There are people that believe the existence of animals that never lived. Two such fairytale creatures that readily come to mind are the so-called bigfoot (aka yeti or abominable snowman), as well as the Loch Ness monster. Yet there are many species of wildlife that did exist that no longer are among us today. Sadly, it’s a long list of extinct animals—passenger pigeon, dodo bird, great auk, West African black rhinoceros, Caribbean monk seal, and the Pyrenean ibex are just some of the more recent extinct animals.
How about the ivory-billed woodpecker? Once abundant in southern United States with subspecies existing in Cuba, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology declares the species as “probably” extinct today.
But some people believe that the giant woodpecker still exists. And maybe they’re right. Maybe the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct after all.
In April 2005 a group of wildlife scientists, as told by several news sources, reported observing several “firm” sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker(s) in central Arkansas. The story created a lot of excitement, especially for people holding out hope that the species was not extinct after all.
The “re-discovery” of the ivory-billed woodpecker was arguably the biggest story in decades of all things ornithological. And since this time, other observations have occurred, but few have been corroborated.
However, an article that appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America titled “Putative audio recordings of the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis),” appears to authenticate the existence of the long-believed extinct species (“putative”, being a key word in the title!).
Dr. Michael Collins, a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory scientist and birder, published the article based on his video footage and the videos’ audio recordings of a bird or birds that he video-taped in Louisiana near Pearl River during five years of field research that he conducted.
According to the article, Dr. Collins recorded ten observations of the species, including hearing distinctive vocalizations unique only to ivory-billed woodpeckers.
Prior to this, the last authenticated sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States occurred about 74 years ago (1944) in Louisiana. Later observations were documented in Cuba in 1987 and 1988. Yet throughout the years since the last sighting of this giant bird, many observations of ivory-billed woodpeckers were reported but were never confirmed.
But that all changed in 2005 with the announcement of the potentially good news, plus Dr. Collins’ sightings and publication, and again, just a year ago in January 2017, another study of Dr. Collins was published in the open-access journal Heliyon that claims ivory-billed woodpeckers persist in Louisiana and Florida swamps yet today.
Dr. Collins remains steadfast in his belief that despite the lack of irrefutable photographic evidence of the bird’s existence, he points out that the mere possibility that ivory-billed woodpeckers could exist warrants the protection of the forested habitats the species are thought to prefer. This alone—the protection of these particular swamp forests—is a worthy cause no matter the existence or not of the bird.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers are indeed large birds. Close to two-feet long from beak to tail, as well as a wingspan of three feet, it’s no wonder that the woodpecker has often been described as the "Lord God" bird. The unusual name is in reference to a supposed common phrase, "Lord God, What a Bird!” which has been known to emanate spontaneously from those people lucky enough to have sighted the ivory-billed woodpecker. Our own pileated woodpecker, a close cousin of ivory-billed woodpeckers, evokes similar reactions for those of us that observe these remarkable birds. Even so, as large and conspicuous as pileated woodpeckers are, the ivory-billed was or is even larger.
The decline of ivory-billed woodpeckers was hastened long ago by wholesale logging of the species preferred habitat of expansive old-growth forests. Although John J. Audubon once reported observing the woodpeckers as far north as the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the bird was primarily limited to the southeastern Mississippi Valley states.
Without question, the purported rediscovery and recent published study of the ivory-billed woodpecker is exciting. The possibility that these enormous woodpeckers persist despite the overwhelming lack of clear evidence that prove the species hasn’t perished, many people worldwide believe that ivory-billed woodpeckers are still here.
As such, to learn that these believers are correct and that most everyone else is wrong is indeed just cause for celebration. The alleged rediscovery of this special bird has renewed interest in the ivory-billed woodpecker while perhaps opening doors for further protection of the species preferred habitat as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at firstname.lastname@example.org.