We recently updated the Backyard Chirper Learning Center with additional content to give our customers more knowledge about bird species. While researching woodpeckers, our staff encountered a species that has incited significant controversy over the last decade on the question of whether or not it actually exists.
The Ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America, is kind of like the Elvis of the avian world. The bird, which is 20 inches long and has a 30-inch wingspan, resided in the swampland of Southeast America for thousands of years.
Also referred to as the “Ghost Bird,” it was revered by Native Americans, who would transport medicine in pouches they constructed from its bill. It was also a favorite of famous naturalist James Audubon, who was said to be enchanted by its beauty.
Decline of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker flourished until the mid-1800s, when forest clear-cutting reduced its population. By 1938, there were approximately 20 left, six to eight of which were living in the Singer Tract in Louisiana, a forest owned by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. Conservationists, along with a number of Southern Governors, lobbied the company to sell the land to the public, but instead they clear-cut the forest and wiped out the woodpecker.
Sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
The species was thought to be officially extinct by the 1950s, though, every few years, a few rogue sightings of the bird would be reported, kicking off a new search. The largest of such searches occurred in 2004, after a bird enthusiast sighted a possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.
Following up on this information, a joint search between Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, The U.S. Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas spent 20,000 hours over ten months scouring the White River National Wildlife Refuge. They reported 15 total sightings in the area, seven of high reliability. They also reported that drumming consistent with that of the Ivory-billed woodpecker was heard in the area.
Additionally, the team videotaped a large woodpecker who they believed was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This tape generated massive controversy in the ornithology community, as experts rushed to line up on both sides of the argument.
Today, there is still no conclusive evidence about whether or not the Ivory-billed Woodpecker exists, but if you see a freakishly large woodpecker with a red-crested head show up at your woodpecker house, at least you’ll know what it is.