However, like an avian Elvis, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been allegedly sighted by a number of individuals, including highly-qualified ornithologists. For this reason, the jury is still out on whether or not this magnificent bird still haunts the swamps of the American Southeast.
History of the Ivory-billed woodpecker
The Ivory-billed woodpecker is renowned for its size and exotic appearance and has been nicknamed ‘Lord God Bird,’ ‘Grail Bird’ and ‘King of Woodpeckers.’ Native-Americans valued its bright plumage and large bills, often using the later to transport medicinal bundles; some of these bills were traded as far north as Canada.
Early naturalists and explorers, such as James Audubon and John Abbot ,were entranced by the bird, with Audubon comparing its plumage to a painting by the seventeenth-century Flemish painter Anthony Vandyke. Author William Faulkner referred to the bird in his 1943 short story ‘The Bear,’ as a symbol of the primordial southern swamp.
Extinction of the Ivory-billed woodpecker
The population of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker declined precipitously during the 1800s due to clear cut logging of bottomland forest. The construction of levees along the Mississippi river was a contributing factor to this decline, as the levees kept land that would usually be covered with floodwaters dry and therefore open to logging.
By the mid 1930s, it was estimated that the population of Ivory-billed woodpeckers was less than 30. A nest of the birds was found on a farm called the Singer Tract in Louisiana in a 1935 expedition. The land was owned by a logging company and efforts by the Audubon Society to purchase the land for conservation were snubbed.
The last accepted sighting of an Ivory-billed woodpecker occurred in 1944, when artist Don Eckelberry went to the forest and sketched a female Ivory-bill at her roost
Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
For years, the consensus in the ornithology community was that the Ivory-billed woodpecker had vanished forever. However, through the years a number of unconfirmed sightings of the woodpecker continued to trickle in.
In 1971, Fielding Lewis, a hunter and outdoor enthusiast, took two pictures of what he believed to be Ivory-billed woodpeckers perched on a tree near LA 317 in Franklin, Louisiana. He handed the pictures over to George Lowery, who was then director of the Museum of Natural Science at LSU, and revealed the photos to the scientific community.
There was no argument that the birds in the photos could only be Ivory-billed woodpeckers if they were real, but many skeptics suggested that the birds looked stuffed and that the pictures were forged.
2005 search for Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Over 30 years later, a kayaker in Arkansas sighted a large crested woodpecker in the Cach River National Wildlife Refuge. His sighting led to a full search of over 20,000 hours by Cornell University, the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Five sightings were made by professional naturalists during the 10-month effort. Additionally, a four-second video was recorded, purportedly of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker today
The Arkansas video did little to quell the controversy surrounding the bird. Naturalists lined up on both sides of the debate, some saying that the video was conclusive proof of the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, others claiming it was a different species of bird. Meanwhile, sightings of the bird continue to be reported in Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas.