Do we have more evidence that the Ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct?

April 19, 2022 • 1:00 pm

About a week ago I put up a post summarizing a new paper in bioRχiv by Latta et al. reporting the likely persistence of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in an area of bottomland forest in Louisiana. Thought to have been extinct since about 1940, this largest American woodpecker was regarded as one of conservation’s great losses, like the Carolina Parakeet or the Passenger Pigeon.  Interest was revived after the publication of a 2005 paper in Science by Fitzpatrick et al., based on photographs and calls, suggesting that individuals of species still remained. But attempts to replicate those sightings failed, and disappointed birders were more convinced that the Ivorybill was indeed gone.

But now we have the Latta et al. report of living Ivorybills, and I find it a bit more convincing than the Science paper of 2005. The more recent report was based on a decade’s worth of drone and trail-camera footage with suggestive images showing the unique field marks of this bird, including its large size, its unique “manspreading” and laid-back stance on trees, and its white saddle and black-and-white wing markings. See my earlier post for the data that convinced me that there’s a decent chance this bird is still alive, though its restricted habitat would surely make it “endangered.”

The article below, from EcoWatch(click on screenshot) is of interest not because it gives new data, as it doesn’t (it’s a news report), but because it includes some newly released videos  taken in Louisiana in 2006 and 2008—between the two periods of research that led to the paper) that show more suggestive evidence of living ivorybills, including size, stance, its method of flying (sometimes folding up the wings), and white coloration.

Watch the YouTube video below and come to your own conclusions. (I’m sure birders will be more skeptical than I, and that’s great.)

The supplementary page cited on the YouTube page, which has additional video, shows that work was done largely by one Michael D. Collins, not an author of either paper. What we have, then, is one man giving his observations and measurements, and concluding that he’s seen Ivorybills rather than the smaller relative the Pileated Woopecker.  But the work was not trivial!

Now the will to believe is strong, and people want to think that the Ivorybill is still alive. But after watching the 24-minute video below, I have to say that my priors that the Ivorybill still exists have increased a bit.

Still, nobody is going to accept that this species is still alive until we get much better videos and  photos.  But have a look! Collins actually gives better location data than either paper cited above, which will of course entice the area to be flooded with birders. That may not be good, which is why those other papers did not divulge the exact location of their observations.

39 thoughts on “Do we have more evidence that the Ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct?

  1. These are the most beautiful birds, and every time there’s a report of a sighting or a possibility that they might not be extinct, it’s almost too much to even hope for. I do like thinking that if there are surviving birds, they are extremely shy and cautious and good at hiding and appropriately wary of people. We seem to destroy so many of the most beautiful birds. I wonder if it’s better that they remain hidden from us if they still exist. At the same time, what I would not give to see one in the wild.

    1. Are there that other closely related species, Pileated Woodpecker, in the same area? The maps say they overlap. I would look for them in the same area. Presumably they were using habitats in slightly different ways?

      1. Part of the video shows a pileated woodpecker flying over the canopy. I believe it was filmed in the same location.

        1. I have photos and video of this amazing bird down here in Florida. Feel free to contact me. I wanted to leave the photos here however there is no way to do that.

            1. None of the readers who claimed they saw ivorybills have ever gotten back to me, despite my request. It’s as I suspected: they all saw pileated woodpeckers. What’s amusing is how damn sure those people were about seeing a bird that in all likelihood is extinct.

    2. I was visiting my mom in Jasper Texas in the latter part of 2006 and I seen one. Jasper is not to far from Louisiana. I didn’t know they were extinct untill seeing this article. I made a comment to my mom OMG Woody Wood pecker looks just like that bird. It was pretty amazing. So I’m saying they are out there.

    3. Iv seen one in ri last week it is a amazing bird and it is bigger then most woodpeckers very distinctive and camera shy it wouldn’t let me take its picture but it was in the wild in a heavily wooded rural area of ri . Beautiful bird

      1. None of you saw an ivory billed woodpecker. Its so annoying seeing comment after comment saying they have photos or saw one last week. You saw a pileated woodpecker if anything. You would make front page news across the country if u had evidence of a IBW. Get real Peter Pans.

  2. Birders, do leave the poor birds alone! If they are still extant, they are very rare & possibly inbred…? I know however there is that possible purging of harmful alleles…

    Surely we can now sample DNA from soil & atmosphere ? Can they not go under a tree & find feathers?

    1. I wish I could get the attention of just one researcher!!!!!! They are here where I live in Tennessee, they are everything they say elusive. They are here on less than 1000 acres. If I weren’t in bad health I would’ve already had photographic evidence. Please touch base with me by text or phone Call 931-312-9187 Christy.

      1. I hope someone gets back with you. The thing is, they said it went extinct in 1944 but I’ve seen them long after that date so I believe you.

  3. I hope it is true. But it is hard to understand how a person could spend so much effort and yet be such a bad photographer. Also, why did he not play recordings of the sounds he reports? A video camera also records sounds; how could he not have recorded the calls he heard from the canoe when he was approaching the scolding robin and calling woodpecker? All he had to do was turn on the video, which was probably in his hand. Maybe he did record them but didn’t include them in his talk for some reason?

    As I wrote on the previous thread about this bird, these Ivorybills have close relatives in the forests of Ecuador where I have lived for years, and their “double tap” drumming is almost invariably heard long before they are seen. Why has that not been recorded by this guy or someone else? Maybe the Ivorybill doesn’t do it as much as its congeners, but it does seem odd to me. I read somewhere that Ivorybill spotters think the double-tap is too easy to fake or mistake, so it is not worth presenting as evidence. But it would go a long way towards convincing me, if it sounded like the taps of its congeners.

      1. I used to shoot what is classed as vermin, I was paid to do it, it was over 30 years ago.
        Crows in the UK were considered vermin at that time.
        Back then you were lucky to get within 50 metres of a crow, if you had s rifle you could extend that distance to 100 metres or more.
        Nobody has rifles much these day in the UK, the distance can be as little as 10 metres.
        Birds learn quickly

    1. In Amazonian Ecuador there was a very fancy large woodpecker known only from old skins. Though it was alive and well in Peru, not even the indigenous tribes knew about it in Ecuador. Not even the indigenous guides who were bird tour specialists.

      One day in 1994 I heard a strange call that I did not recognize, high in the canopy along the Rio Napo. I caught a glimpse of it and realized it was a woodpecker that was not in our field guide (“The Birds of Colombia” in those days). I imagined that it might be a new species. From that day onward, I always searched for it and tried to track down its call when I heard it. It was very elusive. But eventually I discovered the reason why no one knew about it. It was a habitat specialist that lived only on islands in the Rio Napo, and its islands had to be of a certain age and stage of vegetative succession. (The Rio Napo is huge and is constantly making and erasing islands of sediment). This woodpecker preferred older islands with Cecropia trees and a few larger hardwood trees. Nobody spent any time on such islands.

      I lived there for a year and eventually found its nest, and got great videos and tape recodings of it. I was able to show it to other birdwatcthers, who also were able to record it. Eventually I could find it at will. I taught the indigenous people about it, and they soon discovered many more of them. Professional recordists who visited were able to record it (see for example John V Moore’s 1995 recording on Sounds of Ecuador). Eventually an international ornithologist friend of mine, Paul Koopmans, came to see “Lou’s Woodpecker” and he identified it as a Rufous-headed Woodpecker (Celeus spectabilis), perhaps the fanciest South American woodpecker. It was previously well- known from Peru and Bolivia where it is a bamboo specialist. Here in Ecuador the Cecropia forest was physically similar, since Cecropias have segmented hollow stems much like bamboo.

      Later research would show that it is actually much more widely distributed in Ecuador, occupying not only islands but also bamboo as in Peru. No one goes into those thick bamboo forests either.

      This taught me a couple of things about lost woodpeckers. First, it is possible that an extreme habitat specialist woodpecker, even a big fancy noisy one, can remain hidden from view, even hidden from good observers who spend all their time outdoors. Second, you nearly always hear birds before you see them. And third, modern technology, even vintage 1994, allows excellent field recording and hand-held videoing of even the rarest birds.

      Nowadays you can find tons of video and photos of this bird taken in Ecuador.

      Here is someone’s photo taken in Napo province:

      1. I traveled up the rio napo in 1975 from near iqutos to nuevo rockafuerte. It took seven weeks and about seven different skiffs. Lots of birds. I cant recall a woodpecker. great memory.

  4. “Now the will to believe is strong”.

    I think that sums it up well. It’s so hard for someone who has invested so much effort into the search to be objective and dispassionate about his findings.

    This is very reminiscent of the other “rediscoveries” of the ivorybill. The evidence isn’t conclusive enough to directly prove the bird’s existence, so various sophisticated indirect methods are used to rule out all other species. Again, I’m very skeptical. My suspicion is that, under certain conditions, pileated woodpeckers (or even other kinds of birds) will look like ivorybills are supposed to look (and how well have ivorybill characteristics even been documented?). Poor, distant videos of such birds, under those circumstances, will seem suggestive. But to state that you’ve seen a bird considered to be almost certainly extinct is an extraordinary claim. It requires rock-solid evidence, which, as far as I’m concerned, has not been provided. And I wonder about this claim that the birds became extraordinarily shy and undetectable because they were “shot at all the time” (or only the shy and undetectable ones survived). This seems dubious to me, frankly a rationalization of why clear photos or videos can never be obtained.

    I really hope some ivorybills are still out there. And more power to people like Michael Collins who are prepared to spend so much time and effort into searching for them. But I’m going to need more solid evidence before I believe that the species hasn’t gone extinct.

  5. I live in west Georgia. I have seen these birds since I was a child. My grandfather told me they were indain hens. I have been seeing these birds around for over 40 years. I have a pair that stays in the area of my home now.

    1. If you called some birders in to photograph them and they were Ivory-bills, you’d be famous. You should IMMEDIATELY get birders in there. I have to admit that I doubt that you’re seeing ivorybills rather than pileateds.

  6. I seen the picture of the ivory billed wood pecker in a article last week saying they were extinct. But, someone got a picture of one in Louisiana. I’ve been seeing one of those birds on my hunting property in South Texas for the last few years. I’m on the coast surrounded by swamp. That is that bird in the picture.

    1. As I said, if you get good pictures and video of that bird, you’ll be famous. You need more than just saying “that is the bird ij the picture’: to convince the world you need proof.

  7. Saw one of them in the early 2000s. Out in the sticks in Louisiana. Didnt realize how significant it was at the time.

  8. Maybe it’s hiding along with the skunk apes in the area. I’m open to the possibility that things are still hiding in the remote wilderness. But in this day and age, everyone has some sort of camera with them. There’s no excuse for not having a decent picture of these animals anywhere if so many people are truly “seeing” them.

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