The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Rediscovered


(This is an extended form of my 737th Buffalo Sunday News column, first published on May 15, 2005.)


"The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), long suspected to be extinct, has been rediscovered in the 'Big Woods' region of eastern Arkansas."


That initial sentence appearing in Science (Fitzpatrick et al. 2005) and the associated official announcement at the United States Department of the Interior on April 28 have struck a unique chord in the birding world. To both amateur birders and professional scientists this recovery from near-extinction represents the biggest ornithological news in the past half century.


The most recent earlier accepted record of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1944, sixty years before the April 25, 2004 video-supported observation on which this announcement is based.


It is hard to think of news that would be more extraordinary in the birding world. A passenger pigeon joining mourning doves at your feeder after a 90 year absence, perhaps, or a dodo showing up on Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean after an absence of 340 years. Even in human terms 60 years is a lifetime, a remarkable period for a bird species not to be observed in a country with an estimated 20 million active bird watchers.

And this is no tiny wren-sized bird. The ivory-billed woodpecker is as big as a crow and the flashing white of its wings and back makes it look still larger. It is even bigger than the pileated woodpecker, an uncommon resident in western New York that occasionally visits rural suet feeders. Like the pileated, the adult male ivory-bill also sports a bright red Woody Woodpecker crest, but the pileated woodpecker's bill is a dirty gray.


(Roger Tory Peterson's painting of an ivory-billed woodpecker with a red-cockaded woodpecker. To give an idea of the larger bird's size, the smaller woodpecker is larger than a downy woodpecker. Painting courtesy of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute.)


Here is the story of the discovery, mostly drawn from central character Tim Gallagher's timely new book, The Grail Bird (Gallagher 2005). Anyone interested in the full story of these ornithological adventures would do well to read Gallagher's full and remarkably up-to-date account of both the earlier history and rediscovery of this amazing bird.


What may have been this bird was first sighted by Gene Sparling on February 11, 2004 while he was kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas. Sparling posted an account of his trip on a canoe club listserve only adding a brief description of his ivory-bill observation as a kind of footnote. Hearing of this, Gallagher and Bobby Harrison separately called Sparling and were soon convinced that this could be an ivory-bill. They traveled to Arkansas and entered the swamp with Sparling.


Here is Gallagher's account shortly after they paddled their canoe near a road and with Sparling well ahead: "As we paddled along, we talked and joked about floating through the trackless swamp. Then Bobby started to grouse that we were being way too noisy to see any ivory-bills. 'We don't need to worry about that,' I said. 'The road's so loud they'll never hear us coming. And who knows, maybe Gene will chase one back to us.'


"And then it happened. Less than eighty feet away, a large black-and-white bird that had been flying toward us from a side channel of the bayou to the right came out into the sunshine and flew across the open stretch of water directly in front of us. It started to bank, giving us a superb view of its back and both wings for a moment as it pulled up, as if it were going to land on a tree trunk. 'Look at all the white on its wings!' I yelled. Hearing my voice, it veered away from the tree and continued to fly to the left. We both cried out simultaneously, 'Ivory-bill!'"


The three looked for several days without further sightings before Gallagher returned to Ithaca where he edits Living Bird for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. There he faced intensive interrogations from his colleagues.


They were convinced, however, and a week later an expedition was back in Arkansas. No luck.


Shortly after this another team of Cornell birders converged on the swamp, including Kevin McGowan, who recently gave the annual Buffalo Ornithological Society Vaughn lecture on crows, and his son Jay. Again nothing.


In early April a third team headed south. Finally some results.


On April 5, Jim Fitzpatrick saw an ivory-bill. Here is Gallagher's account: "He was fumbling around in his daypack when he happened to take a look north up the lake. At that instant a large bird appeared, coming right at him, flying above the trees. 'I just thought to myself, that's a really big pileated,' he said....


"When it cleared the tree, I finally realized that the wing pattern was all wrong for a pileated,' he said. 'I was seeing white on the downbeat as well as on the upbeat -- and not that little star shape like a pileated; it was a full-blown patch of white.' And the bird didn't fly like a pileated woodpecker. 'There was no undulation in its flight,' he said. 'It was flapping briskly and strongly, like a loon. The flight seemed exquisitely efficient. He didn't waste a lot of body movement. He just cooked right along. That's when I realized, holy s---! That's not a pileated!'"


The next day Ron Rohrbaugh and David Bonter also had a brief look at what they took to be an ivory-bill.


April 10: Mindy LaBranche "spotted a large black-and-white bird flying from west to east above the forest canopy.... 'I kept seeing the top of the wing and the white trailing edge of the wing,' she said.... She slowly lowered her binoculars and sat there repeating over and over, 'The trailing edge was white, the trailing edge was white, the trailing edge was white... This can't be a pileated.'"


April 11: Melanie Driscoll added an eight second observation.


A total of five observations but no acceptable evidence for a bird thought to be extinct.


Then, two weeks later on April 25, David Luneau and Robert Driscoll got that evidence. Their boat had a mounted camcorder running continuously. Here is Gallagher's account: "It happened just after 3:30 in the afternoon.... [A] large black-and-white woodpecker burst from the other side of a tupelo, just a couple of feet above the water, and flew straight away from them. With the paddle in his hands, David didn't have time to grab the camcorder but he swung the canoe to the left, trying to keep the bird in view.


"'What was that?' he asked.


"I don't know,' said Robert. 'I sure wish I could see it again.'


"David looked down at the camcorder in front of him. It had been pointing in exactly the direction the bird had flown, and it was running. The entry he jotted down in his field notes for 3:40 p.m. reads, 'Saw B&W Wp fly away. Never caught anything but a rear-end look. Right at camera T2. Caught it on video briefly.' You would never know from that matter-of-fact note that he had just nailed the first videotape of our feathered phantom."


Gallagher adds: "David told me later that he would never have mentioned the sighting if not for the videotape. 'I just didn't get a good enough look,' he said."


That videotape has satisfied ornithologists that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct.


One more sighting was added on February 14, 2005 by Casey Taylor, but about two dozen birders are continuing to search the area.


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The failure to find this bird earlier had not been for lack of effort. In 2002, for example, after a turkey hunter reported seeing ivory-bills in the swamps of northeastern Louisiana, a team armed with all kinds of technological equipment spent months searching the area without success.


I knew several of the observers who saw the ivory-bill during the 1930s and 1940s. One of the latest accounts was Roger Tory Peterson's. His observation was in Louisiana in 1942. Here is his story from Birds over America (Peterson and Fisher 1935): "We had gone a half mile from the road when Kuhn [a local woodsman acting as their guide] stopped short. He had caught a note on the edge of his sphere of hearing. I thought I heard it, but it could have been a versatile chat. We had been told to listen for a voice that sounded something like a nuthatch. But there were plenty of nuthatches in these woods, too, to confound us. We found ourselves starting at strange unfamiliar notes that turned out to be squirrels and red-bellied woodpeckers. Kuhn assured us that when we heard the ivory-bill we would know it all right. 'Nothing in the whole woods sounds like it.'"


The next morning they set out again. "By noon we were back at the spot, down the road, where we had seen so many diggings the day before. We would make another sortie before throwing in the sponge. Hardly had we gone a hundred yards when [I heard] an indescribable tooting note, musical in a staccato sort of way. For a moment it did not click, but then I knew -- it was the ivory bill! I had expected it to sound more like a nuthatch; it was much more like the 'toy tin trumpet' described by Alexander Wilson or the 'clarinet' of Audubon. Breathlessly we stalked the insistent toots, stepping carefully, stealthily, so that no twig would crack. With our hearts pounding we tried to keep cool, hardly daring to believe that this was it -- that this was what we had come fifteen hundred miles to see. Straining our eyes, we discovered the first bird, half hidden by the leafage, and in a moment it leaped upward into the full sunlight. This was no puny pileated; this was a whacking big bird, with great white patches on its wings and a gleaming white bill. by its long recurved crest of blackish jet we knew it was a female. Tossing its hammer-like head to right and left, it tested the diseased trunk with a whack or two as it jerked upward. Lurching out to the end of a broken-off branch, it pitched off on a straight line, like a duck, its wings making a wooden sound."


On an earlier 1935 expedition to Louisiana Arthur Allen photographed and Paul Kellogg recorded the calls of ivory-bills at their nest. Paul told me later that they set up camp and patrolled the swamps searching for several days only to find that the shy birds were nesting just yards from their tents.

(The sound recordings associated with photographs like this black-and-white one of a male ivory bill at its nesting cavity taken on the Allen-Kellogg expedition have served all subsequent birders.)


The final sighting accepted before the current rediscovery was that of the wonderful bird artist, Donald Eckelberry, in April 1944 (Eckelberry 1961). He told of the logging going on nearby that was destroying the rare bird's habitat. The logging company employed German prisoners of war who, according to Eckelberry, "were incredulous at the waste -- only the best wood taken, the rest left in wreckage."


*   *   *


Of course early ornithologists like Mark Catesby (Catesby 1731) and John James Audubon (Audubon 1842) -- his ivory-bill painting is in volume 4 -- were familiar with the ivory-billed woodpecker, but even Audubon noted its decline. Perhaps the most interesting account is that of Alexander Wilson (Wilson 1811), who describes his experience trying to keep a pet ivory-bill. It tore up his room at an inn and then, when Wilson attached its leg to a mahogany desk by a string, it went on to tear apart the desk.

(Paintings of ivory-billed woodpeckers by Catesby, Audubon and Wilson, the latter portraying pileated woodpeckers and a red-headed woodpecker as well. Notice how poorly Catesby represents the white on the upper body.)


*   *   *


Buffalo has an unusual connection to this species. Jerome Jackson, author in 2004 of In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Jackson 2004) and of the Birds of America species account (Jackson 2002), visited the Buffalo Museum of Science to measure and photograph the museum's mounted pair. Recently he told former museum ornithology curator Art Clark that the local pair had the only red glass replacement eyes he had ever seen, the normal coloration being yellow. But Jackson also pointed out that the famous artist George Sutton had painted this species with red eyes. Thus Sutton almost certainly worked from these specimens somewhere prior to their being acquired by the Buffalo museum. The mounts are now on display in the museum library.


*   *   *


In addition to the literature I have cited in this essay, a number of additional resources are available. Perhaps the most important historical account is James Tanner's doctoral thesis, which remains in print (Tanner 1942). A recent account that does not include the rediscovery is Phillip House's The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Hoose 2004). For an account together with those for other vanished species, see Christopher Cokinos' Hope Is the Thing with Feathers (Cokinos 2000). Although a Google search will turn up many other sites, I note in particular, (Rediscovering the Ivory-billed Woodpecker 2005), ("found!" Researchers Find Ivory-billed Woodpecker Nearly 60 Years After Last Confirmed U.S. Sighting 2005), and (The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Pearl River Area, Louisana 2005).-- Gerry Rising




Audubon, John James. 1842. Birds of America. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Chevalier.

Catesby, Mark. 1731. A Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.

Cokinos, Christopher. 2000. In Search of the Lord God Bird. In Hope Is the Thing with Feathers. New York: Putnam.

Eckelberry, Donald. 1961. Search for the Rare Ivorybill. In Discovery: Great Moments in the Lives of Outstanding Naturalists, edited by J. K. Terres. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

Fitzpatrick, John W., Martjan Lammertink, M. David Luneau, Jr., Tim W. Gallagher, Bobby R Harrison, Gene M. Sparling, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Ronald W. Rohrbaugh, Elliott C. H. Swarthout, Peter H. Wrege, Sara Barker Swarthout, Marc S. Dantzker, Russell A. Charif, Timothy R. Barksdale, J. V. Remsen, Jr., Scott D. Simon, and Douglas Zollner. 2005. Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America. Science.

"found!" Researchers Find Ivory-billed Woodpecker Nearly 60 Years After Last Confirmed U.S. Sighting. Big Woods Conservation Partnership 2005 [cited. Available from

Gallagher, Tim. 2005. The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hilton, Bill Jr. Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Once Lost, Now Found [web]. Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History 2005 [cited. Available from, Philip. 2004. The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jackson, Jerome A. 2002. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, No. 711. In The Birds of North America, edited by F. G. A. Poole. Philadelphia, PA.

-----. 2004. In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Peterson, Roger Tory, and James Fisher. 1935. Wild America: The Legendary Story of Two Great Naturalists on the Road. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rediscovering the Ivory-billed Woodpecker [web]. Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2005 [cited. Available from

The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Pearl River Area, Louisana. Louisiana State University and Zeiss Optics 2005 [cited. Available from

Tanner, James T. 1942. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Research Report No. 1. New York: National Audubon Society.

Wilson, Alexander. 1811. American Ornithology. 10 vols. Philadelphia, PA: Bradford & Inskeep.