On occasion someone e-mails me telling me that they have just spotted an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It is almost certain that what they saw was the Pileated Woodpecker, found throughout the eastern U.S., the Pacific Northwest, and southern Canada, and a close relative of the Ivory-billed.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, 20 inches in length with 30 inch wings. In 2004, reports of a sighting were investigated but could not be confirmed. In June 2006, a $10,000 reward was offered for information leading to the discovery of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest, roost or feeding site. In December 2008, the Nature Conservancy announced a reward of $50,000 for leading a project biologist to a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In spite of many claims and several expeditions by ornithologists, no clear evidence has been found for the continued existence of the Ivory-billed. It is almost certainly extinct.
There have been no confirmed sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker since 1948. This black-and-white bird lived in old-growth forests of the southeastern U.S. and Cuba. Its food was primarily beetle larvae which it obtained by stripping the tree bark with its ivory-colored bill. Because of its specialized feeding habits, the bird required a large area of mature forests of dead standing trees where the beetle larvae live. The species disappeared after forest clearing destroyed millions of acres of virgin forest throughout the South between the 1880s and mid-1940s. According to Wikipedia, “In 1938, an estimated 20 individuals remained in the wild, some 6-8 of which were located in the old-growth forest called the Singer Tract in Louisiana where logging rights were held by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The company brushed aside pleas from four Southern governors and the National Audubon Society that the tract be publicly purchased and set aside as a reserve, and clearcut the forest. By 1944 the last known Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a female, was gone from the cut-over tract.”
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, like the Labrador Duck, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Great Auk have all slipped into extinction in the past century or so, but they did exist, as photos, skins, and other evidence attest. And it’s easy to understand why people confuse the similar Pileated Woodpecker with the Ivory-billed. What I don’t understand is why some folks still believe in Sasquatch, the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster, or that supposed dinosaur that still lives in the swamps of the Congo. There is no good evidence for any of these supposed creatures.
If there were a Sasquatch living in the well-populated Pacific Northwest, don’t you think that we’d have found bones, fossils, skins, or other evidence that could be DNA tested? But some people enjoy believing in the supernatural, and reject the more boring scientific evidence. Reminds me of the rash of UFO sightings in the 60s and 70s. All kinds of unconfirmed sightings and fuzzy photos were entered into “evidence” for alien vehicles from outer space. Isn’t it interesting now that nearly everyone carries camera capabilities with them on their smart phones that there are no more sightings?
I received an e-mail from someone who claimed to have seen the Ivory-bill. He said he contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and they didn’t believe him. I told him I didn’t believe him either as he had no evidence. I suggested that if he had taken a photo, that would have helped. That prompted a comment from another reader who haughtily said “well, everyone doesn’t carry a camera.” Well, actually, most people do – on their cell phone. But had the e-mailer had a photo it would’ve been of a Pileated Woodpecker because the emailer saw the bird in the state of Washington, thousands of miles from the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s range!
Another comment on this blog came from someone claiming to have several Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in his yard but that nobody wants to see them. With the usual excuses – no camera, birds fly away, etc. he has no evidence. Interestingly, the commenter says that the birds have solid red heads. If you look at the illustrations, it’s the Pileated Woodpecker that has the solid red head.
The commenter says no one wants to spend the airfare to fly out there and see his claimed Ivory-bills so the reward must be a hoax. I told him I would travel there at my own expense and would write him a check for $50,000 if the birds are actually Ivory-bills. His response: stay away from my property.
The difference between UFOs as alien vehicles and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is that the woodpeckers once existed. We have proof in the form of skins and thus DNA so we know that the bird once existed. We have zero evidence that beings from outer space visited earth.