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Ghost Hunting, Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Illustration



On a trip down to the Rio Grande Valley in September, I finally spotted my first Ladder-backed Woodpecker. I love woodpeckers. I fell deep for them in Virginia as a young girl observing Red-headed Woodpeckers. Since becoming an avid active birder, I have been building a good sighting and photographic collection of Woodpeckers from California, Arizona and here in Texas. (Visit my previous article on the Woodpeckers of East Texas.)

Since that last discovery, I’ve been reading two books that mention one very particular woodpecker. Both books were of interest because of a location they spoke of and my present preoccupation with birds.

The Big Thicket Tales of Big Peckerwoods

Tales from the Big Thicket by Francis Abernethy speaks of an area I spent part of my childhood in. My grandparents bought property in a corner of the Hardin County near where it intersects with Polk and Liberty County. Yeah, they moved out to homestead in the middle of nowhere back in the early 1960s; and it was a pretty primitive homestead.

Through my childhood, we spent long spells living with my grandparents. This usually happened when my father was serving sea duty in the U.S. Navy. In the old days, families lost their base housing privileges if the ship wasn’t in port, so my mother chose to move back to Texas and stay with family during those times. The isolation was severe. I spent some of my time exploring the woods and creek bottom areas. Along the sandy roads, the brambles, berry vines and brush was thick, but once I passed those barriers, the forest floor was clear, covered only with thick layers of decaying leaves. I enjoyed my walks, but there just wasn’t much to it. I used to wish and watch hard for something to see. The landscape had a particular beauty, but I would have been happy to have seen a raccoon, deer, flock of birds, anything; but most of the time while down in the shady forest, the wildlife stayed well hidden.

Mr. Abernethy’s book, however, tells a different more interesting story. It talks about the communities further east around Honey Island and Kountze, where the Big Thicket had a high level of wildlife, including Black Panthers, bear, deer and woodpeckers.

Tales from the Big Thicket

It is told in Tails of the Big Thicket (chapter 3) that after writing an article stating that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been declared extinct, the editor of the Kountze newspaper, Archer Fullingim had a visit from an old man. The visitor showed him a dead Ivory-bill he had recently shot to prove the bird still existed. Aghast, Mr. Fullingim just stared at the large dead bird imagining that it might have been the last. The old man then assured him that there were plenty more where he found that one and that he wasn’t telling anybody where they were.

Early 1900 Sightings of the Ivory-Bill Woodpecker

The need for such secrecy when finding this woodpecker was confirmed in the other book I found, The Grail Bird, Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Tim Gallagher. It discusses his hunt for the large bird; one that is either extinct or so severely endangered that finding one is a life achievement. Bird scientists finding Ivory-bills often had to keep the location secret as specimen collecting was still rampant. This was before the time cameras were widely used and when birding wasn’t as much about conservation as species collection using the business end of a shot gun. (See my previous article on the history of birding.)

Gallagher described the effect the sight of the Ivory-bill had on observers. The Pileated Woodpecker was known as the Good God bird because that’s what people said when they saw one. But the Ivory-bill was the Lord God bird, as people said “Lord God, what a bird!” Then the early birder shot the glorious creature; not with a camera, so they could take it home to stuff.

The Lord God and Good God Woodpeckers

Side by side comparison of the Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers

Side by side comparison of the Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers

the Grail Bird

Arthur Allen, a bird scientist found a nesting pair in Florida while traveling in 1924. He planned to spend time studying them as they raised their young, but specimen collectors found out about his find and legally shot the birds while he was away. It was again devastating and robbed the world of two more of these rare woodpeckers.

Back then, while considered extinct, the birds could still be found in deep pine forests here and there. In 1935, the birds were found on a property in Northern Louisiana called the Singer Tract. The area had several Ivory-bills, but also an old growth forest destined for harvest. Despite Governors, conservationists and even The President’s attempted intervention to protect the habitat, the logging interest refused to sell and cleared the forest by 1943. The birds were forced further into rarity. The black and white photograph included here was taken by Arthur Allen who was part of the Singer Tract Team. This story was repeated in Cuba in 1948 as large tracts of forest were cleared, displacing Ivory-bills there as well.

Ivory-bill at Singer Tract

Male Ivory-Bill at entrance of nest. Photo taken in Singer Tract, Louisiana by Arthur A. Allen (April 1935). From recent observations of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Auk) Volume 54, Number 2, April, 1937.

Male Ivory-Bill at entrance of nest. Photo taken in Singer Tract, Louisiana by Arthur A. Allen (April 1935). From recent observations of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Auk) Volume 54, Number 2, April, 1937.

Newer Ivory-bill Sightings

Still, rare sightings continued to happen, such as that of a pilot and bird expert in Georgia who saw one while flying low over the forest canopy. Another sighting by a reputable bird expert happened in Florida in the 1950s, but it was discounted.

Then in the 1960s a well-known bird watcher, John Dennis, caught sight of the woodpecker in the Big Thicket where he trained hunting dogs. He made a report stating he believed there were 6 – 12 pairs living in Texas at the time. The feather Dennis recovered from a fallen nest hole was identified with 95% assurance by the Smithsonian as an Ivory-bill, but even so, was not considered evidence enough. The Doubting Thomases insisted that his sound recordings were Blue Jay imitations. One questions where this Blue Jay came by the call, but the Doubting Thomases didn’t seem to recognize their logic fallacy. The sighting and his report was declared a mistake or fabrication by bird authorities. However, the sighting did find believers and spurred on the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Over 85,000 acres were secured for the preserve by 1974. As Abernethy says, “not bad for an extinct bird.”

It was noted by Fred Collins another bird scientist who has made Ivory-bill studies, that bird experts shoot down sighting reports due to assumptions about a bird’s preferred habitat and movements that may not be true. James Tanner discounted the Dennis observation saying the habitat was all wrong, but he may have been looking for another Singer Tract. Both Herbert Stoddard and Collins don’t believe that virgin forests are absolute requirements for the woodpecker. Stoddard and others who had also sighted Ivory-bills in the 50s found them in previously cleared areas only 10 or more years into regrowth.

It was also noted that Tanner’s sightings of numerous Ivory-bills at Singer Tract occurred during a massive clear cutting project. The same can be said of Dennis’ sighting as clear cutting was also happening at nearby Lake Sam Rayburn. Logging would be expected to drive movement, forcing birds into other bird's territories.

I remember the creation of the Big Thicket Preserve and the marking off of land for the purpose. One section of the preserve was directly across the private road that acted as my grandparent’s property line. There was a marker driven into the middle of the sandy road sometime in the late 70s. I assume it is still there, likely buried under sand and leaves. Both my grandparents are gone now. Their homestead is now a ruin being reclaimed by the forest. It was also in the past a site of massive logging in the 40s and 50s. One wonders what became of the inhabitants of that section of the thicket and how long it will take for animals to come back.

Newest Ivory-bill Sighting

Since then, the best report of Ivory-bill Woodpecker existence has been out of Arkansas near the “Big Woods.” A group of seventeen headed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported the discovery of a male in 2005. The sightings were debated, scoffed at and considered less than the best of evidence; but again, the sightings prompted direct efforts to preserve possible habitat. The Nature Conservancy and Cornell University put their money up and bought up 120,000 acres to enlarge the Big Woods preserve.

During the same time, evidence was gathered in the Florida panhandle which included sightings, recordings and foraging evidence, but no photographs or DNA evidence such as feathers. The last such DNA evidence found in Florida was discovered in a nest cavity in 1968. Yep, around the same time as the Dennis sightings in Texas.

Fred Collins also noted another interesting account. Ivory-bill calls were reportedly heard in Kilgore Texas in 2005 by Guy Luneau’s wife, a member of the Arkansas expedition, but they turned out to be coming from a Blue Jay. Ok, another Blue Jay; a verified Jay mimicking an Ivory-bill. Blue Jays are mimics, so one wonders where and when did this Kilgore Jay hear an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and get the woodpecker’s distinctive call stuck in its head. Things that make you go hmmm.

Experts at Odds

The 2005 Arkansas sightings and the video have been analyzed to the ‘inth’ degree by every birding authority available and met with mixed doubts to a point of a division in the ranks between believers and non-believers. The Lord God bird appears to have fallen into the same proof requirements as the Lord God; to the skeptics, no proof will ever be enough. However, the video proof the Arkansas group had available was a fuzzy image.

At best, to my semi-educated eye, the video showed a large dark bird with white secondaries and a black tail. The doubters have claimed that the bird viewed was either a Pileated or a Red-headed Woodpecker.

1) As shown in the comparison pictures below, a Pileated woodpecker doesn’t have white secondaries, so no, it’s not possible for that to be then bird pictured. Only the Red-headed Woodpecker could be mistaken on that evidence.

2) Is the video clear enough to show if the bird had a white or black rump? If it were an Ivory-bill, it would have a break in the white at the body, where the Red-head would not.

3) An Ivory-bill is a much bigger bird than the Red-head. Is the video able to relate size well enough to tell a 17 inch wingspan from a wingspan of 30 inches?

Woodpecker and Duck Comparison Chart

Is it or Isn't It?

More Evidence Please

The statement from the American Birding Association Checklist Committee on this question . . .

“The vote on the Luneau video was unanimous not to accept the identification of the bird as an Ivorybilled Woodpecker. Dunn commented that with many rare birds now being photographed, and with the images posted to the internet often within hours, it seems inconceivable that populations of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the eastern U.S. could completely evade the efforts of birders and photographers to document their existence…The American Birding Association Checklist Committee has not changed the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Code 6 (EXTINCT) to another level that would reflect a small surviving population. The Committee is waiting for unequivocal proof that the species still exists.”

Unequivocal, one supposes, would be the proof required in a story Gallagher related in his book. Mason Spencer, a country lawyer and State Legislator from Northeastern Louisiana, was visiting the director of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at the headquarters in Baton Rouge. At some point in the visit the director mentioned that one of his game wardens had reported seeing an Ivory-bill. Spencer replied that he had seen the birds too. Unbelieving, the director wrote up a specimen collection permit on the spot and challenged Spencer to prove it. The legislator not only did, but he came back and flung the freshly shot bird on the director’s desk. Will yet another bird have to lose its life to convince the doubting Thomases?

Notice, the statement above does not answer the questions I brought up concerning whether the video actually showed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker or not. It bases its opinion only on whether the bird could have hidden from view or eluded cameras over time.

Final Word

Reading these books and doing further research into the subject leaves me to believe Collins’ assertion that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still around and scattered through the bottomland pine and hardwood forests of the south. The tough part is that these birds seem to be similar to the Big Thicket Black Panther in stealth and ability to hide from those determined to document them, without having to resort to a shotgun. They are both said to prefer the same habitat. Their reported sightings are often dismissed as myth and mistakes by authorities.

Even so, we remain hopeful. The ongoing protection of the Ivory-bill's historical habitat in recent years, including the reforestation of a portion of Singer Tract, and the creation of protected preserves in the Big Woods of Arkansas and the Big Thicket here in Texas, are major steps in the right direction. One day searchers may finally get the holy grail of evidence and the world will cheer for the official unequivocal rediscovery of Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Below is a video by the Texas Parks and Wildlife concerning the ongoing efforts to find signs of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Big Thicket.

Happy birding

Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Chasing a Ghost - Texas Parks and Wildlife

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


Besarien from South Florida on January 18, 2016:

I like to think that Ivory Bills are out there and way better at staying away from humans than they used to be.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 23, 2015:

The story of the Ivory Bill is mysterious and tragic, an ongoing symbol of our thoughtless disregard of nature as well as a measure of idealized hope that a lost creature is still with us.

Sherry Thornburg (author) from Kern County California on October 21, 2015:

Mel Carriere, Thank you for the invite. I haven't been to that part of Cali yet. I found a Nutall pair at Lodi Lake while visiting there. Would love to see them again.

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on October 21, 2015:

The Ivory Bill is more controversial than bigfoot. I remember following the Arkansas sightings, my gosh has it really been 10 years now, and thinking it was a confirmed deal. Thanks for the update.

If you are in need of another woodpecker for your list, come out here to San Diego. We have plenty of Nutalls in our canyons. You might see a California Thrasher or two as well. Fantastic hub!

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on October 21, 2015:

I found this hub very interesting too! I see the Pileated woodpecker here at our house in southern Oklahoma frequently. I do hope that someone really does find an Ivory Billed woodpecker. I would hate to think that we have lost them forever! Pinning and sharing! :)