The ivory-billed woodpecker: The world’s most controversial extinct species
Although the ivory-billed woodpecker is generally presumed extinct, some birders and researchers insist it lives on. How convincing is their evidence?
In 2021, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) be labelled extinct. The species had been native to the southern US and Cuba, and at almost half a metre long, it was notable for being the largest species of woodpecker in the US. The bird was so massive that it was nicknamed the “Lord God” bird, after what you might exclaim upon meeting one.
Unfortunately, logging activity and hunting drastically reduced ivory-billed woodpecker populations in the 19th century, and hardly any birds were left by the 20th century. The last confirmed sighting of the species was in 1944, in northeast Louisiana. Despite thousands of hours of survey work in recent decades, no universally accepted evidence of the bird’s survival has been found in recent decades. But not everyone believes the species is extinct.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal was met with such controversy that in July 2022, they announced a six-month extension on the determination of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s status. A race has begun to prove the bird’s survival before it’s declared dead.
There’s money to be made for anyone who succeeds. Over the years, cash prizes of as much as $50,000 have been offered to anyone who can track down an ivory-billed woodpecker. None of these rewards have been claimed yet.
So why are some people convinced the ivory-billed woodpecker is still out there?
The Arkansas sightings
The most well-known recent sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker took place in 2004. While kayaking on a bayou in Arkansas, Gene Sparling spotted an unusually large woodpecker flying across his path. The bird had several characteristics of the ivory-billed woodpecker, such as a pointed red crest with a black edge, a long neck and distinctive colouration on the lower half of its folded wings.
After Sparling posted about his sighting online, researchers Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison asked Sparling to guide them through the region where he had seen the bird. Within half a kilometre of the original sighting, the researchers spotted a bird whose wing pattern resembled that of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Over the next year, surveys conducted by teams of experienced observers yielded five more sightings, one of which was captured on video.
The most common response to purported ivory-billed woodpecker sightings is (and should be) “Are you sure it wasn’t a pileated woodpecker?” The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), is a similar and unambiguously living species with a few subtle visual differences. But the researchers concluded from their frame-by-frame analysis of the video that the bird’s flight pattern and wingspan distinguished it from the pileated woodpecker. They confidently stated the following: “Visual encounters during 2004 and 2005, and analysis of a video clip from April 2004, confirm the existence of at least one male.”
The study was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals out there. Unsurprisingly, many people took the paper’s claims at face value. Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Rediscovered in Arkansas, reported NPR. The New York Times described Sparling’s encounter as a “confirmed” sighting. Ornithologists and birders rejoiced as the study’s lead author, John Fitzpatrick, claimed the ivory-billed woodpecker could still go on to live a long and happy existence. “Amazingly,” he said, “America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives.”
It was a miracle. We hadn’t broken nature beyond repair after all. We had a chance to redeem ourselves.
If you think I’m about to get critical, that’s a good impulse. I’d recommend watching the alleged footage of an ivory-billed woodpecker, which can be found in the supplementary materials of the Science paper, for yourself. To put it lightly, the video is a little pixelated. The only conclusion I’m comfortable drawing from this clip is that birds in general exist.
Fitzpatrick and colleagues’ conclusions rest on one key claim — that the bird they observed was not, in fact, a pileated woodpecker. It’s particularly important to identify the bird in the video. Most of the other sightings were brief and came from a single observer, so could not be verified. But when David Sibley and colleagues analysed the video for themselves, they concluded that the bird might be a pileated woodpecker after all. They argued that the image quality didn’t allow for resolution of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s characteristic stripes. Additionally, they believed several features of the wing pattern to be a better match for the pileated woodpecker.
Nevertheless, the Arkansas sightings inspired a fervent search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. New research was funded. Birders dubbed the species a “holy grail”. At one point, even NASA got involved. In 2006, they flew a laser-imaging device over 1.2 million acres of land in Arkansas, including the area where Sparling’s sighting occurred. By producing 3D maps of the forest and analysing information about the ivory-billed woodpecker’s preferred habitat, they hoped to determine where the species was most likely to be found.
There was no luck. The last universally accepted sighting remains all the way back in the 1940s. A few individual eyewitness accounts have emerged over the years, but the same is true for Bigfoot.
Arguments over the ivory-billed woodpecker’s status can get surprisingly bitter, in and outside of research circles. Sceptics and believers alike pick apart research that supports the opposing side and cast aspersions on the journalistic integrity of whoever published it.
Acoustics researcher Michael D. Collins expresses frustration at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s intention to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. He describes criticism of Fitzpatrick and colleagues’ study as “a science scandal”, writing, “Critics, who had become entrenched in the position that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct, used specious arguments to cause a long delay in the publication of evidence that should be sufficient to establish persistence.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Troy and Clark Jones suggest that papers like Fitzpatrick et al (2005) were published due to the prestige of the ornithologists involved and not due to the strength of the actual research, which they candidly describe as “poor-quality”.
Neither side has managed to conclusively win the argument. But we should remember that the sceptics are in a tougher spot, because they literally cannot win. Proving the ivory-billed woodpecker lives on is as easy as taking a decent-quality photo. But if you think you can find evidence that it no longer exists, I’ve got a teapot for you to disprove.
2022: The ivory-billed woodpecker renaissance
In April 2022, Steven Latta and colleagues produced a paper titled Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana. The authors write, “We draw on 10 years of search effort, and provide trail camera photos and drone videos suggesting the consistent presence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at our study site.” It’s important to note that at the time of writing, the paper is a pre-print and hasn’t been peer-reviewed.
Much like the Arkansas sightings, this research inspired much jubilation and smugness among ivory-billed woodpecker evangelists. The Guardian declared the ivory-billed woodpecker was “back from the dead”. Environmental news site EcoWatch went with the headline Not Extinct After All: First ‘Widely Accepted Sighting’ of Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Since 1944. I’m not sure what they’re talking about, because if you weren’t swayed by the Arkansas video, you probably won’t be swayed by any of Latta et al’s evidence either.
Again, I’d recommend you check out all the trail camera photos and video footage for yourself. Personally, I’m reminded of that classic Nessie photo.
Let’s just give up
If you hadn’t guessed already, I’m on Team Sceptic. The ivory-billed woodpecker likely went extinct several decades ago, and it’s now essentially reached cryptid status.
Troy and Jones (2022), which I mentioned earlier, is an excellent read. Regardless of your opinion on the ivory-billed woodpecker debate, their point about author prestige overshadowing the quality of evidence shouldn’t be ignored. In the standard peer-review process, research papers are read by scientists in the same field, who play a role in deciding whether the paper should be published. To avoid bad blood, reviewers are anonymous to authors. However, the reverse isn’t true.
Troy and Jones advocate for a double-blind review system in which neither party knows the other’s identity, preventing reviewers from overlooking spurious claims based on the prestige of the researchers making them. You could even go one step further and establish a triple-blind system, in which even the journal editor, who has the final say on publication, is blind to the authors’ identities.
Of course, none of this is relevant to Latta et al (2022), which has yet to go through the peer review process at all. Troy and Jones also discuss the idea of placing restrictions on media coverage of claims in pre-print articles. Peer review is flawed, but it is a safeguard against publishing and publicising poor-quality research.
Even if you’re as critical of the evidence for the ivory-billed woodpecker’s survival as I am, you might ask why any of this matters. Firstly, if dubious research slips through the net due to author prestige in one area of science, the same will be true elsewhere. It’s time to take a critical look at the publication process (for more reasons than just one).
Furthermore, false hope in the ivory-billed woodpecker’s survival may be harmful to other endangered species. Between 2005 and 2013, $20.3 million in federal and state government funding was spent on the ivory-billed woodpecker. This is money that could — and likely would, if not for purported evidence of the bird’s survival — have been spent on conserving other species. The noblest thing we can do is take responsibility for what we’ve done and save what is left to be saved.
Maybe I’m wrong, and a few ivory-billed woodpeckers remain in the forests of Arkansas. But even so, there likely wouldn’t be enough birds to sustain the species for long. The IUCN estimates that due to the harmful effects of inbreeding, a species needs approximately 250–500 individuals to survive. To remain genetically diverse enough to adapt to a changing environment and ensure long-term survival, 2,500–5,000 individuals would be necessary. It’s been nearly eighty years since we last got a good glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker. A population of hundreds is unlikely; a population of thousands is near implausible.
The Lord God bird was a magnificent creature, and we should grieve its loss. But it’s time to move on from stage one: denial.
I’ll leave you with a song recommendation.