The canopies rustle in the wind, shadows dancing on the grass, so far below. Footsteps echo out into the woodlands, startling everything in your path. For a moment, you look down, following the others as carefully as you can. You hold your camera tightly, zooming in and out absentmindedly. You bear the burden of your equipment: mostly supplies you never knew you’d need on a trip like this. Torn between skepticism and the desire to believe, you watch the others, following their lead. Like them, you turn your attention to the sky. Quiet shuffles above grab your attention before fading into silence. You continue to trudge on, the noise lingering in your mind. But before you can search for your companions, you hear a familiar call: birdsong, echoing out into the trees. Your companions scramble to ready their cameras, searching the leaves tirelessly. Then, you see it: a flash of red, black, and white, soaring from one branch to another. And just as quickly as it appears, the legendary bird vanishes. Such is the way of the Ivory-billed woodpecker.
Far more than just a tale or a monster dwelling in the trees, this bird, also known as the Lord God Bird, has attracted the attention of conservationists and bird watchers alike for many years. In recent times, however, the woodpecker has struggled. Although it remains a member of the Critically Endangered section of the IUCN’s red list, the true fate of this species may be even more dire. On September 30, 2021, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared its intent to remove the ivory-billed woodpecker (along with 22 other species) from their Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. While this initially may seem to be a good thing, as the idea of a species no longer being considered endangered or threatened (according to the Endangered Species’ Act’s criteria) appears to indicate that the species is improving, the truth is far less positive. Despite several claims otherwise, the ivory-billed woodpecker’s last official sighting was in 1944. As a result, the FWS has decided to delist the species as an indication of its likely extinction.
The Environmental Conservation Online System (ECOS)’s page for the ivory-billed woodpecker is a desperate plea: the word “Endangered” highlighted in a dire red, the phrase “WHEREVER FOUND” in bolded, capital red letters. Although the last sighting was over 65 years prior, in 2010, the FWS released a recovery plan for the species, which openly admits that “no recovery plan was ever prepared for the species.” Because of this lack of early interest in the ivory-billed woodpecker, the species has faded into obscurity, its true status unknown. However, in more recent times, the bird is receiving the attention it once deserved. Although the FWS wished to delist the species, the public outcry was deafening. As a result, the organization decided to hold a virtual meeting on January 26, 2022 in order to address requests to extend the comment period regarding the delisting. While it may seem to be a forgettable headline to some, this proposed delisting was critical for those seeking to prove the bird’s existence. The Lord God Bird’s situation has had a large impact on those who have studied it, forming a massive rift between them. Those who believe in the woodpecker’s current existence insist that the comment period is essential, and that photographs and other evidence they have collected will sway the FWS to reverse their decision to delist it. However, skeptics believe that the bird is gone for good, and that more time and resources can be spent ensuring the survival of threatened and endangered species instead of searching for a likely-extinct species. Both sides must ultimately be considered in order to understand the situation of the Lord God Bird as a whole.
Those who believe that the ivory-billed woodpecker still wanders the Earth will never truly forget Arkansas. In February of 2004, author Tim Gallagher and professor Bobby Harrison had allegedly spotted the bird while searching the Bayou De View, a river in the state. A kayaker, Gene Sparling, who directed them (and traveled with them) to this region, had also claimed to see a bird fitting the Lord God Bird’s description less than a week before. However, as the bird was alarmed, the witnesses were unable to take any pictures of it before it disappeared from their sight. Regardless, this sighting gave many of those who believed in the woodpecker’s existence hope. From 2005 through 2013, Dr. Michael Collins searched for ivory-billed woodpeckers in both Louisiana and Florida. Incredibly, in 2006, 2007, and 2008, he was able to obtain what he believes is video footage of these legendary birds. According to Collins, the flight patterns he observed corresponded to that of a woodpecker, they resembled existing photographs and descriptions of the ivory-bills, and their inconspicuous behavior seemed to relate to previous confirmed sightings from over a century prior. Furthermore, there are many instances of purported audio recordings of the possibly extinct bird, including discoveries made by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Over a decade later, in 2017, Mark Michaels and his team collected more apparent recordings in Louisiana. These recordings, both audio and video, provide potentially compelling evidence that the ivory-bill might not be gone after all. This evidence is essential to consider before the woodpecker can be delisted and declared extinct. And if the ivory-billed woodpecker is truly still around, aiding and protecting the species is extremely important, as supporting the existing population may keep it from becoming extinct.
While the idea that the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists is a tempting one, it has gained a number of skeptics. But while one roll of footage can prove that a species has survived, proving that it is, in fact, truly extinct is a more difficult feat. A team of five scientists has, however, claimed to do just that. The group analyzed previous specimens from museums and avian census data, and by applying this data to a statistical model, they were able to conclude that the possibility of the Lord God Bird’s continued existence was extremely low, reaching far below 1%. Furthermore, while supporters of the idea that the ivory-bills are still alive may find credence in potential video and audio evidence, the skeptics are far harsher. For example, after Mission Ivorybill held an interview with Dr. Collins, showcasing the video he had taken over a decade ago, some of the viewers were far less enthusiastic. While one commenter openly notes the blurriness of the footage by comparing it to “watching overstretched pixels,” another warns that “[t]he pileated has been mistaken for the ivory billed before.” This point is especially notable, as even a beginner birdwatcher may notice the many similarities in appearance between the pileated and ivory-billed woodpeckers: both males sport a vivid red crest, with a largely black body and white markings on the neck. However, the females have more noticeable differences, as ivory-bills lack the vivid crest color, and pileated woodpeckers also have red crests. Furthermore, there is one major difference between the two: white markings are present along the bottom of the Lord God Bird’s wings, visible even while they are not in flight, while only a small, inner stripe of the pileated woodpecker’s wings are white. These are less visible when the birds are in flight. Although this is an essential difference between the two, it is ultimately one that is hard to decipher, especially for the distant, untrained eye. While citizen scientists may attempt to aid those searching for ivory-bills, this may ultimately lead to a familiar bird rather than a possibly extinct species. This is an essential possibility that skeptics often consider: could these potential sightings actually be pileated woodpeckers? Without clear photographic, video, or audio evidence, this question may continue to linger.
Although the ivory-billed woodpecker seems to have a dim future, a recently-published study may indicate that this is not the case. This study, published in early April of 2022, provides new photographs that may depict the possibly extinct bird: white markings, size, and leg position seem consistent with the ivory-bill’s description. Another photograph also seems to suggest the presence of a male and female couple, with one individual having a red crest, while the other lacks it. As discussed earlier, this key difference between the genders is seen in ivory-bills, but not pileated woodpeckers. While not described in detail, the researchers also mentioned taking audio recordings of the birds, as well as observing them clearly. Through the use of trail cams, drones, and other technology, researchers were able to catch several potential photographs and video recordings of the woodpeckers. Notably, although the researcher noted various struggles with obtaining clear footage, the provided photographs are far clearer and closer to their subjects than the aforementioned videos from Dr. Collins. However, especially when comparing these pictures to other photographs taken over 75 years ago, the birds are distant and blurry. Thus, while this study presents essential evidence that must be considered before the FWS makes its decision on the ivory-billed woodpeckers, it is also important to ensure that this evidence is closely studied.
Regardless of whether the birds truly remain, some may also argue that time spent looking for the ivory-bills is not time well spent. After all, there are tens of thousands of species at risk of extinction, and the ivory-billed woodpecker is just one of them. While many scientists, conservationists, and nature lovers alike may hope to preserve every endangered species, this process can be costly. Research by Texas A&M University indicates that, for over 800 endangered or critically endangered species, $1.3 million a year would be needed to prevent their extinction. The USDA, however, spends an average of only $6-6.5 billion each year on conservation efforts. If all 40,000 species that are at risk of becoming extinct on the IUCN’s red list require $1.3 million in funding to prevent their untimely ends, then the USDA and other government organizations would have to increase the amount of money invested in conservation and protecting the ecosystems we coexist with. A 2011 study suggested that a yearly investment of $76 billion should be made to conserve endangered species and their habitats. Although this is certainly a large price to pay, it can be achieved through the united efforts of various organizations throughout the world, especially those funded by their respective governments. Furthermore, it is essential to ensure that all species are protected and aided, not only those considered to be charismatic. Charismatic species are those who are often given more attention and resources in conservation efforts, and often appeal to the majority. One of the more well-known charismatic species is the giant panda, the critically endangered turquoise dwarf gecko (which, much like the Lord God Bird, goes by other common names) is rarely discussed, despite its former popularity in the pet industry. Thus, in our approach to aid the species that desperately need our help, we must ensure that we are giving this aid on a need-based basis. While many reptiles, amphibians, insects, molluscs, fish, and other non-mammalian creatures are shunned from the charisma club, they often play large roles in various ecosystems. The same could be said for plants, which often receive less than 5% of state and federal conservation funding, despite their undeniable impact on ecosystem stability. We could invest all of our conservation efforts into charismatic species, but there would be nothing for them to return to, and nowhere for them to thrive.
Although the ivory-billed woodpecker remains shrouded in mystery, it should not be forgotten. The inevitable decline of the Lord God Bird was engendered by habitat destruction centuries ago, heralding further loss caused by human activity. So whether you believe wholeheartedly in the species’ survival, or remain firm that it has long since passed, the ivory-billed woodpecker’s situation is one that we cannot look away from. Only by protecting habitats and aiding endangered species can we ensure a biodiverse future, especially as the climate change crisis worsens by the hour.