This bird is extinct, says the government.  Not everyone is so sure.

This bird is extinct, says the government. Not everyone is so sure.

A multitude of birdwatchers and professional birdwatchers are racing to prove the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists, before federal authorities remove it from the endangered species list.

(Video: Arthur. A. Allen/Cornell University)


Steven Latta was trudging through the damp Louisiana slums when he spotted it: a flash of “brilliant white” rising skyward.

To him the sight was unmistakable: it was the black and white plumage of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

“It really literally shook me,” said Latta, who directs conservation and field research at the Pittsburgh-based National Aviary.

The government, however, claims the bird does not exist.

Last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. Decades of fruitless searches for the so-called “Lord God Bird”, the agency said, have shown that he “no longer exists”.

But dozens of professional ornithologists and birdwatchers say the bird is still around, pecking undetected after the last undisputed sighting in 1944.

Now they’re pointing cameras, climbing trees, and deploying drones in a race to collect evidence and convince the government — and the public — that the woodpecker lives.

“I had the opportunity to see this bird, and I have a personal responsibility, a professional responsibility to convince others,” said Latta, who is lobbying the Biden administration to keep him on the list. official list of endangered species from the government.

Some other bird experts, however, say it’s time to accept that Lord God Bird is dead. According to these reviews, no one has brought conclusive evidence – a high-quality photo, a carcass, even a feather.

“Decisions have to be made on verifiable facts,” said Mark Robbins, evolutionary biologist and head of the ornithological collection at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. “That has not been the case in anything reported since the 1944 report.”

Federal authorities are now weighing what to do. In July, Fish and Wildlife extended its deadline to officially determine if the bird is extinct next spring.

For centuries, the majestic “King of the Woodpeckers” ruled the forests from North Carolina to East Texas. Stunning observers with its strength and elegance, the species earned its nickname “Lord God Bird” for the way those lucky enough to see one would exclaim to the skies.

But the beauty of the ivory beak hastened its loss. In the 19th century, the bird population plummeted when feather hunters shot them for their feathers and beaks. Loggers, meanwhile, cut down the large hardwoods that formed the bird’s habitat.

As the number of peaks dwindled, his fame only grew. The ghost bird has inspired generations of painters, musicians and other artists, including singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and the creators of “Woody the Woodpecker”. The bird became the American dodo, the country’s symbol of extinction.

But a handful of birdwatchers never gave up hope, straining to listen for the telltale double tap of the ivory beak and look for other signs of its persistence in the southern swamps.

Mark Michaels was around 8 years old when the ivory beak captured his imagination. “I was an avid birdwatcher at the time, and the ivory beak was this incredible icon,” he said.

The ivory-billed woodpecker officially declared extinct, along with 22 other species

Rumors of the bird reignited his interest as an adult. A lawyer by training, Michaels teamed up with Louisiana native Frank Wiley, who died in 2017, to search for the bird there.

The pair deployed an ivory-billed decoy and imitated its drum to try to draw the real thing. Michaels had 10 “possible sightings,” he said, including one last year on an overcast fall morning that he’s “absolutely certain” was a ticket. ivory.

“All the other times, I had a window of doubt. But with this one, definitely. he said. “I shouted, ‘Ivory Beak!'”

“It discredits good science”

But to convince others, ivory-beaked wannabes know they need more than just first-hand testimony.

A few years ago, Michaels teamed up with Latta and the National Aviary to search territory somewhere in Louisiana. The team is keeping the exact location a secret. Decades of hunting may have made the birds particularly skittish with humans.

“We want to protect him from too many people,” Latta said. “If this was known, it is certainly possible that a large number of people will descend on the area.

The group has gone high-tech, flying drones above the canopy to spot possible ivory beaks in flight, setting up trained unmanned trail cameras on trees to capture them foraging for larvae and to clean any nesting cavities in search of their DNA.

So far, the team has offered a series of grainy videos and images to Fish and Wildlife in an attempt to avoid an extinction verdict.

One photo shows a large bird in a distance clinging to a tree with what appears to be a white “saddle” on its back, a distinct sign of an ivory beak. Video shot from a drone and shown to Fish and Wildlife in July shows traces of a white trailing edge on the wings, another land mark.

John W. Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who wrote a 2005 paper in the journal Science featuring his own ivory billing evidence, described their submissions as credible.

“Taken together, this data is indeed extremely interesting,” he said by email. “Many individual images, especially in several of the videos, are difficult to reconcile like any other than the ivory-billed woodpecker.”

But the appearance of the smaller cousin of the ivory bill, the pileated woodpecker, complicates this quest. Both have a red crest and black and white plumage, each arranged differently. To the untrained (and often trained) eye, the two types of woodpeckers look strikingly similar.

John Dillon, president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, wishes humans hadn’t driven the bird to extinction. “No one would be happier than me to learn of its proven existence,” he wrote in a comment to Fish and Wildlife.

But he is still not convinced by the audio and video recordings of the last 15 years. “The damage done by persisting with the idea that this bird exists when there is no supporting evidence is widespread. It leaves room for charlatans at worst and irresponsible subjectivity at best, and that discredits good science.

Robbins, the University of Kansas ornithologist, noted that the National Aviary’s work has not been peer-reviewed. He called the evidence the team has presented so far “nothing short of laughable”.

We must do more to save species from the fate of the ivory-billed woodpecker

Michaels wants to gather better evidence, something akin to James Tanner’s famous close-ups of wild ivory bills from the 1930s. Tanner, a Cornell-trained ornithologist, waited weeks for his photos.

“The Birds Are Over There”

Declaring a species extinct is rare and difficult to do, requiring a series of exhaustive surveys that fail to find a specimen. Prior to last year, the federal government had done so only 11 times.

“Nobody wants to have to do that,” said Amy Trahan, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who assessed whether the woodpecker is gone for good.

The agency’s “gold standard” for convincing evidence, she said, is a photo or video that several independent experts interpret as an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Yet reports of the woodpecker’s death, notes the ivorybill hopes, have already been exaggerated. The bird was thought to have been lost in the early 20th century only for a researcher to discover a pair in Florida in 1924.

Bobby Harrison, an avid birder and retired photography professor at Oakwood University in Alabama, said bird scientists are too quick to rule out potential amateur sightings. There are wooden seekers who rarely visit.

“They’re not going to venture into these swamps where there are snakes and in some cases there are alligators,” said Harrison, who submitted his own 10-second video of a bird in flight taken since his canoe two years ago. . “Sometimes I have to get out of my canoe and I have to pull it over logs, drag it through mud.”

For many followers of the ivory beak, keeping the bird on the endangered species list is key to protecting the last remaining shards of southern lowland swamps. These stretches, while not home to woodpeckers, provide habitat for flocks of ducks, herons and other birds.

But Michaels is sure he saw it, despite the doubters.

“I know the birds are out there,” he said. “It just proves that it’s a really big mountain to climb.”

This article is part of Animalia, a chronicle exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals and how we value them, endanger them and depend on them.

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