Endangered Species Report #29
Written by: Holly L. Koppel
In 1999, a college student attending Louisiana State University was out hunting for turkeys in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, when he claims to have come across a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He knew these birds were something he had never seen before in his life, but had heard about from one of his professors. Knowing enough about the birds to know that any sudden movement would scare them away, he decided against raising up his camera to take a picture, and settled for mentally cataloging everything he could see. He sat there for quite awhile, just quietly observing these birds, but they eventually flew away, and he continued on with his turkey hunt.
Returning back to the university, he couldn't shake the image of those birds, but after researching them, he knew that few people would believe his story, as the ivory-billed woodpecker is considered by many ornithologists to be extinct. So, David Kulivan went to the college professor who had first told him about the ivory-billed and told him the story. The professor, who had never really given up hope for the ivory-billed's survival, listened and consulted with a few of his birding colleagues. As Kulivan expected, many did not believe his story, but as he was grilled for information, ornithologists realized that he could tell them specific things about these birds that were not included in any field guide. At this point, a search was organized to see if there were ivory-billed woodpeckers living in this region.
Top ornithologists scoured the Pearl River area for signs of the ivory-billed, but found nothing to substantiate Kulivan's sighting. Zeiss Sports Optics sponsored the first search in 2000. They chose from a group of 50 applicants of seasoned birders and biologists to go out to the Pearl River area and search for the ivory-billed in January through March 2000. The search team went through nearly 12 remote sites in the management area, but found no evidence of ivory- billed woodpeckers. In early January through mid March 2002 another search for the ivory-billed was conducted. This time, scientists used audio equipment that recorded sounds in the forest for about eight hours each day. When these recordings were studied, scientists found distinct drumming sounds that they thought could possibly be the sounds of an ivory-billed woodpecker; however, later they learned that these sounds were actually the sounds of gunshots in the distance. Though they did not find any evidence of ivory-billed woodpeckers, scientists and researchers have not given up hope.
The ivory-billed woodpecker has been declared extinct by scientists many times in its history, only to show up to prove them wrong time and again. The last confirmed sighting of ivory-billeds was in 1940; however, there have been several unconfirmed sightings like Kulivan's. The ivory-billed woodpecker has never been a bird that is easy to spot even in historic times. Many people in the south oftentimes referred to the ivory-billed as the "white ghost" who would occasionally appear, but few ever got to see these birds.
The decline of the ivory-billed woodpeckers started in the late 1800's as logging in its habitat of mature forests started. Since there was a big interest by the public to learn about these birds and to see them, many museums commissioned hunters to go out and shoot these birds so they could be displayed for the public. One of the saddest examples of this was a pair of nesting ivory-billeds that were found by hunters in 1924 and shot for a museum collection. By 1938, due to hunting and logging, scientists believed that the population of the ivory-billed woodpeckers had declined to only 22 individuals.
Nowadays, there is very little conservationists can do for the ivory-billeds aside from reading up on the historical data; however, that in itself is becoming difficult to find. Many of the more common field guides used by birders will not even list the ivory-billed woodpecker, although the Peterson guide still has them listed with the note, "Very close to extinction, if indeed, it still exists." One of the newest field guides, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, also lists the ivory-billed also with the note, "Unconfirmed sightings in recent decades in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas undoubtedly have been the smaller Pileated Woodpecker." And so, we are left with the question, does the ivory-billed woodpecker still exist?
Dave Kulivan thinks so; ornithologists who have spoken to him about his sighting do as well, however, no confirmed sightings have been made since the 1940's in America. Some scientists attribute this to the fact that the ivory-billed is most likely extinct, while others believe that they are still out there. Then, there are others who see them who may mistake them for the pileated woodpecker since many of the field guides contain no information on the ivory-billed woodpecker.
If a population of ivory-billeds still exists in the forests of the Pearl River in Louisiana, no one is quite sure what we could do for them at this point. The federal government already has them listed as an endangered species which would allow them full coverage under the Endangered Species Act; however, this may not be enough to save these birds. There is very little habitat left for the ivory-billed, and captive breeding may not even be an option anymore. One thing is certain, the search will continue until there is conclusive proof that the ivory-billed still exists or is extinct, until then researchers will continue to search the Pearl River area for these birds.