The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) - the largest of the woodpecker species and often referred to as Lord of the Woods - is considered one of the rarest birds in the world. It was thought to be extinct for 60 years until a sighting was reported in Arkansas in 2004.
Although the ivory-billed woodpecker has not been relocated since the 2004 observation, it is not yet considered extinct. The bird’s official conservation status is critically endangered by all criteria. Meaning there is little hope that the ivory-billed is still in existence.
As of 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed officially removing the woodpecker from the endangered species list, officially declaring the Lord of the Woods extinct.
However, this proposal did not go through. Devotees of this iconic woodpecker still hold onto hope. We will discuss the ivory-billed woodpecker's controversial existence in more detail throughout the article. Read on to discover more!
(Main image credit: Original photo by Arthur A. Allen, 1935 , watercolored by Jerry A. Payne, USDA-ARS, CC BY 3.0 US)
Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimen, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, CC BY-SA 3.0
The answer to whether or not ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist is not as simple as yes or no. The bird is currently listed as critically endangered, leaving room for the possibility that a small population is still in existence.
However, there have been no confirmed sightings (hard proof such as clear photos and recorded calls) of the ivory-billed for many years.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers were officially declared extinct once before, between 1944 and 2004. The 2004 sighting in the forests of eastern Arkansas reinvigorated the belief that the species is still out there somewhere.
Observations of the ivory-billed have been reported since, but none are credible enough to be declared official. Therefore, the species is documented as not having been relocated since 2004.
The last widely accepted ivory-billed woodpecker sighting in the United States occurred in northeast Louisiana in 1938. Unlike the 2004 Arkansas observation, this sighting had photo evidence to back it up.
A population of ivory-billed woodpeckers also exists in Cuba - or did exist at one time. The last photo confirmed sighting here occurred in April of 1948. However, an unofficial (no photos or call recordings) sighting was reported in 1992.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers are critically endangered due to habitat destruction, which began with Europeans settling the southeast. The brunt of habitat loss for the woodpecker occurred between 1880 and 1910.
The onset of World War I led to high demand for forest products, which meant heavy logging and clear-cutting of pine forests in key ivory-billed habitats.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is also thought to be an extremely shy species, susceptible to any human disturbance. This means the Lord of the Woods was hit with a double-edged sword.
Even if the bird could have adapted to large-scale logging, its need for solitude was not met due to high human-related traffic throughout its habitat.
A pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at the Natural History Museum, London, Credit: Lusanaherandraton, CC BY-SA 4.0
All ivory-billed woodpeckers are considered critically endangered. Known populations in southeast North America and Cuba have been affected by logging and other human-caused disturbances - to the point that the species could now be extinct.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers became endangered in the 1800s.
The ongoing destruction of mature and old-growth forest habitats to fuel human expansion caused severe population declines. Ivory-bills were a rare sight by the 1880s, and only a small population was thought to have survived into the twentieth century.
The primary threat to ivory-billed woodpeckers has always been habitat loss due to human disturbances. Early ornithologists considered the bird shy and easily affected by human encroachment on their habitat. Encroachment includes not only logging but home building and other outdoor activities.
If the bird is still in existence today, it likely still suffers from human-caused disturbances.
Humans have affected the ivory-billed woodpecker primarily with logging activities which destroyed the bird’s forest and cypress swamp habitats.
Years of excessive logging nearly wiped out the old-growth forests this bird called home. Settlements and towns, as well as hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts also had a negative effect on ivory-billed woodpecker populations, pushing them from what little habitat remained.
The biggest threat to ivory-billed woodpeckers is, of course, habitat loss. The species depends on mature cypress and dead pine trees for nesting cavities, yet little to no mature or old-growth forest habitat still exists in the southeast.
Close up of a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Credit: James St. John, CC BY 2.0
If the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists, the best way to help it would be habitat preservation. Swaths of southeastern cypress swamps and pine forests would likely need to be protected against logging and other extraction.
Human activities such as hunting, fishing, and hiking would need to be limited as well to encourage the species to nest.
There are no known existing populations of ivory-billed woodpeckers left in the wild. If the species still exists, there are likely no more than 50 living individuals.
To say it is rare to see an ivory-billed woodpecker is an understatement. The Lord of the Woods has long been one of the rarest birds in the world and is widely thought to be extinct.
It is difficult to say which state had the most ivory-billed woodpeckers. No official records of the ivory-billed exist since 1938 in the United States. This occurrence was in bottomland hardwood forests of northeast Louisiana, where the most recent population was known and widely studied.
It is illegal to kill ivory-billed woodpeckers. They are critically endangered birds protected under the endangered species act.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers are widely thought to be extinct but have not been officially listed as so. Currently, they are considered critically endangered by all criteria.
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