife Service at the time anticipated issuing a hit list of 94 species. In January 2005, the Fish & Wildlife Service published an expanded list of 113 species that might be extirpated, with a preface promising that more might be added.
Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker
Technically, that could allow the deliberate extirpation of the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, last photographed in 1956 but rediscovered in 1988.
If restoration biologists had actually followed through with a hypothetical scheme to reintroduce ivory-billed woodpeckers to the U.S. by using the Cuban ivory-billed woodpeckers as seed stock, those woodpeckers and their descendants might have been shot just a few years later.
The reintroduction scheme remained hypothetical, fortunately, because Cuban biologists doubted that enough woodpeckers remained to spare any. None have been seen, in fact, since either 1987 or 1995, depending on which reported sightings one accepts.
In addition, so little is known of either the Cuban or the U.S. ivory-billed woodpeckers that their exact relationship is anyone’s guess. Some ornithologists believe they are genetically identical except for normal family variation. Some say the Cuban woodpeckers are slightly smaller.
Genetic purity vs. hybridization
Currently, Cuban ivory-billed woodpeckers and those in the U.S., if any remain, are classed as related subspecies.
Possibly the only hope for maintaining enough genetic diversity to save either population, if both populations are ever again found, may be to introduce the remnants somehow, and hope they hybridize; but this might be species purists’ worst nightmare.
Many conservationists have yet to recover from the shock of discovering through DNA evidence that the last red wolves, who shared most of the historic range of the ivory-billed woodpecker, were in fact wolf/coyote hybrids.
The “pure” red wolf either never existed or was long ago subsumed by coyotes, who expanded into the wolves’ range after humans hunted the wolves to virtual extinction.
Just 14 red wolves remained, all captive, when in 1987 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service started a breeding program at Bull Island, South Carolina.
From Bull Island came 26 pups who were the progenitors of about 300 red wolves alive as of 2005, including 55 pups born that year at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.
The red wolf restoration effort survived wise-users’ lawsuits contending that hybrid animals cannot be considered endangered species, but lost political support as the coyote ancestry became recognized. In March 2005 the Fish & Wildlife Service removed the last three red wolves at Bull Island to save $15,000.
There are now only from seven to twenty red wolves still in the wild, with small breeding colonies at several zoos.
The message all along should have been not that red wolves should be preserved as a “pure” and therefore supposedly superior lineage, but rather that predators including both wolves and coyotes are essential to a healthy ecosystem.
If wolves and coyotes hybridize in their effort to adapt to changing survival requirements, the emerging new line is as worthy of appreciation and protection, and as needed by nature, as the ancestors who contributed to the gene pool.
It is simplistic to argue, as some commentators have, that a confirmed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker would refute the belief that the earth is undergoing an “extinction crisis.” The existence or non-existence of a few specimens of a single species makes no strong point on either side of the debate––though it is to be noted that species discoveries and rediscoveries continue to exceed reported extinctions by approximately 37-to-1, not including microbes.
But a confirmed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker would underscore other points that ANIMALS 24-7 has made repeatedly over the years.
First is that while the visibility of various species has shifted, coinciding with human-induced habitat change, the abundance of species relative to each other has no inherent relationship to either biodiversity or the overall health of ecosystems. Neither are “wilderness” and “optimum wildlife habitat” to be confused.
Amazon rainforest vs. your neighborhood
One may find high native biodiversity in ecologically fragile “wilderness” habitats like the upper reaches of the Amazon River basin, where hardly anything survives in abundance, non-native species rarely endure the conditions, and almost every large species is endangered because of human exploitation.
This includes “sustainable use” by the present gun-wielding “indigenous” residents, many of whom arrived relatively recently to exploit natural resources, enslaved indigenous women as “wives,” and now claim “indigenous” status as a matter of political convenience.
Conversely, one may also find high native biodiversity in older U.S. suburbs, featuring mature tree canopies, ornamental fruit trees and berry bushes, and lawns that are at least nocturnally accessible to grazing and burrowing animals.
Along with the native biodiversity in older U.S. suburbs will be abundant non-native species, filling vacant niches and expanding the web of life.
All reported rediscoveries of ivory-billed woodpeckers to date have come in what might be described as fragmented habitat, from which the woodpeckers may be unable to expand and recover to their historical abundance.
Yet ivory-billed woodpeckers might also recover quite well as more of the wetland woodlots alongside interstate highways mature into old growth, forming corridors that are gradually reconnecting habitat fragments into a meandering greenbelt ecosystem.
Already these largely unplanned greenbelt corridors have helped opossums, coyotes, whitetail deer, armadillos, and feral pigs to spectacularly extend their range over half or more of the continental United States.
Grass divider strips have helped nonmigratory Canada geese to find their way from sites where they were introduced decades ago to be hunted, into suburbs across the U.S., where they are now considered common lawn pests.
Passenger pigeons & Carolina parakeets
The ivory-billed woodpecker has long been cited as Exhibit A for an “extinction crisis,” because as recently as 150 years ago it was occasionally seen throughout the Southeast.
Unlike the Carolina parakeet, which vanished during the same decades for the same reasons, the ivory-billed woodpecker was not narrowly confined to one habitat.
Yet unlike the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant and broadly ranging of all lost North American species, the ivory-billed woodpecker was rare even according to early 19th century observers Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon.
The ivory-billed woodpecker might be best compared to the California condor, another widely ranging bird who is memorably spectacular but has always been scarce.
After 40 years of captive breeding, the last 22 California condors have become a population of 518, 337 of them living in the wild, soaring over five western states and northern Mexico.
California condor reintroduction has succeeded largely because of increased human tolerance, not only of spectacular wild megafauna, but also of common “nuisance species,” both native and non-native, whose remains form much of the scavenging condors’ diet.
The chief lesson taught by both the partial recovery of the California condor and the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, if the ivory-billed woodpecker has truly been rediscovered, ought to be to appreciate wildlife of every variety.
Neither species exists today, if the ivory-billed woodpecker does still exist, because some other species was massacred to save it.
Both exist as a bonus for allowing other animals of many different kinds the space and opportunity to thrive.