Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

A few months ago, while hiking with some friends, I saw my first woodpecker.  I've heard these birds plenty of times -- their rapid-fire tapping is unmistakable.  But I'd never gotten a good look at one, and was impressed when I did.  These little birds are flying jackhammers.  They ram their beaks into trees with startling force -- I was amazed mine didn't break its neck.  They're also strikingly beautiful, and distressingly rare.  In fact, one of America's most famous woodpeckers has gone extinct altogether.

In its day, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was not a rare bird.  It could be found throughout the forests of the American southeast -- forests which, in the 19th century, began to disappear.  Loggers cleared hundreds of acres of woodpecker habitat, causing populations to plummet.  Hunters were no help, killing some of the last individuals for trophies and museum specimens.  By the 1930s, the population had dwindled, and only a handful remained.  By 1944, the species had disapeared.

But there are hints that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker may yet exist.  Since the bird's supposed extinction, several notable sightings have come to light.  Most of these took place within the last two decades -- the best in 2005 and 2006.  The 2005 reports, from Arkansas, were the first to be taken seriously.  They included photos and videos of a large, white-striped woodpecker.  Witnesses claimed that the bird's red crest, wing position and tapping pattern confirmed its identity.  Critics dismissed the evidence, believing a pileated woodpecker to be responsible.

In 2006, new evidence came out of Florida, where a research team recorded woodpecker sightings and sounds.  They were unable to take video, or even photographs -- but they claimed their data was conclusive nonetheless.  Many ornithologists remained skeptical.  The survival of the woodpecker remains, for the time being, debated.  Only one thing will change this -- unequivocal photographic proof.

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is an interesting case among cryptids.  Most unknown animals are treated with extreme skepticism, and are not given serious consideration.  The woodpecker, on the other hand, has been investigated by several major institutions.  Research teams have spent years searching for the bird, and multiple scientific papers have discussed its possible survival.  Why this special treatment?  Simple -- the woodpecker is a bird, and one that was previously known to science.

In recent years, "birding" has become an increasingly common pastime.  Tens of thousands enjoy the hobby, and as a result, we understand our local birds like we do few other animals.  When a rare species is spotted, dozens of witnesses converge on the location.  They report their finds online, discuss them with others, and submit them to interested ornithologists.  The birder community is popular and well-organized -- which means that a species like the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker draws great attention.  It lived into recent times, making its survival conceivable -- and many ornithologists are very willing to consider it.

How likely is the woodpecker's persistence?  I'm very willing to consider it.  Other rare birds have been found decades after "extinction" -- perhaps the Ivory-Billed will join them.  Admittedly, there's little habitat left for this species -- but some can be found in Arkansas, where the species has been sighted.  Keep watching the skies, as they say.  This bird may still travel them.

Read more about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker:
Image (public domain) from

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