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Ivory Billed Woodpecker - Faith, Hope and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Long time birder, Dolores shares some tips and information. Some of her favorite first sightings have been in her own back yard.

Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (Wikimedia Commons)

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (Wikimedia Commons)

Does the Ivory Bill Still Live?

One April morning in 2005, millions of Americans stood in their kitchens with their morning coffee and paused before their radios, for a few moments held spellbound as NPR broad-casted an audio clip of the search for the Ivory billed woodpecker. It was the distinctive sound of that enigmatic birds' double rap and the possibility that what was lost was found again. The Ivory Billed woodpecker, believed to be extinct in the continental US may yet live on in isolated pockets of southeastern bottom-land forests.

Never a common bird, the Ivory Billed woodpecker has been called the Ghost Bird, the Grail Bird, and the Lord God Bird, because that's what you'd say if you saw one. Larger than a Pileated woodpecker, with an ivory bill, and brilliant white edging on the wings, the Ivory Bill has fascinated birders for well over a century.

This magnificent creature of southern river edges was a trophy for 19th century specimen collectors, a good meal for impoverished subsistence farmers, and a source for charms for Native American hunters.

After the Civil War, northern timber companies invaded the south, devastating old growth forests that were home to the elusive bird. As farmland encroached upon the ivory bill's habitat, swamps drained, and the ecosystem that harbored the ivory bill destroyed, sightings of the bird became more infrequent. In some circles, the announcement of a sighting of an ivory bill will be met with greater skepticism that if you claimed you were swept up by a flying saucer.

Ivory Bill History

On December 14, 1820, James Audubon saw 5 Ivory Bills together and concluded that they were social birds. He described them as graceful and that

"the transit from one tree to another is performed in a single sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging itself from the top of the tree to that of the other, forming an elegant curved line."

In the days of James Audubon, naturalists studied individual species through specimen collection. In other words, they killed them in order to study them. Interest in birds for collectors, museums, and feathers used in the fashion industry had a terrible impact on the American bird population. Decline in the Ivory Bill population was noted as early as the 1880's.

Timber companies and large scale agriculture, swamp drainage, and damn building wreaked havoc on the ivory bill's habitat. It is believed that precolonial southern bottom-land hardwood forests once covered 52 million acres of the southeastern United States. By 2005, less than 5 million acres remained.

After the Civil War, the federal government sold vast tracks of southern hardwood forests to logging interests. Timber loss increased during the high demand for lumber at the time of World War I.

Following the terrible Mississippi flood of 1927, the federal government created a system of levees to reduce future flooding and further decimated the ecosystem

The Ivory Bill disappeared from North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s during the construction of the Santee - Cooper Hydro-electric project.

Further devastation ensued after the invention of chain saws that allowed for and encouraged clear cutting of forested regions. Between 1937 and 1978, bottom-land hardwood forests of the southeastern US declined by 6.6 million acres. The alteration of flooding cycles, dams, and drainage projects ravaged the ivory bill's habitat in the 20th century.

James Tanner's classic study between 1937 and 1939 in the Singer Tract in Louisiana produced the most thorough modern example if the Ivory Billed woodpecker. He observed Ivory Bills and described their strong, direct flight with rapid wing beats similar to that of a pintail duck. The flight ended, he noted, with a quick upward swoop similar to that of other birds. Long distance flight took place above the forest canopy. He noticed their flight was noisy, producing a clattering sound.

Between 1979 and 1987, large tracts of Ivory Bill habitat was lost to a sudden increased demand for soybean production.

Today, old growth cypress forests of the south are used in the production of cypress mulch, huge old trees ground up for mulch.

After 1900, the fashion industry used less bird products due to public sentiment against bird collecting but the loss due to industry, agriculture, and drainage projects rang the Ivory Bill's death knell. By the 1960s, the largest, most ostentatious woodpecker in the the United States was thought to be extinct.

Ivory Billed Woodpeckers

Ivory Bills - Notice that the female has a black crest unlike the female Pileated Woodpecker's red crest.(Drawing by James Audobon at Wikimedia Commons)

Ivory Bills - Notice that the female has a black crest unlike the female Pileated Woodpecker's red crest.(Drawing by James Audobon at Wikimedia Commons)

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Ivory Bill Identification

The Ivory Billed woodpecker is, or was, the largest woodpecker in the United States. The ivory bill

  • has a black chin
  • a striking ivory bill
  • white scapular lines when perched
  • in flight - white trailing edge of wing, black center wing bar, and white leading edge
  • Ivory Bills have a direct flight pattern and show a longer tail than a pileated woodpecker in flight
  • female Ivory Bills have a black crest

Compared to the Pileated Woodpecker's

  • white chin
  • black trailing edge of wing in flight
  • flies in an undulating manner
  • female has a red crest

Ivory Bill Field Marks

Ivory Billed Woodpecker in flight compared to a Pileated Woodpecker in flight

Ivory Billed Woodpecker in flight compared to a Pileated Woodpecker in flight

An Ivory Bill Sighting Can Earn You a Bad Reputation

Naturalists, outdoorsmen, backwoods folks, fishermen, hunters, and a small contingent of birders and die-hard romantics questioned the grim finality of extinction. Ornithologists divide into opposing camps - those who believe the Ivory Bill is gone and those who hope that a few hang on in isolated pockets of southeastern hardwood bottom-land. the extinction proponents feel that even if a few Ivory Bills remain, population reduction would have all by eliminated the genetic diversity needed for the species to survive.

In 1935, Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellog recorded the Ivory Billed woodpecker's now famous double rap as well as their toy trumpet-like vocalizations. Where most woodpeckers pound on trees in a rapid rhythm, the Ivory Bill's heavy pounding sounded more like a loud BAM followed by a lesser strike that sounded almost like an echo.

Allen and Kellogs' recordings have been questioned, as if all evidence of the Ivory Bill. Vocalizations sound like a child's tin trumpet and have been called a 'kent,kent,kent' call.

George Lowery produced what he believed was photographic evidence (the picture taken by someone else) of a living Ivory Billed woodpecker in 1971, though he refused to disclose the exact location of the shot. Many prominent ornithologists claimed that the pictures were faked, that someone had climbed a tree and placed a stuffed or artificial Ivory Bill on the tree trunk.

In 1999, David Kulivan, a forestry student at Louisiana State University, claimed that he spotted a pair of Ivory Bills when he was hunting turkey in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area of Louisiana. He was called a pathological liar by some, while others said that he had been hallucinating.

Nancy Higgenbottom, a biology instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University, reported 2 sightings of Ivory Billed woodpeckers in 1986 and 1987 near the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana. In 1986, sitting outside a restaurant, she and a companion saw a bird that they had never seen before. It was, she said, big as a chicken. It was larger and more stunning than a Pileated woodpecker. For 2 minutes, she observed the bird from a 50 foot distance and was shocked by its size and remarkable coloring - a male Ivory Billed woodpecker.

In 1987, she spent most of one day sitting quietly in a deer stand and sighted a female Ivory Billed woodpecker with the unique black crest enter a hole in a tree. The bird left and returned several times. Few believed her and she was called crazy.

Jay Boe, a duck hunter and outdoorsman, reported 5 Ivory Bill sighting in 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, and 2002. When he told the land manager of the private property, the area was subsequently logged. His reports fell on suspicious ears and he feels that his claims were given the brush-off.

Hearsay evidence indicates that some people who believe they have seen an Ivory Billed woodpecker have refused to report their observations, fearing scrutiny, unwanted attention, and government interference, including land grabs by the federal government. Some folks stand silent fearing ridicule. Others keep quiet in order to protect the bird. Some bird watchers, ornithologists, and people in the biological sciences are said to keep silent in order to protect their reputations.

Saying that you've seen an Ivory Billed woodpecker is like saying that you've seen Sasquatch. Even to claim belief in the existence of the ivory bill is to incur disdain and be viewed as a crackpot.

Ivory Bill (David Allen)

Ivory Bill (David Allen)

Cache River National Wildlife Refuge 2004

On February 11, 2004, kayaker Gene Sparling saw a bird he had never seen before at the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Late winter and early spring is a great time to go bird watching. The lack of foliage allows for distant viewing and you don't have to deal with reptiles and insects.

Sparling reported a description of the large woodpecker on a web page and drew the interest of Tim Gallagher, the director of publications at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Professor Robert Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville Alabama. Harrison, a true believer, had searched off and on for the Ivory Bill for 30 years.

A subsequent sighting by the Gallagher and Harrison on February 24, 2004, set in motion the most intense search for the Ivory Bill in history. Led by Proffesor John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University, the team was made up of individuals from the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other including many volunteers which resulted in 5 more Ivory Billed woodpecker sightings.

On April 25, 2004, David Laneau, part of the search team, captured an Ivory Billed woodpecker on film in flight past Laneau's kayak. Like all photographic or audio evidence of the Ivory Bill, this 4 second film created hot controversy.

The Louisiana Nature Conservancy instituted a search in 2005 due to the number of Ivory Bill sighting reports in and around Patterson Louisiana in the past several decades. Several outdoors-men, experienced birders, and ornithologists observed and described brief sightings of large woodpeckers with white on the underside of the wing, strong, straight flight, a brilliant white on the trailing edge of the bird's wing in flight.

The Ivory Billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, its loss mourned by naturalists and school children studying ecology and extinction, a ghost rarely thought about by most Americans came back in a big way.

On the morning of April 28, 2005, NPR (National Public Radio) began a series on the quest for the Ivory Billed woodpecker. The sound of the Ivory Bill's double rap sounded in countless kitchens. Hands paused, the coffee halted on the way to lips. The crinkle of lunch bags being folded fell silent. Ringing phones went unanswered.

Hope springs eternally in the hearts of Americans. The very suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the Ivory Bill lives on, that a magnificent creature once thought extinct lives on, tore at the hearts of people everywhere. And bright morning faces washed with tears because beautiful, natural, gone America may yet exist on the wings of the Ivory Billed woodpecker; the symbol of all our stupidity, greed, and excess might remain wild and elusive - what was lost, now was found. Just maybe.

John Fitzpatrick, Director of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology speaks on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Ivory Billed Woodpecker - Books

  • In Search of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (2004) by Jerome Jackson. Jackson reviews and updates James Tanner's classic study of the Ivory Bill and recounts past searches. the ivory bill is presented in popular culture including posters, stamps, and other artifacts. Jackson is somewhat skeptical of the Arkansas sightings and video and feels that the release of the information was timed to arouse interest in Tim Gallagher's book about the bird.
  • In Stalking the Ghost Bird(2008), Michael Steinburg, an assistant professor at the New College and Department of Geography at the University of Alabama writes of ongoing debates of the Ivory Bill's status and various searches in Louisiana, the stomping ground of James Tanner and John James Audubon. Several expeditions and reports are explored as Steingburg creates a time line of sightings and controversies.
  • Grail Bird - Hot on the Trail of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (2005) was written by Tim Gallagher, the Cornell ornithologist who, along with Bobby Harrison, participated in the Cache River, Arkansas search for the Ivory Billed woodpecker. His book gives the reader a front row seat and behind the scenes look at the Arkansas search from it's inception and recounts other searches and anecdotes of ivory bill lore. This is the one to read if you like to shed a tear or two while engaged in an adventure story of a classic quest.

Sounds of the Ivory Bill - Recording of Allen and Kellog

NPR's broadcast of the Arkansas Search for the Ivory Bill

Map featuring historical range of the ivory bill

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


moonlake from America on October 22, 2015:

Interesting hub on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. There are lots of Pileated Woodpeckers here. They are so noisy in the mornings and they can chip up a tree, but I love having them around. Shared your hub.

Sherry Thornburg on October 22, 2015:

great hub! I just published a hub on the ivory-bill myself from a different angle. I like how you added all the newest sightings and the refusal of authorities to take them seriously.

Snakesmum on November 21, 2014:

So sad if the bird truly is one. Hopefully, some live on, and are being kept safe by those who keep silent about them.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 26, 2014:

Mr. Anderson - people argue about everything. I have heard that people who think they have seen an Ivory Bill on or near their property keep it quiet to avoid the hullaballo that follows. They fear intrusion by scientists and birders and fear that the government will want the property. Thanks!

Mr. Andersen on May 16, 2014:

This is so sad, and I'm disappointed at people trying to disprove the sightings as if they have something to gain from it. People should be working together on this, not arguing. What if the sightings were true? It is possible to have hope and be skeptical at the same time.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on June 28, 2013:

Examiner - this story makes me cry so the second video with the music is so much for you see that brief moment when the mystery bird flies by. Thanks!

The Examiner-1 on June 15, 2013:

Very interesting, but will we ever know if this bird is still alive? I heard how this bird used to chip away at trees so fast that large chunks of wood (about 2-3" long) would go flying in all directions!

I was watching the second video and waiting for the music to stop, so that I could hear what the man was saying and whatever else was going on, only the music kept going.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 12, 2012:

Hi, Ben - what you saw was most likely a Pileated Woodpecker, a glorious bird and the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker. The whole Ivory Bill thing had me in a whirl for a time. I remember listening to that broadcast and crying my eyes out. Anyway, the sculpture bird habitat sounds so cool and I hope that you post a hub about it with plenty of pictures. (I better look at my Amazon thingys, if I'm selling hard hats on this one).

Cheers and beers and never fears!

Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on April 11, 2012:

I have seen some huge woodpeckers deep in the woods of Eagle River Wisconsin Dolores, and this story back in 05' immediately struck a chord with me. Thanks for recasting it in the Monet style.

I am currently, as a matter of fact, in the process of building a giant sculpture/bird habitat for Chimney Swifts for an Aldo Leopold Audobon Society award through the Stevens Point Sculpture Park so...I'm in need of a hard hat and I plan to go through your Amazon capsule here to buy it, hope you get the dough, if not, hubpages at least helps us all eh?



Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on November 16, 2010:

Lulawissie - It can be easy to confuse the Pileated Woodpecker with the Ivory Bill. The Ivory Bill is thought by many experts to be extinct, let alone in abundance. It takes some careful observation to tell the difference. One way is to see the bird in flight. The trailing edge of the wings in flight - white for the Ivory Bill, black for the Pileated. Of course, the Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird!

Lulawissie Birders on November 16, 2010:

Yes! The Ivory Bill lives on! We have found several specimens alnong the Lulawissie River (old Neenach River) in Lulawissie County. There are several nesting pairs along Lake Lulawissie in Malone's Cove and out on Fahy's Island. Recently an injured bird was taken to the local rehab center where it is healing from it's wounds. They are down here in abundance, in the southeastern hardwood bottomlands just as you said.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on December 21, 2009:

I know. The Ivory Bill represents hope for the beautiful, gone America, that it's still there, hidden away somewhere in a swamp. When I hear that recording, it sends chills up my spine. Thanks for commenting, Lupo.

Lupo from Boston Area on December 18, 2009:

Logically it seems unlikely that any of these birds remain alive. Yet nature does produce many unexpected and wonderful surprises. It would be great to find and be able to know these birds do still exist.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 20, 2009:

Jerilee, I hope the Ivory Bill is still with us. Sometimes, living in a city, it's hard to understand the vast tracts of wild areas that still exist in America. That is a strange story. I wonder what the animal was.

Jerilee Wei from United States on July 18, 2009:

Excellent excellent article! I think it's possible there are isolated pockets where their habitat is undisturbed and there may still be a few. I guess my gut feeling on this has to do with living on a farm far from any neighbors. Our Great Dane killed an animal that even the DNR couldn't identify -- turned out to be a very rare mammal that no one had seen in 50 years. My thoughts at the time were that it couldn't have been the only one to exist on our 700 acres?

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 18, 2009:

Pam, Pileated woodpeckers are amazing creatures to see and hear but are not extinct. Sometimes people just get mixed up, the species are very similar. As you can see from my sketch above, the Pileated in flight shows a black trailing edge of the wing, while the Ivory Bill presents a very dramatic white trailing edge. I think people hear this stuff on the radio and just get excited.

You have to be pretty observant with bird identification - one little smudge of white and you've got yourself another bird altogether.

pgrundy on July 18, 2009:

I probably have my woodpeckers all mixed up! There is a giant sort of woodpecker that is supposed to be extinct but people keep seeing it up here. Would that be the Pileated? Now I have to go find my bird books, you have me intrigued!

I totally believe the cougar stories. We've seen coyotes in town ourselves, right across the road. We often see them at dusk or first thing in the morning. Maybe hunting varmints who come out then. :)

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 02, 2009:

Thanks, Pam. Ivory Billed Woodpeckers are or were birds of the southeastern US and not northern birds. Maybe those folks get excited when they see a Pileated woodpecker as there is a close resembalance. But the cougar sightings? Several years back there was a cougar running around Wilmington Delaware and that was a sure thing. Wild animals often show up in odd areas due to habitat loss. You never know!

pgrundy on July 01, 2009:

People regularly claim to see them in the Michigan Upper Peninsula but they are ridiculed, as are the people who claim to see cougars close in to town. It's pretty cold in the UP, so I don't know. But I think you are right that people invite ridicule when they report a sighting. There have been species that were thought extinct but were later found not to be, so I hope this is one of them. Great hub! Thanks!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 01, 2009:

Thank you, Tatjana. I appreciate your visit and comment and am glad that you enjoyed my hub. Yes, extinction is so sad for out beautiful wild creatures especially when it was so recent. I sure hope ivory bills are around.

Tatjana-Mihaela from Zadar, CROATIA on June 30, 2009:

I wish that this IBW bird is still somewhere in your woods. I especially like how you finished this article. Beautiful!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on June 30, 2009:

Thanks for stopping by, Nancy, A shame how one of America's most beautiful creatures is probably lost to greed and stupidity.

Frieda, I blubbered like a baby when I heard that show and have read 3 of the books that I reviewed. You'd love the Tim Gallagher book. Thanks for commenting, Frieda.

Frieda Babbley from Saint Louis, MO on June 30, 2009:

Wow! Excellent information, Dolores! I do remember this (NPR is a major favorite, and that's how I heard about this. but never got to follow all the way through.) Excellent hub, Dolores! I'm sharing this. Okay, got to go back and finish watching the videos!

Nancy's Niche on June 30, 2009:

What a beautiful bird...Just think about the colorful beauty that surrounds us in nature; its pure joy! Thanks for the pictures and information on this particular type of woodpecker.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on June 30, 2009:

ralwus, I love the Pileated woodpeckers, we walk up in a woods in winter looking for them and love to think that the ivory bills are still with us though I have been at the receiving end of a couple doubtful looks. Thanks for stopping by my hub, ralwua.

ralwus on June 30, 2009:

I love these birds and the Pileated too. I wish they's just leave them alone. Thy're there and just need their space. I am a real birder nut. I wrote a story and have these in it, I called them the Bory Ivilled Peckerwood. Cool hub

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