One of the many sad facts about birds going extinct – like the dodo and the passenger pigeon, to name two recent examples – is that their eggs do not lend themselves well to cloning, a big part of the re-extinction process which is underway for extinct mammals such as woolly mammoths and the thylacine. That’s why the hunt for the extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) generates such passion and frustration – the last accepted sighting occurred in Louisiana in 1944, it’s a recent addition to the American Birding Association’s "definitely or probably extinct" list, and its probable extinction is the result of habitat destruction and hunting by humans. While a final decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service on declaring it officially extinct is due by September 2022, the guilt factor of its human cause keeps hopes alive that the bird is alive too. Those hopes got a jump this week with the release of a new study containing photos and drone videos of what the authors claim are ivory-billed woodpeckers living in Louisiana.
“We draw on 10 years of search effort, and provide trail camera photos and drone videos suggesting the consistent presence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at our study site. Data indicate repeated re-use of foraging sites and core habitat.”
In a preprint and not yet peer reviewed study published recently in bioRxiv, Steve Latta, the director of conservation at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, tells of the ten years of research he led, especially three years in a secret location in Louisiana woodland. There, he and his team set up audio recorders and unmanned time-lapse trail cameras. They were soon rewarded with calls, photos and the holy grail.
“It flew up at an angle and I watched it for about six to eight seconds, which was fairly long for an ivory-billed woodpecker. I was surprised. I was visibly shaking afterwards. You realize you’ve seen something special that very few people had the opportunity to see.”
Latta told The Guardian he and all the members of the research team had eyewitness encounters with ivory-billed woodpeckers. Using drones, the team captured videos of the birds in flight. The trail camera photographs and video screen-captures (see them here) showed what appeared to be ivory-billed woodpeckers visiting the same trees and areas over a two year period. For clarification, the cameras also picked up a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), and a Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), allowing the researchers to confirm the that the large bird they saw was a larger ivory-bill. They also compared the photos to one of a known Ivory-bill taken in Cuba and claim they show “remarkable similarities.” (The study includes a number of black-and-white and color historical photos of the beautiful birds).
“The data presented here offer no doubt that the multiple images and videos are those of a large woodpecker. Our opinion that these images represent Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is based on the appearance of broad white saddles, white trailing edges on the wings of birds in flight, a white stripe along the side of the neck, a heavy, light-colored bill, a unique morphology of the legs and feet, and a pair of birds with one suggesting a black crest.”
Yes, Latta and his team are convinced they’ve seen multiple Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in their secret location in Louisiana – especially since they’ve photographed birds returning to the same trees and areas over the course of a hew years. They speculate the belief that the birds are extinct comes from their small numbers, their fear of humans, and the inaccessibility of the swampy Louisiana woodlands they occupy. Will these photos, videos and testimonies be sufficient to pass peer review and convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to leave the ivory-billed woodpecker off the extinction list?
More importantly, will its survival convince humans to end the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat destruction? They’ve been watching us for centuries, Can you blame them for hiding?