The endangered ivory-billed woodpecker, which has been seen so little over the past century that the federal government has labeled it extinct, may not be wiped out after all.
A group of ornithologists from Project Principalis and the National Aviary say the woodpecker was spotted in an undisclosed location in Louisiana as recently as last October, a month after the US Fish and Wildlife Service said that the bird should be removed from the endangered species list and considered extinct. .
Their study, which has not been peer-reviewed, is the result of years of research in which the authors claim to have seen the elusive bird dozens of times and the having captured in multiple photos from trail cameras and drones.
“Our findings and the conclusions drawn from them suggest an increasingly promising future for the ivory-billed woodpecker,” the authors wrote.
With distinctive black and white plumage and an ivory beak, the woodpecker has long captured public attention. It was partly the inspiration for Walter Lantz’s “Woody the Woodpecker” character, which he dreamed up in 1940 after the bird supposedly disrupted his honeymoon in California.
But its population has declined since the 1930s, largely due to the destruction of its forest habitat and increased pursuit by hunters and collectors. A nationwide search in the 1930s yielded only 22 birds spotted in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana; in 1944 the bird was seen in Madison Parish near Tallulah.
A third sighting in 2005 in central Arkansas has been widely debated, and other claimed sightings over the years have failed to meet US Fish and Wildlife Service evidentiary standards, which require the submission of clear photographs , feathers or other specimens.
In September, the woodpecker was included in a list of 23 species that the Fish and Wildlife Service says should be considered lost. The agency held a virtual public hearing on its decision in January, but has yet to finalize it and officially remove the bird from the endangered species list. A spokesperson for the wildlife service this week declined to comment on the new study, saying the agency has not yet reviewed it.
“No final decision has been made on the September 2021 proposal to de-list the species due to extinction. We are currently reviewing the information submitted and will base our final decision on the best available scientific data,” said Vanessa Kauffman.
Principalis researchers used a variety of techniques to find the elusive peak, including “slow-motion reconnaissance, sitting in place, and staking out key areas, points or cavities,” they said. The researchers said “trained observers” had spotted ivory-billed woodpeckers more than a dozen times, but failed to capture them in high-quality images.
Instead, the report features footage from trail cameras and drones strategically placed near trees that scientists suspected the woodpeckers had frequented.
In an interview this week, Steven Latta, director of conservation and field research at the National Aviary, said these photos are grainy because they were taken from afar and in the early, sometimes foggy, morning when the peak was most actively feeding.
He said he had no doubt that the creatures captured in the photos were ivory-billed woodpeckers.
“We felt that as scientists we had a responsibility to make this information public now,” Latta said. “The ivory-billed woodpecker is such an iconic bird, and whether or not it exists has spawned strong opinions on both sides for decades,” he said, noting that he hopes the publication of a first version of his study would promote “respect and informed discussion.
Over the past week, that has proven true. John Dillon, president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, was unconvinced by the new photos.
“If no one had told me I was looking at a woodpecker, I would have thought it was a member,” he said.
Dillon said the birds in the photos were likely stacked woodpeckers, birds that look a lot like the ivory-billed woodpecker but have a smaller, darker beak and white throat. Dillon said that is the case with many photos sent to him by birdwatchers who claim to have spotted the rare bird.
“They all look like the other supposed photos I’ve seen,” he said. “I wish there was irrefutable evidence, but it’s not irrefutable evidence.”