From the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
-- In the spring of 2005, news swept the United States and much of the world that the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, had been found in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.
The news was electrifying to birders and conservation groups.
Gene Sparling, an amateur ornithologist from Hot Springs, Ark., had reported seeing one adult male ivory-bill in the Cache River refuge on Feb. 11, 2004. Other ornithologists soon searched for documentation and proof that ivory-bills still existed. They seemed to make their case when David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock made a short, blurry videotape of a reported ivory-bill taking flight from a tree.
Some of the groups that reviewed the evidence and supported the claim that the woodpecker, with its 3-foot wingspan and signature whitish-ivory bill, still existed included the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some wanted to believe that the gigantic woodpecker, known by such names as white-back, pearly bill and even Lord God bird, still flew safely somewhere. The name Lord God bird came from people seeing the bird and exclaiming, "Lord God, what a bird!"
Had the short video clip been clear, that would have been one thing. However, ornithologists across the country weighed in, and many believed the searchers had spotted the smaller, common pileated woodpecker.
Not long after the reported Arkansas sighting, a team led by an Auburn University professor said it had audio recordings of what members believed were the sounds of one or more ivory-bills in the Choctawhatchee River basin in the Florida Panhandle. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) mobilized a team to deal with questions and issues about the Choctawhatchee finding, which proved untrue.
To understand the discussion as to whether ivory-bills still exist, one has to understand something of the bird itself and the history of our country.
Adult ivory-bills measured 19 to 21 inches, were bluish-black in color and had white markings on the neck, sides and back, resembling a white saddle. Both male and female birds sported a prominent top crest, which was red in males and black in females.
Early settlers and frontiersmen reported that male Native American Indians, particularly chieftains, wore the bills of ivory-billed woodpeckers on their belts or as part of breast plates.
The author of "In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," Jerome A. Jackson, points to the archaeological record showing that the heads and bills of both ivory-billed and pileated woodpeckers were much in demand by Indians, sometimes far outside the birds' range. He mentions the recent discovery of an Indian burial in Colorado with ivory-bills on the deceased, more than 1,000 miles from recognized ivory-bill habitat.
Jackson and other authors accurately point to the fact that Indians armed with bows and arrows weren't the death knell of the species. Logging was.
Ivory-bills were found primarily in the Southeast's virgin hardwood forest river bottoms and longleaf pine forests, and were well documented in Florida and a dozen other southeastern states. With their powerful chisel-like bill, they foraged on lots of dying and dead trees. such as sweet gums, ash and longleaf pine, removing the bark in search of insects and larvae.
Ornithologists say ivory-bills needed immense areas to feed - perhaps 10 to 12 square miles of old-growth forest per pair.
As one forest after another fell to an expanding country's insatiable demand for wood, ivory-bills began to vanish. Ornithologists say the species was extremely rare after 1900. Nowhere was this more evident than in Florida.
Whether an ivory-bill was actually spotted in the Cache River NWR is still a matter of debate. If the sighting was accurate, it would have required dozens and dozens of breeding pairs of birds over the past 100 or so years for birds to still exist today.
Following the Cache River announcement, river-bottom searches were initiated in Florida and five other states. No definitive sightings emerged.
We still have the pileated relative of the ivory-bill. Yet, we want to believe the most magnificent of North American woodpeckers still exists, somewhere. Although it seems unlikely, time will tell.-By Rodney Barreto, Chairman Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission