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Longtime Ivory-bill searchers call delisting ‘absurd,’ ‘really premature’

Ivory-bill
This detail from Audubon’s painting of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers shows a female (top) and a male focusing their attention on a beetle. Courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing

One felt “blindsided.” Another said he was “pretty disappointed.” And a third called it “absurd.”

Those were a few reactions to last week’s announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it is proposing to delist the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Endangered Species Act protection “due to extinction.” The retorts came from birders and others who say they have seen or heard the bird in the American South in the years since the much-publicized encounters reported in Arkansas in 2004 and Florida in 2005.

Some of these Ivory-bill searchers claim to have encountered the “Lord God bird” in just the last couple of years. And while no one has a clear photo that a magazine like ours would put on the cover, many of them are convinced the bird still exists in southern swamplands and say it would be a big mistake to delist the species.

As part of the delisting process, FWS opened a 60-day public comment period for “information and comments from the public regarding this proposed rule.” At least a few of the searchers BirdWatching interviewed say they’ll submit comments before the November 29 deadline to argue against delisting, and they encourage other birders to do the same.

Extinction can’t be proven

Only one of the Ivory-bill experts that BirdWatching interviewed said he agreed with the proposal.

“While I concur with the decision, it is important to realize that scientifically, you can’t be certain of extinction,” says Jerry Jackson, professor emeritus at Florida Gulf Coast University and Mississippi State University and the author of In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Smithsonian Books, 2004, 2006). “We can prove something exists, but we can’t prove that something doesn’t exist.”

Fifteen years ago, Jackson, who wrote feature articles for Birder’s World/BirdWatching in 2002 and 2015 about Ivory-bill searches, was a primary critic of the evidence presented for the bird’s persistence in Arkansas.

“I can only hope that this decision does not suddenly result in further clearing of old-growth forest and draining of swamplands — sold to the highest bidder,” he says. “We should be expanding such swamps and allowing trees to grow to their natural potential longevity. The Ivory-bill was only one of the species that depend on them. Wouldn’t it be nice if the declaration resulted in a greater understanding of natural ecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, and the salvation of other species that are currently on the brink?”

John Fitzpatrick, the retired director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the lead author of the 2005 Science paper that claimed the woodpecker had been rediscovered in eastern Arkansas, told the Associated Press last week that “little is gained and much is lost” with an extinction declaration.

“A bird this iconic, and this representative of the major old-growth forests of the Southeast, keeping it on the list of endangered species keeps attention on it, keeps states thinking about managing habitat on the off chance it still exists,” he said.

And in an article published last week in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Fitzpatrick says he intends to submit comments to FWS. “I’m expressing my considered opinion that this announcement is absolutely premature,” he told the paper. “Yes, the bird MIGHT be extinct, but there is plenty of reason to acknowledge that it MIGHT NOT be extinct.”

Auburn University ornithologist Geoff Hill, who led a small team of searchers in the Florida Panhandle who said they first saw Ivory-bills in the spring of 2005, takes a different view on the question of whether delisting would harm habitat for the species.

“In my opinion, it is nearly inconsequential,” he says. “It will have zero impact on the conservation of the birds since there is no location where anyone can convincingly pinpoint the species, so there is no chance for land to be preserved for the species. The elusive nature of the remaining Ivory-billed Woodpeckers makes them both hard to document and nearly impossible to manage from a conservation standpoint. I don’t think the woodpeckers care much, either.”

James Tanner photographed these Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at a nest in 1935. The black-crested female is at left. The red-crested male is in the center image. And the two exchange places at the nest in the right-hand photo. These photos are held by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and are in the public domain.

A cycle of Ivory-bill extinction declarations

Hill, the author of Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness (Oxford University Press, 2007), says he believes the species is not extinct, noting that this is the third time in the last century that the bird was declared gone for good. The first time was in 1924, after the so-called “last pair” was shot in Florida.

“Then a Louisiana state representative shot one in Louisiana in 1932 just to prove they were not extinct,” Hill says. “When that small population disappeared, they were for the second time declared extinct, until a Cornell University group filmed one in Arkansas in 2004. The recent declaration that the birds are extinct is simply the follow-up to that 2004 discovery — the end of round three. I think this cycle will continue.”

Longtime Ivory-bill searcher Tim Gallagher concurred. “For the past 100 years, it’s been a bird that so many times people have thought was extinct,” he says. A large part of the challenge in finding the woodpecker is “the kind of places that it lives. It’s pretty hard to get to these places, and they can be unpleasant: out in the swamps and with snakes and alligators. They’re just not in areas that are a pleasant place to hang out.”

In February 2004, Gallagher, the former editor of Cornell’s Living Bird magazine, and bird photographer Bobby Harrison saw a bird in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas they said was an Ivory-bill, leading to the Cornell search and announcement of the rediscovery the following year.

‘Premature’ to declare extinction

Official searches were called off years ago for lack of solid evidence, but Harrison, Gallagher, and a handful of others have continued looking for the bird. And they say they have evidence that the bird lives, even without a high-definition glossy photo or a nature-documentary-quality video.

“I feel like we’ve certainly gathered enough evidence over the years,” says Gallagher, author of The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Mariner Books, 2005, 2017). “Not just me but a lot of other people [have obtained evidence], to where they shouldn’t just declare it extinct and say, ‘Well, we’re just ignoring everything, and go ahead and call it extinct.’”

Gallagher plans to submit comments about the delisting proposal but not right away. “I really want to think about it for two or three weeks and just figure out what I’m going to say,” he notes.

Harrison says the move to declare extinction is “really premature,” and he adds: “I’m hopeful that after the 60-day comment period, the Fish and Wildlife Service will remove the Ivory-bill from the delisting process. I and others have been gathering evidence on the bird, and it will be presented to the proper authorities in due course.”

Gallagher says that in addition to Harrison and himself, “there’s a handful of other people out there doing this on their own dime. It’s not like we’re being supported by federal grants or anything. We’re looking for this bird. We believe it’s there, and we want to find the areas where it is and try to protect those areas. 

“I don’t really see any advantage in declaring that it’s extinct.”

One common response to the lack of clear photographic or video proof is that skeptics think lots of birders spend time looking for Ivory-bills or could get a decent photo if they encountered one.

“But most birders don’t go out deep into the swamp,” Gallagher says. “They’ll go to a nature center at the edge of a swamp and go out on a boardwalk maybe and get most of the swamp species they’re interested in, but then they’re not going deep out there. 

“The people that are going out there tend to be fisherman or hunters,” he explains. “They dress in camo. They stand in blinds for hours at a time. Some of my most interesting reports have been from people like that, and they’re people who seem very honest and dependable. And you look at the areas where they had their sightings, and you’re like, yeah, this is good [habitat]. 

“So, I have not given up personally.”

This painting of a male Ivory-bill is from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) by Mark Catesby. Credit rawpixel.com (CC BY 4.0)

Three-year search project planned

Matt Courtman, a former president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society who has been a student of the Ivory-bill since his childhood, founded sister groups called Mission Ivorybill and Louisiana Wilds to coordinate a three-year search for the bird. He plans to offer training sessions for volunteers in November, and the first searches would begin in Louisiana in February, after the state’s hunting season.

Since early 2020, Louisiana Wilds has offered a $12,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of an active Ivory-bill roost or nest cavity. Courtman’s group also offers a 10 percent “finder’s fee” ($1,200) to anyone who shares a poster or other information about the reward to someone who knows the location of a roost. He says the reward money has led to several promising tips from hunters or other people who otherwise would not have reported sightings of birds they didn’t recognize.

Courtman says he has seen Ivory-bills twice and heard them eight times in recent years. He says he saw one Ivory-bill on February 18, 2019, and two birds flying close together on March 10, 2019. The bird that was closest to him didn’t have red in the crest, so it was either a female or an immature male. He couldn’t see the crest color of the other bird, so he’s unsure of its sex or age.

“I have massive respect for U.S. Fish and Wildlife and know many accomplished people in its ranks,” Courtman says. “With all due respect to the Service, however, based on my personal, hands-on field experience and based upon our discussions with people from Texas to Florida, I am confident that the Ivory-bill is not extinct.”

He also calls last week’s announcement a “healthy development” because: “Contrary to media reports, USFWS has NOT declared the Ivory-bill extinct. Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Service has just opened the public comment period regarding the proposed delisting. The public comment period expires on November 29, 2021. Aside from our own evidence of the persistence of the Ivory-bill, Mission Ivorybill hopes to present to the Service evidence solicited from the public over the next few weeks.”

Courtman plans to host a meeting via Zoom at 7 p.m. Central time on Monday, October 11, to discuss the delisting proposal. “We will have experts with actual Ivory-bill experience on hand to present and to answer questions,” he adds.

Undaunted

The common denominator of the people who claim sightings of Ivory-bills is that they are undaunted by skepticism. “People have been saying for quite a few years now that, well, ‘they must be gone,’ or ‘nothing has happened since 2005.’ It’s really not true,” says Gallagher. “There have been plenty [of encounters], but they’re not getting the attention like we had in 2005. 

“They’re not as newsworthy because if they can’t be 10 times better than what we had in 2004 and 2005, then don’t get any coverage. Someone has to get a really killer photograph or something to change that. But I’ve seen a lot of interesting things and heard recordings people made where you go, ‘what else could that be [but an Ivory-bill]?’

“You know, to be honest, if I hadn’t seen one myself with my own eyes, I don’t know if I would believe some of these sightings. It changes your mind when you see one for yourself.”

Courtman concurs. “Based on media reports, the vast majority of people will be shocked to learn that any credible people think that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not extinct,” he says. “The majority perspective seems to be: ‘IF Ivorybills are out there, somebody would have photographic evidence of it by now.’ In fact, in my opinion, there IS ample photographic evidence out there: Both Mike Collins and Guy Luneau have (independently) recently published work that establishes the persistence of the Ivory-bill.”

Collins is a mathematician with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., who has been searching for Ivory-bills in the Pearl River swamp in Louisiana for about 20 years. His most intense search years were from November 2005 through June 2013, when he spent several months each year kayaking and hiking in the swamp. He also searched the Choctawhatchee River swamp in Florida with Hill’s team in 2007.

In a summary of his work on his website, Collins writes: “During a five-day period in February 2006, I had five sightings, heard kents on two occasions (once coming from two directions at the same time), and obtained video footage of a perched Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A short distance up the same bayou in March 2008, I was keeping watch from one of the observation trees and obtained video footage of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight. While working with Hill’s search team in the Choctawhatchee River in January 2007, I had an encounter with a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and obtained video footage of a double knock and spectacular swooping flights that are consistent with accounts by Audubon of a flight that is ‘graceful in the extreme’ and [Donald] Eckleberry of a landing with ‘one magnificent upward swoop.’ The events in the videos show field marks, other characteristics, several types of flight, and other behaviors that are consistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but no other species.”

Since 2011, Collins has published several research papers regarding various aspects of his findings. Coincidentally, the most recent paper, titled “The Role of Acoustics in the Conservation of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)” was published in the Journal of Theoretical and Computational Acoustics on September 30, the day after the FWS delisting announcement. (In this video on YouTube, Collins describes the new paper and reacts to the delisting proposal. For more on his videos, see this 2017 Audubon article.)

The paper, Collins says, “is essentially an unintended rebuttal to the absurd decision by the USFWS. This paper summarizes the published findings of the searches that took place in Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana in recent years. Neither the USFWS nor anyone else has addressed those findings.”

The FWS delisting document says of Collins’ searches in the swamps of the Pearl and Choctawhatchee rivers: “Approximately 1,500 hours were spent surveying these two swamps with a kayak and video cameras. Three video clips were produced from both areas; however, the blurred images are inconclusive as to whether they are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers or not.”

Collins responds: “Their condensation of the three videos that I obtained as ‘blurry’ does not address the evidence in the videos that is discussed in detail in my papers. For example, the bird in the 2008 video is a large woodpecker, according to a prominent ornithologist who specializes in woodpecker flight mechanics. The flap rate, flight speed, and other characteristics eliminate the PIWO (Pileated Woodpecker), and so the IBWO (Ivory-billed Woodpecker) is the only remaining possibility. There are similar detailed analyses of the other videos, none of which anyone has been able to refute. On the other hand, an ornithologist who should be regarded as one of the primary experts, Geoff Hill, regards the videos as ‘very convincing.’”

The other Luneau

The other searcher that Courtman referred to is Guy Luneau, an engineer and naturalist from central Arkansas. In 2004, his brother David obtained the four-second video of a flying woodpecker cited in the 2005 Science paper. True believers maintain the video shows an Ivory-bill. Jackson and others said the bird was a Pileated Woodpecker.

Guy Luneau published a book this summer titled The Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Taunting Extinction (Zombie Media, $21.95). It includes, among other reasons for the bird’s purported existence, a detailed analysis of a trail-cam photo taken in Louisiana in August 2009 that Luneau says shows an Ivory-bill. The photo depicts what appears to be the back view of a woodpecker with a long neck perched high in a tree. It was taken with a camera operated by Project Principalis, a small group of Ivory-bill hunters affiliated with the Pittsburgh-based National Aviary.

One chapter of the book prints a paper that Luneau, Mark A. Michaels of Project Principalis, and Steven C. Latta of the National Aviary wrote about a woodpecker-ID tool they call “neck aspect ratio.” Essentially, they say an Ivory-bill’s neck is notably longer than a Pileated’s and that proves the bird in the 2009 photo is an Ivory-bill. The book reports that three ornithological journals rejected the paper.

Luneau says he has not seen an Ivory-bill, but he claims to have heard vocalizations of the bird in 2005 and 2019 and “two rapid-fire double-knocks” in 2019.

Regarding the FWS delisting proposal, Luneau responds: “Read the book. I poured my heart, soul, science, and high mathematics into that book. It says virtually everything I wish to say about the Ivory-bill. The species exists in the USA. The evidence is undeniable. The USFWS is about to pull a major blunder by calling it extinct. (And, I might ask, ‘How many times has the Ivory-bill gone extinct? Four times? Five times?’) I never have and never will understand the forces at work that want the Ivory-bill to be extinct. Human arrogance has raised its ugly head yet again.”

After the delisting proposal last week, a spokesperson for Project Principalis issued this statement:

“Project Principalis respects the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to initiate the process of removing the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the Endangered Species List. At the same time, we are continuing to evaluate the audio, video, photographic, and other evidence gathered during several field seasons of Project Principalis’s search and continuing to collect new evidence. The emergence of new evidence of a species’ continued survival is always welcomed news, and the cumulative evidence from our multi-year search leaves us hopeful that this iconic species persists. Extinction is tragic, and the stories of these species demonstrate the need for conservation efforts today.

“Our team takes the decision from USFWS extremely seriously and is evaluating any potential response.”

Shy, retiring, and quiet

At least four of the Ivory-bill searchers we contacted (Luneau, Collins, Courtman, and Harrison) addressed another common charge from skeptics: that the Ivory-bill was big and loud and, based on naturalists’ accounts from the 1800s and early 1900s, was not particularly wary of people. Thus, if the species exists, the birds shouldn’t be so challenging to find and photograph.

Modern-day searchers, however, say that today’s Ivory-bills are silent most of the time and are especially wary of people. Luneau, in his book, postulates that “the talkative, noisy Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were eliminated from the gene pool during the ‘era of collection,’ leaving us today with the shy, retiring quiet Ivory-bill — the descendants of the shy, retiring, quiet ones of the late 1800s and early 1900s that managed to avoid being detected and thereby avoided being downstream of the business end of a shotgun.”

In a video presentation this summer, Courtman quoted from a 1937 paper written by Cornell’s Arthur Allen and Paul Kellogg, who observed the species in Louisiana. They wrote:

“Failure to find the birds in a given area is no proof that they are not there, for they are not noisy except when disturbed; their voice does not carry nearly as far as that of the Pileated Woodpecker and in the big trees which they normally frequent they are easily overlooked. We camped for five days within three hundred feet of one nest and, except when the birds were about to change places on the nest or were disturbed, seldom heard them. We had great difficulty in following them through the woods to learn their feeding habits even after becoming very familiar with their notes. The senior author at one time stood under a giant oak and caught in his hand chips of bark and wood that an Ivorybill was scaling from a dead branch high in the tree without either one being able to see the other. We had hunted for three days for this particular pair of birds without ever hearing them, even though we were frequently within three hundred yards of the nest, which we finally found because we happened to be within hearing distance when the birds changed places on the nest.”

Indeed, Courtman observes that since the 1800s, the only high-quality Ivory-bill reports, including photos, have come from people, including Allen, Kellogg, and James Tanner, who could watch a nest. And in the video Collins posted on Monday, he makes the same point and adds that the Ivory-bill is “arguably the most elusive bird in the world.”

‘Skepticism is appropriate’

Courtman and other searchers say it’s important to question purported sightings of Ivory-bills, but they shouldn’t all be dismissed out of hand.

“Skepticism is absolutely appropriate as to any reports involving Ivory-bills,” says Courtman. “I maintain a rigorously skeptical stance towards all Ivory-bill reports, including my own. The short shrift given to the work of such accomplished scientists as Geoff Hill and Mike Collins, however, is disgraceful.”

For his part, Gallagher understands that many people won’t accept anything but a clear photo or video as proof. “We’ve been told all our lives that this bird is extinct, and it’s hard to wrap your head around it that it might not be,” he says.

For Hill, the question of whether anyone will obtain photographic proof is a question of when, not if. “Since Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are still flying around forests, at least in Florida and Louisiana and probably in Alabama and Mississippi as well, I would say that it is just a matter of time.”

 

Read our past articles 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.

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.

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.

Ghost bird
Ten years after Ivory-bill fever swept the nation, a scientist assesses the hope, hype, and disappointment. By Jerome A. Jackson, February 2015.

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

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. You can reach him at [email protected].

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