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Ghost bird: A look back at Ivory-bill fever

Ivory-bill
The opening pages of this article from the January/February 2015 issue of BirdWatching. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker photo was taken in Louisiana in 1935. Credit: Arthur Allen/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

In the 1912 book Bird Children, Elizabeth Gordon wrote, “Birds are poetry come to life and set to music.” Her words eloquently express some of the emotional, philosophical, and cultural attachment we have for birds.

Our affinity for birds begins early because they are ubiquitous in our environment; active when we are active; diverse in color, behavior, and voice; and can be brought close by providing them food and housing. We marvel at their displays, envy their flight, and hold them as models for their parenting and subjects of lessons about the natural world for our children. At the same time, we value birds as sources of food, objects of sport, controllers of insect pests, consumers of weed seeds — or raiders of crops and pests that interfere with our activities in other ways.

For all of these reasons, we study birds. We catalog their diversity, seek to understand their interactions with their environment, and work through conservation to assure their continued existence.

As our culture has grown, so have our relationships with and our understanding of birds. A little over a century ago, we collected them, their eggs, and their nests, just as kids of more recent generations have collected baseball cards and Beanie Babies. Our understanding of birds began with fascination and casual observation and grew through science and science-based education. Today many of us still collect birds — as tick marks on checklists conferring bragging rights for the number and rarity of the species recorded.

Among the rarest of the rare, if it still exists at all, is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It was last definitively photographed and recorded in the Singer Tract along the Tensas River in northeastern Louisiana in the 1930s by Arthur A. Allen and James Tanner, both from Cornell University. The last universally accepted sighting was by artist Donald Eckelberry, whom the National Audubon Society sent to the Singer Tract in April 1944. He documented the presence of a lone female, first sketching her, then painting a portrait of her flying over the devastation of the cutover forest.

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This brings us to the bridge between our relationship with and cultural understanding of birds and the nature of science. Science is a human endeavor and, as such, is subject to all our foibles — how we feel when we get up in the morning; our feelings of love, hate, greed, competition, control, desire, and hope; and our objectives in life, including our yearning for fame or fortune, or for knowledge and wisdom.

A foundation of modern science can be found in the origins of the Royal Society of London in the 1640s — a century before the official naming and recognition of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by the Swedish botanist, Carl von Linné, better known as Linnaeus. A group of men began meeting weekly to discuss their interest in gaining and promoting understanding of the natural world. They knew that many commonly held “truths” were actually incorrect, uninformed opinions of the rich and powerful, whose word was generally accepted because of their social status.

In part, this is human nature. The concept of appealing to authority is ubiquitous in advertising today. An actor with a stethoscope draped over his or her shoulder sings the praises of a prescription medicine. An actor in a lab coat standing next to a dental chair exhorts us to use a specific brand of toothpaste. A former U.S. senator encourages us to get a reverse mortgage.

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The individuals doing the promoting may or may not know anything about the product. The sales can be made because we recognize doctors, dentists, and senators as authority figures or, in some cases, as individuals who should know about the products. In other cases, the fame or appeal of the particular actor is enough to get us to listen. Such ploys work in advertising, but the messages conveyed may not be true. Because we are human, appeals to authority also regularly occur in science, but they should play no role in our search for truth.

Members of the group that became the Royal Society disdained such appeals to authority. Recognizing the need for observation to ascertain truth, and often a need for experimentation to test hypotheses put forward to explain their observations, they adopted the motto Nullius in verba, which roughly means, “Don’t take anyone’s word for it.”

Today the Royal Society is an advisor to the British government and one of the most prestigious of scientific societies, and that motto is a tenet of the scientific method. Scientists don’t accept anyone’s explanation of anything in nature unless it is supported by strong evidence that can be reviewed and confirmed by other scientists making independent observations. With such a safeguard, understanding of the natural world moves forward, false hypotheses are weeded out, incorrect conclusions are modified, and science retains its foundation in truth.

Accepted observation

A sign that hung along Highway 17 near Bayou DeView urged visitors to report all sightings of the Ivory-bill but cautioned against mistaking the Pileated Woodpecker for it. The sign has been removed. Photo by Jerome A. Jackson

It has been more than 70 years since Eckelberry sketched his Ivory-bill. His drawings are accepted as evidence because he made them at the time of his observation and, most important, the bird had been under study by Tanner, whose in-depth report on the species, his PhD dissertation, was published in 1942. Tanner had photographed the species at the site recently, so it was well known that the bird was there (or had been there recently).

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It has been 11 years since February 2004, when itinerant kayaker Gene Sparling clearly described — but did not name — a woodpecker that he saw in the forested swamp of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas. There had been no previous history of the Ivory-bill in the area, and the Pileated Woodpecker, which is only slightly smaller, is common there. Sparling’s description appeared on the website of the Arkansas Canoe Club and was spotted by Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird, a publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Gallagher was writing a book about Ivory-bills. He contacted his friend Bobby Harrison, an art professor at a small college in Alabama, a skilled wildlife photographer, and a long-time Ivory-bill hunter. Each called Sparling to hear his story; both believed he might truly have seen an Ivory-bill.

Two weeks later, they were canoeing through Bayou DeView in Arkansas, with Sparling leading the way. On their second day, Gallagher and Harrison saw what they were sure was an Ivory-bill flying at perhaps less than 80 feet away, then veering out of sight into the woods. Harrison remained in the area to try to get photos; Gallagher returned to Cornell to seek support from the Lab. He conferred with John Fitzpatrick, its director, who was persuaded by Gallagher’s description. The Lab would back and expand their search.

A team of friends was pulled together to plan the undertaking. They decided on secrecy, referring to the region as “ground zero” and the bird as “Elvis” rather than “Ivory-bill.” With secrecy as the goal, many good field ornithologists were passed by in favor of others. The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated, and federal, state, and private sources provided funding, aiding their efforts.

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By the time word of the secret search finally leaked, the effort had produced 15 reports of Ivory-bills and a four-second-long video, shot from a canoe in April 2004 by an electrical engineer named David Luneau, showing a large woodpecker flying between tupelo trees. Fitzpatrick and 16 co-authors described the video and seven of the sightings in a paper that Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published online on April 28, 2005.

In the 60 years since Eckelberry’s sighting, there had been other tantalizing reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers — from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas — but no confirming evidence for any of them. Why all this effort now and not following the earlier reports? The answer is complex, but the complexities are interrelated: (1) successful appeals to authority; (2) organization, diligent planning, secrecy, and control of message, including well-timed and carefully worded news releases; and (3) positive interpretation and dissemination of news releases and interviews by the media.

Good with bad

Appealing to authority can be both good and bad. If the authority appealed to is someone who truly knows the value of the product or, in this case, the characteristics, behavior, ecology, and status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, then his or her endorsement can be a good thing. When Gallagher and Harrison sought the support of Fitzpatrick, that was good and appropriate. The director is an ornithologist who clearly knew about the status of the Ivory-bill and the basics of its behavioral ecology.

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The big step of announcing the rediscovery to the public was an example of a misused appeal to authority. Apparently, the First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush, was going to break the news, but when word leaked, the announcement had to be made quickly in order for it to have the desired impact. The job fell to then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. Although Bush is a birdwatcher, neither she nor Norton is known as an expert on woodpeckers or even birds. Their use was akin to having an actor in a lab coat promote a prescription drug.

Appeals to authority continued during the searches. Some, perhaps, were inadvertent lapses on the part of news media, but they were not corrected. For example, Gallagher and Harrison were at times described as “expert scientists.” Gallagher is a trained journalist, and Harrison is a trained artist/photographer, but neither is a trained scientist. Both were often linked to Cornell, an institution known for excellence in ornithology, although Harrison had no official connection to the university at the time of the rediscovery. Attributing the status of expert scientist to them is an appeal to authority that increases a perception of truth that may or may not be valid. I know and respect both Gallagher and Harrison and know that both are good birders. Among the general public, an identification as “good birders,” however, would likely have carried less weight than “expert scientists.”

The organizational, fund-raising, and public-relations skills of the Cornell Lab and Nature Conservancy were good and essential for the success of the Ivory-bill endeavor. Such assets were generally not available to individuals who had reported Ivory-bills previously, although in the 1950s the National Audubon Society did back and promote the report of woodpeckers in northern Florida. The secrecy during the first year of the Arkansas effort, however, effectively eliminated voices of dissent, consolidated the message, and postponed scientific review and debate.

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Media and unity of message played an enormous role in the public’s perception of the rediscovery. The image created of an “icon of the primeval forest” was something the public was ready for and wanted to believe. Unfortunately, distortions and factual errors occurred in many stories and were never corrected.

National Geographic News opened the perception-building on April 28, with the statement that the bird had been rediscovered “in a remote area of wetland forest.” That the area was wetland forest was correct, but remote? Not so correct. All of the sightings had taken place in a three-mile stretch of Bayou DeView, a tributary of the Cache River between Arkansas Highway 17 and Interstate 40 on the outskirts of the town of Brinkley. Along it, the forest is never more than a mile wide, and it is bordered by agricultural fields on both sides. I have canoed the entire stretch; the whole way, I was never out of hearing range of truck traffic on the interstate. Occasional old tires, drink cans and bottles, and other evidence of human use of the area were common along the way.

Veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley also exaggerated the vastness and primeval nature of the area, referring to the region as the “Amazon of North America.” Having taught tropical ecology in an Amazonian rainforest for many years, I assure you the region bears little resemblance to the Amazon in its extent, the size of its trees, or the diversity of life it supports. Indeed, there are immense baldcypress, especially in the area north of Highway 17, but not enough to support a population of Ivory-bills. I photographed one giant that was perhaps six feet in diameter and had a clear scar from a saw cut, having been spared from lumbering at the last minute decades earlier.

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Distortion of reality sometimes resulted from use of images. A photo of an Ivory-bill taken by Allen in the Singer Tract in 1935 sometimes was used in news stories and on the Internet without noting its origin, leaving readers with the impression that the photo confirmed the rediscovery. At first, an official website included an aerial photo that clearly showed the agriculture fields on both sides of the forest, but it was quickly replaced with another, taken from only a few hundred feet up, showing neither the fields nor other signs of civilization. Instead, it showed what appeared to be a vast, continuous forest.

Ivory-bill fever

Immediately following the announcement of the rediscovery, the Internet was flooded with excitement, discussion, and skepticism. The blog Ivory-bill Skeptic became incredibly popular, but its host went on to other things when the official searches ended. The more optimistic Ivory-bills live???! was also a site for lively debate and is still active. No holds were barred at a third site, Peckergate: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Hoax, which kept readers informed of search and funding details, lapses in scientific integrity, conspiracy theories, and the money trail associated with the rediscovery.

Ivory-bill fever was an epidemic, and hundreds of us sought a cure in forested areas across the Southeast. Dozens of individuals took part in the official surveys; others did so vicariously. Several skilled scientists from the Cornell Lab and elsewhere managed data analysis, improvised field use of technology, and joined in the field effort, guiding search crews. Hope and optimism were in the air.

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So was hype — both intentional and unintentional, but surely a result of exuberance, the avid birder’s lure of the list, and perhaps financial opportunities. The latter were sweetened by a $10,000 reward offered by an anonymous donor in 2006. As hopes dwindled, the Nature Conservancy announced that the reward had been increased to $50,000, and a slick image reminiscent of wanted-dead-or-alive posters seen in westerns appeared on websites, leading observers to fear that someone might fail to read the fine print and bring in a dead bird.

Anything Ivory-bill became highly collectible, and Arkansas artisans offered all manner of objects with Ivory-bills painted on them: gourds, slabs of wood, dishes, and more. Old trading cards were highly prized. T-shirts, baseball caps, woodcarvings — you name it and it probably was available with an Ivory-billed Woodpecker emblazoned on it. So, too, were items with negative messages. An Arkansas radio station, tired of the hype, sold hats, t-shirts, and mugs featuring an Ivory-bill with fingers wrapped around its neck and the words “The woodpecker must die.” Those quickly disappeared when people complained about the threat to an endangered species.

More than a few observers tried to shift attention back toward the evidence proffered to support the rediscovery. Richard Prum, Mark Robbins, and I argued in the summer of 2005 that the woodpecker in the Luneau video was a Pileated, not an Ivory-bill. David Sibley described how he reached the same conclusion in a comment published in Science in March 2006. And J. Martin Collinson, a member of the Records Committee and Taxonomic Sub-Committee of the British Ornithologists’ Union, added his voice a year later, suggesting in the journal BMC Biology that the images in the video simply were “not good enough” to identify the woodpecker.

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‘No definitive evidence’

Ultimately, the searches extended to eight southern states and included more than half a million acres of potential habitat, but indisputable evidence of the bird’s existence never emerged. Official searches ended with the 2008 season, although true believers (often known as TBs) continue looking to this day — and even the cynics still hope.

As for the official effort, Cornell’s Ivory-bill website says it clearly: “[N]o definitive evidence of a surviving Ivory-bill population was found during the recent searches.” I concur with the assessment. Data analysis at Cornell continues, and the Lab is ready to field a team of searchers if promising reports appear. But that apparently hasn’t happened; information on the website seems not to have been updated any more recently than perhaps 2010.

Among other efforts, in May 2005, Geoffrey Hill and colleagues at Auburn University reported the presence of Ivory-bills along the Choctawhatchee River in northwestern Florida. (Hill described his search in a feature article in this magazine.) They “believe” — but their efforts also lack definitive evidence and have been reduced to only occasional visits.

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The last post on Hill’s website notes: “Grant money to support our ivorybill searches has dried up. The reporters and movie producers are gone. The groups of enthusiastic volunteers have dwindled to nearly zero. Ivorybill enthusiasm has pretty much evaporated. Honestly — this is the way I like it — calm, quiet, more about birding and wildlife photography than epic searchers for legendary animals.”

The Ivory-bill website maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is much less direct in its assessment: “Additional evidence was collected during the past four years [2004-2008] (including both auditory encounters and sightings concentrated in certain areas). This additional evidence supports the hypothesis that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers continue to exist in Arkansas and other parts of the range. However, due to the inability to reliably locate birds, we cannot at this time conclude that a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is established in this region.”

The service’s web page also includes the following statement: “The Fish and Wildlife Service has, independently and objectively, reviewed published interpretations of the Luneau video cited in Fitzpatrick et al. (2005). This review led us to conclude that the alternative interpretations of Sibley et al. (2006) and Collinson (2007) fail to credibly support their assertion that the woodpecker in the Luneau video could reasonably be a Pileated Woodpecker.”

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Independently? Objectively? Says who?

Summary dismissal

Science is served neither by the anonymity of this statement nor by the lack of explanation as to why two articles published in peer-reviewed literature should be summarily dismissed as wrong. Government science should not get a pass on rigor. Sibley et al. (2006) ran in Science, the same journal that published the original report of the rediscovery. This is the stuff that generates the kinds of distrust and suggestions of ulterior motives that can be found online under the title “Peckergate.”

What more do we know about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, its habitat, or other creatures in that habitat as a result of the searches? Since no definitive evidence of the Ivory-bill has been found anywhere in North America, it would seem that we really haven’t learned anything new about the Ivory-bill.

Jerry Jackson stands at the base of a big bald cypress in Bayou DeView. Photo courtesy Jerome A. Jackson

If the searches were done systematically, and if quantitative data were collected on forest conditions and composition wherever searches were made, then we would have gained a greater understanding of those ecosystems. Thus far, six years after the searches ended, little evidence of such data collection has appeared in the scientific literature. I hope that, if the data were collected, we will soon begin to see the results. It would seem that a bibliography of all the scientific products of the searches should be available on the Internet. Such a resource could well be a treasure trove that would spur further interest and research into the biodiversity and regional variation in our bottomland hardwood forest ecosystems.

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On the other hand, the searches were done by different groups of people with varying levels of expertise in often very inhospitable conditions. Were efforts made to maximize and standardize data collection? That’s not clear from the recovery plan, field notes, or season reports that are available online.

The tidbits we have learned thus far include a view of a spectacular leucistic Pileated Woodpecker, photographed by Martjan Lammertink, an excellent woodpecker ecologist who led the scientific aspects of Cornell’s searches. The bird was so white as to seem truly ghostly, but it would not reasonably be mistaken for a normal Ivory-bill. Other leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers are known from elsewhere in North America (photos are posted on the Internet), and the extent of the white varies among individuals. Thus, a less white leucistic Pileated could conceivably result in a mistaken identification.

Another thing we have learned is that multiple species can make sounds like the kentcall and double-rap produced by Ivory-bills and their close relatives. For example, Blue Jays, young white-tailed deer, and some tree frogs are capable of generating kent-like notes. Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers make double-raps, and tree limbs hitting together in the wind and even the wings of ducks taking off from a woodland pond can sound like a double-rap.

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The rediscovery of the Ivory-bill seemed miraculous when it was announced in 2005. I believed — until I saw the data presented in Science, and waded and canoed the forested waters of Bayou DeView. To me, the forest along the Cache River and perhaps even the White River is neither large enough nor old enough to support a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Perhaps in time it could do so.

Today the unsubstantiated observations of Sparling, Harrison, Gallagher, and a few others in the Cache River area of Arkansas in 2004 — 60 years after the last confirmed sighting — seem unlikely. How different this saga might have been if each had been wearing one of the small digital movie cameras we have today!

We know that humans sometimes see what they want to see. I once spotted a Wild Turkey on a Christmas Bird Count in southeastern Iowa and pointed it out to the five other people in my car. We all got out and looked at it through our binoculars. All agreed with my identification. A few minutes later, after we had driven closer for a better view, we discovered that my turkey was a stump. On a twig reaching up next to it, two red leaves blew in the wind.

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We know the power of suggestion can influence one’s view. No one else can know what the Ivory-bill observers saw. Among a diversity of scientists, the blurry four-second-long video of a bird in flight is at best ambiguous. That’s why we have the scientific method. It’s nothing personal; if we seek the truth, we can’t just take another person’s word for it.

Last message

I have one last message for the true believers: Many characteristics that were reported during the search — not only the kent call and double-rap but also the bird’s flight style — have been taken as definitive of an Ivory-bill, but how birds fly varies just as how we move varies when we stroll, walk briskly, or run. No woodpecker that I’ve studied always has a consistent undulating flight. When going somewhere distant, such as returning to roost or taking food back to the nest, any woodpecker may fly more directly and level than when it is moving from tree to tree while feeding. Undulation also seems to be relatively greater in smaller woodpeckers and less in larger ones. I’ve watched Pileateds fly straight and level, and I’ve watched them swoop in undulations. The behavior of birds varies among individuals and with changing circumstances — just as our behavior varies.

I applaud the enthusiasm of the TBs. Whether they find an Ivory-bill or not, there’s much to learn about any species. I hope they take good notes and document their observations. Maybe, just maybe, one of them will come up with definitive proof. I never walk through a remnant forest in the Southeast without thinking and hoping, deep in my heart, that I might rediscover the Lord God woodpecker.

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Today the Brinkley, Arkansas, website makes no mention of the notoriety gained when it briefly hosted Ivory-bill hunters and was the home of Ivory-bill haircuts, Ivory-bill burgers, an Ivory-bill gift shop, and the Ivory-bill Inn. Most are gone, and the inn has returned to its former self as a Super 8 Motel. The Ivory-billed Duck Hunters Lodge is the only name that still remains. The town’s hoped-for economic rebirth is past. As a 2008 headline in the New York Times put it, “Without proof, an Ivory-billed boom goes bust.” Today Brinkley focuses on promoting the Central Delta Depot Museum and the town’s annual Choo Choo Ch’Boogie Delta Music Festival.

Perhaps the sadness we feel in losing this great bird can be converted to a passion for, and commitment to, saving other species. We know the causes of extinction, as did Elizabeth Gordon in 1912, when she wrote Bird Children. Her poem about the Ivory-bill focuses clearly on a major cause for the bird’s final decline toward oblivion. Her words are illustrated by a painting by M.T. Ross showing a male Ivory-bill with a child’s face perched on the stub of a dead tree. The woodpecker looks down at a woodsman swinging an ax at a large tree. She wrote:

 

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker said:

“Dear me!

They’re cutting down my family tree;

Where can I live, I’d like to know,

If men will spoil the forest so?”

 

By 1912, even children were being informed of the potential extinction of this largest of North American woodpeckers.

It seems likely that the Ivory-bill’s century-long dance with extinction has ended. But another tenet of the scientific method is that you can’t prove something doesn’t exist. The truth IS still out there.

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$20.3 million spent, most of it on land purchases

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, federal and state governments spent more than $20.3 million on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the 10 years between the October 2003 and September 2013.

States pitched in $566,324 of the total (2.8 percent), while federal agencies — the Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and others — contributed the lion’s share.

Almost two-thirds of the total, $13.2 million, went to land acquisitions that will benefit many species, and almost all of that was spent in 2005 ($5.6 million) and 2006 ($4.8 million), when hopes of rediscovery were highest.

The federal government spent more than $15 billion on endangered species, and $1.415 billion on endangered bird species, during the decade. Federal and state expenditures for the Ivory-bill amounted to 1.44 percent of the bird total.

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In a 185-page draft recovery plan released in August 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed spending $27,785,000 on the Ivory-bill through 2010. But in its final plan, published in 2010, the agency said the total cost “is unknown at this time because of our limited knowledge concerning [the woodpecker’s] occurrence, distribution, and long-term actions required.”
Annual expenditure reports for endangered species are available on the website of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Read more about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Truth is out there
Jerome A. Jackson assesses David Kulivan’s 1999 report of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Pearl River Swamp, Louisiana. June 2002.

Old friend found
Eyewitness accounts of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers from the Cache River, Arkansas. By Chris Niskanen, August 2005.

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Now what?
What’s next for the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. By Elliott Swarthout and Ron Rohrbaugh, August 2005.

First step
In the wake of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery, a plea for conservation of the world’s other declining species. By George Fenwick, August 2005.

Old friend missing
Description, range, habits, and credible sightings of the Imperial Woodpecker. By Matt Mendenhall, December 2005.

Faith-based ornithology
Jerome A. Jackson argues that mistakes were made, putting support for future conservation at risk. By Chuck Hagner, February 2006.

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The other guys
Geoffrey Hill describes his search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. February 2007.

1 in 15,625
Teams of researchers calculate the odds of finding a living Ivory-bill today. By Matt Mendenhall, February 2012.

Sightings map
Historic ranges and reported sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since 1944. By BirdWatching Magazine, August 2005, February 2015.

This article appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of BirdWatching. Originally Published

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Jerome A. Jackson

Jerome A. Jackson

Jerome A. Jackson is professor emeritus at Florida Gulf Coast University and Mississippi State University, and a fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He served in 1986 on an Ivory-billed Woodpecker Advisory Committee to evaluate the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and, more recently, on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team, both appointed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He has searched for the woodpecker throughout the southeastern United States and, during a five-week expedition in 1988, in Cuba. He also served on the official planning team for a 2002 search in the Pearl River Swamp of Louisiana. He wrote the account on the Ivory-bill (No. 711) in The Birds of North America (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2002), and he is the author of In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Smithsonian Books, 2004, 2006).

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