You’ll (Probably) Never See This Giant, Extinct WoodpeckerReading Time: 4 minutes
Is a Huge, Extinct Woodpecker … Actually Still Alive? How to Understand the Debate., As a debate in the birding world takes off again, it’s time to care for the species that are still around., What’s going on with the ivory-billed woodpecker?
A paper about the ivory-billed woodpecker is making the rounds, reigniting a heated debate in the birding world over whether or not the bird is extinct. The authors claim to have the goods on an ‘intermittent but repeated presence of multiple individual birds with field marks and behaviors consistent with those of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers’ in Louisiana.
But the evidence these bird experts provide—blurry photos, grainy video, and pretty poor drawings—isn’t all that convincing. Better birders than I have already debunked the ‘sightings’ as likely being of pileated woodpeckers or red-headed woodpeckers. The paper is an example of the Bigfoot school of mythmaking: The ‘evidence’ is as thin as the argument is passionate.
It would be a Bigfoot-sized deal for birders to actually spot an ivory-billed woodpecker. The last definitive sighting of the bird was in 1944. The last photos are even earlier, black-and-white shots from 1938. These last known ivory-billed woodpeckers were from the Singer Tract, in Louisiana, a relatively untouched swamp spanning about 80,000 acres. Despite vociferous objections by the Audubon Society, birders, and even President Roosevelt, the land was logged. When these birds were around, they were hard to miss. If you’ve seen a pileated woodpecker—a thriving cousin of the ivory-billed—you know they are huge. One landing on a deck suet feeder is enough to startle anyone. The ivory-billed was even bigger, 18–20 inches long, and with a wingspan of 30–31 inches, per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was known as the ‘Lord God Bird’ for the awe it inspired in observers, and overall, it was roughly the size of a peregrine falcon (though the peregrine falcon has a larger wingspan).
After the logging in the Singer Tract, the ivory-billed woodpecker likely went extinct, and the birding debates—and expeditions to find remnant populations—began. Those debates continue to this day, even though it’s been almost a century with little compelling proof that any ivory-billed woodpeckers survived. We live in the most photographed period in human history, with cellphones in every pocket, and specialized gear like high-end telephoto lenses and trail cams readily available—it stands to reason that if these much sought-after birds were around somewhere, at least one would be clearly caught on camera.
Of course, the urge to ‘rediscover’ lost species or the related impulse to hunt for ‘cryptids’ is understandable: What birder wouldn’t want to see an ivory-billed woodpecker? And if the flurry of media coverage that the scraps of evidence have kicked up gets more people interested in birds in general, that’s a good thing. But that should be the real lesson of the ivory-billed woodpecker and ‘de-extincting‘ the passenger pigeon or the woolly mammoth: Instead of obsessively looking for something that probably isn’t there, we should save and appreciate what we still have left.
Make no mistake: We’re living amid a man-made extinction event. There’s even a name for it: the Anthropocene. For proof, just pick a group of animals, and it’s probably in trouble as a whole: That’s true of insects, birds, amphibians, and bats, among many others.
If you’re wondering why animals are in trouble, just look at your average suburban or urban area, and its habitat fragmentation, broad-spectrum insecticides, introduced species, water pollution, air pollution, and light pollution, not to mention entire rows at every big-box store dedicated to eradicating what little native life survives.
So what can the average person do? The good news is that while many species are struggling, they’re not dead yet. And while you don’t control the larger infrastructure around you, your own yard can be an oasis.
If you have a lawn, kill it, and replace it with a prairie chock-full of native plants, as author Benjamin Vogt instructs. And while a single lawn might not seem like it’d make a huge difference, lawns, taken together, are the biggest irrigated crop nationwide, per a 2005 NASA study, as well as research published since. So a patchwork of native plant ‘oases’ may well help our wild friends.
Or take my approach: Plant native plants, and then observe and record as much as you can. I use the site iNaturalist.org and its app (iPhone; Android) to upload photos, suss out identifications (most of which are quite tentative), and most importantly, share my finds. A joint effort between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, iNaturalist is a sort of Facebook for nature. Its users are a wonderful amalgam of experts, motivated amateurs, and everyday users interested in documenting and understanding their world. Better yet, any findings you add could be useful for researchers; iNaturalist data appears widely in the scientific literature, helping with everything from monitoring the spread of introduced species to tracking butterfly populations in the western U.S., and even discovering new species.
Case in point: In 2019, a pair of high school iNaturalist users, Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain, came across a scorpion they couldn’t identify in California. The observation sat, unidentified, for some time, and the students honed their identification skills in the meantime. Fast-forward to 2021, when another user uploaded another scorpion observation. They recognized it as belonging to the same genus and contacted an arachnid expert, Lauren Esposito. Together, they published a paper formally describing the species as new to science. But even if you don’t find something brand-new to science, chances are you can find something that’s at least new to you.
We will never get the ivory-billed woodpecker back, and that’s sad. But it’s not too late to learn or help. Nature as a whole is understudied, so you can participate in documenting it by simply paying attention and logging your finds. Doing so doesn’t require traipsing into the backwoods of Louisiana listening for a double-knock call that may never come. Instead, you—and I mean you—can start at home, and enjoy the discoveries.
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