For the Birds Radio Program: Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Original Air Date: Sept. 9, 2004

Tonight Duluth Audubon will hear from Jim Fitzpatrick about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s 1935 expedition to record Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and about their much more recent acoustic monitoring in an attempt to find any survivors or verify that they are truly gone.

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker

I saw my last hummingbird in my yard on August 28, and have been feeling rather bereft, but yesterday a young female turned up at my feeder and visited several times throughout the day. That perked me right up, and gives me hope of a reprieve from the long hummingbird-less season for a few more days. But it also made me think of how difficult it is to know when one has really seen the last of a bird for a season, or forever.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a species I can’t even dream about seeing, is probably extinct. Or is it? Arthur A. Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology went deep into the swamps of Louisiana in 1935 to film and record Ivory-billed Woodpeckers—their recording is the one you’re hearing right now. Other than that sighting, the last universally accepted photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the United States were taken by James Tanner in 1938, and the last photos of it in Cuba were taken in 1948. There were a few documented sightings in the 1950s and 60s, without photos or recordings or other corroborative evidence, and there have been occasional tantalizing reports since then from several states, the last in 1999 in the Pearl River Swamp of southeastern Louisiana. And so early in 2002, researchers from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology installed 12 acoustic recording units in various spots in the area. The recorders were sound activated, and left on throughout the spring. But when the sound was analyzed, researchers could hear no evidence whatsoever of even a single Ivory-bill.

Of course, before Europeans settled in America, Ivory-bills were found in Missouri, southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio down to Florida through Texas. One was shot in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia in 1913. Allen and Kellogg shot a pair of them in 1924 in central Florida. They were never abundant, but were common enough that Ivory-billed skulls and beaks were traded rather regularly by native people.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were wiped out by shooting and, even more critically, by habitat loss during settlement of the eastern United States. These birds required not just mature hardwood bottomlands but genuine old growth, with the rich insect life associated with decaying old forests. Losing this magnificent bird has left a hole in our planet that can never be repaired. But how can we be certain it’s really gone, and what difference does it make? If there is credible evidence that the species still exists, then habitat must be protected. If it’s extinct, then there’s no reason to protect its specific habitat needs. So if there’s a chance these wonderful birds still exist on the planet, it’s worth proving it. And that’s exactly what researchers at the Cornell Lab were trying to do.

Tonight, Duluth Audubon Society is sponsoring a program by Jim Fitzpatrick, director of the Carpenter Nature Center, about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Jim’s brother is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and so he knows exactly what’s been going on with research to find Ivory-bills. And he’ll be showing film clips of the Cornell expedition to see these birds in 1935. The program will be part of Audubon’s monthly meeting, tonight at 7, at Peace Church in Duluth—it’s at 11th Street and 11th Avenue East—you can remember that because Armistice Day is 11-11. It promises to be a fascinating program, and the public is invited. And it’s free.