Never say goodbye: Bird advocates hold out hope that ivory-billed woodpeckers still live

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

They once plied the swampy canopies of the Southeastern United States, living in tree cavities and drumming away at the hardest surfaces they could find. 

But there hasn't been a reliable account of an ivory-billed woodpecker in nearly eight decades, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to give up on the bird and declare it extinct. 

Environmental groups and bird advocates, however, say the bird should not be removed from the Endangered Species List as there is a possibility that it still exists. Plus, protecting the bird helps guard vital wildlife habitat from logging and development. 

The federal government has designated the ivory-billed woodpecker as extinct, but some think that declaration is premature.

"We'll never see one, but they were definitely here in the Fakahatchee (Strand State Preserve), or Thickahatchee as we called it," said Franklin Adams, 84, a longtime naturalist, hunter and camper in the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. 

"The Crackers and the Gladesmen ate them, and the Indians took them and used that large white bill for something. The ornithologists collected birds, so they shot them for museum collections."

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Although Adams, of Golden Gate, says he'll never see one, he still wonders if the bird exists in the outer bands of its native range.

"Is there one still in Cuba," he said, rhetorically. "I would be interested in knowing." 

The Fish and Wildlife Service says there are no more ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) in the United States, and that it's time to move on from the species. A public hearing on the proposed delisting is scheduled for Wednesday via Zoom. .

This image shows an extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in a display. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the species is extinct.

Resources can better be applied to helping save other species, the service says.  

'Chasing a ghost': Several claim to have spotted ivory-billed woodpecker

"The service completed a 5-year review on the ivory-billed woodpecker in 2019 with the recommendation to delist due to extinction," Amy Trahan, with the FWS Louisiana ecological services office, wrote in an email to The News-Press. "The service is required ... to delist a species from the list when they are determined to be recovered or extinct."

In other words, they're gone, likely never to return. 

The lore of the ivory-billed, however, lives on. 

Several Youtubers claim to have captured footage of the bird, posting videos with titles like "Ivory Billed Woodpecker Returns from Extinction," and "Chasing a Ghost." 

Many of them include the words like "the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. Or is it?" 

A crow-sized bird that closely resembles its cousin (the pileated woodpecker), the ivory-billed woodpecker is difficult to distinguish from the pileated in the wild, which is one reason why the bird is so often reported. 

People think they've seen an ivory-billed woodpecker when they actually saw the pileated version. 

Pileated woodpeckers (think Woody the Woodpecker) are common, and only a few stripes allow experts to differentiate between the two. 

Did specialized diet cause downfall of ivory-billed woodpecker?

A specialized diet may have contributed to the downfall of the ivory-billed birds. 

This image shows a Calusa painting depicting the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird that is being removed from the Endangered Species List due to extinction.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers mainly ate wood-boring larvae that burrowed between the bark and sapwood of dead trees. 

Those old-growth trees, however, were harvested over the past century-plus, and the ivory-billed disappeared with them. 

But people continued to look. 

In the mid-2000s, a group of 14 biologists paddled and waded through the Choctawhatchee River and reported nearly two dozens sightings of the bird, but the group failed to get demonstrative photos or videos. 

They concluded that the bird was still alive in North Florida. 

The account spurred a fake ivory-billed woodpecker industry as some people altered photos and claimed to have found the bird, when in fact the stories were fraudulent. 

Still, the ivory-billed woodpecker was splashed on the cover of nature magazines and heralded by researchers seeking quick fame and a quicker dollar. 

"People were in tears," Adams remembered. "But it wasn't really true." 

Last reliable sighting of bird was in Arkansas in 1944

Some of the most recent accounts were based on video footage taken in the deep swamps of Arkansas, which is also the last place that generated a reliable account of the bird (1944). 

Scientists have also searched extensively for the bird at the Big Thicket National Preserve near Beaumont, Texas. 

The only film ever taken of an ivory-billed woodpecker was captured in 1935 in northeast Louisiana and belongs to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

That expedition also captured the only known audio of the bird's chirps and calls. 

Adams said he isn't sure if he saw one as a child growing up in the Big Cypress area. 

"When I was a kid out in the Big Cypress woods, I often wondered if I saw one, but I was really into birds at 10 years old," Adams said. "So I often wonder if I've seen one. I knew an old man here whose family had seen one, but the only confirmed sighting was along Highway 29 near Deep Lake." 

Adams said the bird was extremely rare at the time, that local birders quickly learned its call in hopes of finding the mystical woodpecker. 

"There were reports of people seeing the ivory-billed because there are similarities between them and the pileated," Adams said. "We all learned the calls and started looking for them." 

Decision to delist ivory-billed woodpecker disappoints expert

Jerry Jackson is a retired Florida Gulf Coast University professor and expert on the ivory-billed woodpecker. 

He said he's disappointed that the FWS is going to remove the bird from the Endangered Species List and that he and other scientists heard about the proposal through media accounts rather than from the service itself. 

"As one of the few scientists on the ivory-billed woodpecker recovery team, I was disappointed that we weren't privy to the effort to delist before the public was aware," Jackson said. "It seems to have been an entirely in-house decision and, as usual, one never knows who actually made the decision. Even their biologists aren't named." 

Jackson said there is also a problem with proving that the bird doesn't exist in some of the more remote and hidden swamps of the Southeast. 

"With a species that has a wide range and lives in a very difficult habitat to work in, one can't prove that it doesn't exist," Jackson said. 

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Jackson said ivory-billed woodpeckers were documented in Cuba in the 1950s. 

"The major reasons for the possible extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker are most importantly the loss of contiguous old-growth habitat combined with the species' need for perhaps more than seven square miles of good habitat per breeding pair," Jackson said. "The killing blow to the ivory-billed woodpecker is clearly the loss of old growth (both pines and hardwoods). This began in the early 1900s and has accelerated ever since."

Jackson said the draining of swamps to create space for agriculture and development was a major factor in the disappearance of the species. 

"We know that (ivory-billed woodpeckers) depended heavily on the 2-to-3 inch long and large-bodied larvae of Cerambycid beetles for food," Jackson said. "Pileated woodpeckers — in contrast — feed extensively on ants. So ivory-bills lost much of the food they depended on with cutting of the old growth."

Jackson said he also fears that removing animals like the ivory-billed woodpecker from the Endangered Species List will open up more areas to logging, farming and development. 

"The major problem with declaring the ivory-billed extinct is that it will allow those with an economic interest in timber or an economic interest in wanting to drain swamps, or clear land for agriculture or construction to get permits to do so," Jackson said. "It will weaken the road to restoring degraded conservation lands, or even acquiring additional lands for conservation."

Meredith Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the spirit of the Endangered Species List is to help recover animals, not write them off completely. 

"We want to see them taken off the list because they're recovered," Budd said. "Taking an animal of the list because it's considered to be extinct, that's devastating. In theory, when an animal is delisted, it should be a good thing. It should mean that the species is recovered."

Others say they'll never give up on the bird. 

"It's very hard to prove something doesn't exist," said Julie Wraithmell, director of Audubon Florida. "It's been the Holy Grail bird my whole life, and it breaks my heart to let that go. I think I'll always hold out hope that in some remote forest that there are a few birds hanging on. For all intents and purposes, it's extinct, but I refuse to give up." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meeting to delist ivory-billed woodpecker

Available on Zoom at https://empsi.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwvc--oqzItHtAA9U6PXgtsa5Xk85dKtaxm   

Time: 5 to 6:30 p.m.