The ivory-billed woodpecker has long captivated the imagination of bird enthusiasts and scientists alike. This elusive and striking species, once widespread across the southeastern United States, has been the subject of intense controversy regarding its current status. While many believe that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct, there have been tantalizing reports and sightings that suggest otherwise. In this article, we will explore fascinating facts about the ivory-billed woodpecker, and delve into the ongoing debate surrounding its potential survival in the modern world.
1. Where did the ivory-billed woodpecker live?
Nobody had attempted to map the range of the ivory-billed woodpecker until long after the population had experienced massive decline. The initial range map for the species was created by Edwin M. Hasbrouck in 1891, followed by a second map by James Tanner in 1942. Both authors did their best to reconstruct the original range of the species based on historical records, often derived from specimens with well-documented acquisition locations.
Their findings yielded similar estimates, indicating that prior to the impacts of deforestation and hunting, the ivory-billed woodpecker inhabited an extensive range spanning from eastern Texas to North Carolina, and from southern Illinois to Florida and Cuba, typically extending from the coast inland to an elevation of approximately 30 meters (98 feet).
2. What habitat can the ivory-billed woodpecker be found in?
These majestic birds preferred to inhabit mature bottomland hardwood forests and swampy areas with large tracts of tall trees, where they could find suitable nesting sites and ample food sources. It is believed they originally lived in upland pine forests, but by the 1890’s were mainly found in cypress swamps. These areas the ivory-billed seemed to favor were mainly full of sweetgum, green ash, Nuttall’s oak, American elm, willow and water oaks, and hackberry.
3. What do ivory-billed woodpeckers eat?
The larvae of large beetles is their main food source. This includes the longhorn beetle, jewel beetle and click beetles. They also eat bark beetle larvae, although these are much smaller and aren’t as sought-after. These types of beetles are very populous in areas with large stands of dead trees. Ivory-billed woodpeckers also supplemented their diet with fruits and nuts including hackberries, grapes, pecans, hickory nuts and persimmons.
4. Do female ivory-billed woodpeckers look different than males?
Yes, males and females do have slightly different plumage. They have black bodies with a white stripe extending from each side of the head down the back. They also have large patches of white on their upper wings that still shows when folded. Similar to the pileated woodpecker, they have a very pointed head crest. Females have a black crest while males have a red crest.
5. How large are ivory-billed woodpeckers?
About the size of a crow! Ivory-billed woodpeckers are considered the largest woodpeckers north of Mexico, and one of the largest in the world. They measure about 18.1 – 20.1 inches long with a wingspan of 29.9 – 31.5 inches.
6. How did the ivory-billed woodpecker get its name?
Ivory traditionally refers to tusks and teeth of large animals like elephants. So while we wouldn’t consider their bill to be made of ivory like an elephant tusk, it does have that same off-white coloring. In mature individuals, the bill displays an ivory hue, while it appears chalky white in younger birds.
7. What are the differences between ivory-billed woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker?
In the U.S., the pileated woodpecker is the species that has the most similar size, shape, and coloring to the ivory-billed woodpecker. When someone claims to have spotted the ivory-billed, it must be ruled out that they weren’t just seeing the pileated woodpecker, which inhabits the same areas.
You can see their similar body size, coloration and head shape with the pointed crest. While it may be quite obvious they are different up close, if you are seeing them from a distance or in a blurry photo or video, it can be much harder to tell them apart.
When their wings are folded from behind, you can see the pileated shows no white while the ivory-billed shows a large white patch. The pileated woodpecker does have a white wing stripe visible in flight, although it is much smaller than on the ivory-billed. These white wing patches are one of the best identifiers from a distance, and something that is used as evidence to substantiate claims.
8. Native Americans traded their bills
Parts of the ivory-billed woodpecker, especially their ivory bills, were used by Native American groups as decoration, in ceremonies and items for trade. Ivory bills have been found made into ceremonial pipes, used in amulets and headbands, and present at graves of the wealthy.
9. Where do ivory-billed woodpeckers nest?
These woodpeckers choose to excavate their holes in dead trees or dead sections of live trees, often right beneath a large branch. Both males and females work together to make the cavity. The entrance hole is about 5 inches wide and about 24 inches deep inside the tree. They may have sometimes reused the cavity, but it is believed they preferred to carve out a new nest hole each year.
10. What caused the ivory-billed woodpecker’s decline?
The main cause for their decline and possible extinction is habitat loss. They relied on mature, old-growth forest and heavy logging across most of their range left them with few places to go. They were also over-hunted for food and by collectors. By the late 1800’s, they were already considered a fairly rare species.
11. When was the most recent study of ivory-billed woodpeckers?
The last successful study of these woodpeckers was in the early 1930’s on a group of ivory-billed woodpeckers in an area of old-growth forest owned by the Singer Sewing Company. The Audubon Society tried to buy the rights to the land so this habitat, which was otherwise slated to be logged, could be preserved for the woodpeckers. Unfortunately they were denied.
Ph.D. student James Tanner spent time between 1937-1939 on the “Singer tract” studying the ivory-billed woodpeckers, as well as traveling across the south trying to find more. He estimated there were were only about 24 birds left, with 8 of them living on the Singer tract. This valuable research provided the first and potentially only audio and video recordings of these beautiful birds. You can see some of this original video below.
12. What was the last official sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker?
The last universally accepted sighting in the U.S. was in 1944 by Audubon artist Don Eckelberry, on the Singer tract. At this point the Singer tract had been almost completely cut down by loggers, and full logging would soon be completed.
13. Are ivory-billed woodpeckers extinct?
The American Birding Association lists the ivory-billed woodpecker as “definitely or probably extinct”, but they remain on the IUCN red list as “critically endangered.” In 2021 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to declare them officially extinct. However, as of October 2023 the agency said they will “continue to analyze and review the information before deciding whether to delist the ivory-billed woodpecker.”
Many unconfirmed reports and alleged sightings have been reported in the decades since 1944. However these eyewitness sightings or audio recordings are often debunked as belonging to the pileated woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker or blue jay.
14. Are people still searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker?
Yes, ongoing efforts to search for and confirm the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker have sparked renewed interest and debate regarding its status. Some of the more well-known sightings made in recent years were in Big Woods Arkansas in 2004, Pearl River Louisiana in 2006 and Choctawhatchee River Florida in 2007. The Cornell Lab partnered in searches between 2006-2010 (all data available to view here) but found no definitive evidence of a continuing population.
As recently as May 2023 a research team published their findings from Louisiana in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Their findings echo many in recent years – that while absolutely definitive evidence has yet to be recorded, hope is still alive for these birds.
15. Why is confirming the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker so hard?
Why is finding this bird so challenging? If it does still exist, how can it continue to hide so successfully from humans? Mainly because their habitat, bottomland hardwood forests, are hard to search. These are forests in floodplains that are regularly or always flooded. Vegetation is dense, intricate root systems and vines can slow things down, and stagnant water can make navigation difficult. Trying to perform frequent and thorough searches, often in small boats and canoes, is slow and time consuming work.
Many times all we have to go by are eyewitness sightings without any photographic or video evidence to back-up their claim. When the claims are made by veteran bird watchers/researchers who know how to differentiate the ivory-billed woodpecker from species, the claims hold more weight. Often these types of sightings are what spur larger scale investigations by universities and bird associations trying to capture audio or visual proof.
Unfortunately, while some studies have turned up compelling evidence, no hard proof such as a clear, indisputable photo, has been recorded. If an extremely small population is still out there in these waterlogged forests, it is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Featured image: Ivory-billed Woodpecker | Original photo by Arthur A. Allen, 1935 , watercolored by Jerry A. Payne, USDA-ARS via <a href=”link to image” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Wikimedia Commons</a> | CC BY-SA 3.0
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.