The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a controversial bird. Officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, they are generally believed to be extinct. Still, some birdwatchers cling to the hope that these majestic birds still haunt the forests of the American Southeast.
46cm to 53cm
450g to 570g
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are very large and visually striking birds with long, ivory-colored bills and pale yellow eyes. They are primarily black but have a white stripe from the side of their face to their wing. Extensive white plumage is visible above and below their wings, at rest, and in flight.
Females appear similar to males but are easily identified by the color of their crest. Males have red crests that extend from the crown to the nape, while females have black crowns. Juveniles appear similar to adult females, with black rather than red crests.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is most likely to be confused with the common and widespread Pileated Woodpecker. However, Pileated Woodpeckers are just half their weight, have white stripes above the eye and below the bill, and have much less white plumage on their wings. These smaller birds also have dark bills and eyes.
(Main image credit: Original photo by Arthur A. Allen, 1935 , watercolored by Jerry A. Payne, USDA-ARS, CC BY 3.0 US)
A pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at the Natural History Museum, London, Credit: Lusanaherandraton, CC BY-SA 4.0
Ivory-bills were very large woodpeckers, even bigger than the common Pileated Woodpecker. They were one of the biggest members of the Picidae family in the world.
Adults measured approximately 18 to 21 inches or 46 to 53 centimeters in length.
These birds were known to exceed a pound in weight, reaching about 16 to 20 ounces.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers had a wingspan of approximately 30 inches or 76 centimeters.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were said to produce a soft, trumpet-like ‘Kent’ call and drum on wood to communicate.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers fed on insects, especially the larvae of wood-boring beetles that live in dead trees. They also ate plant material like nuts and berries.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers probably fed their chicks a similar diet to their own. Large beetle larvae were a likely food source.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers inhabited extensive bottom-land hardwood and upland pine forests with large mature trees. They were particularly attracted to areas affected by flooding, storms, or fires with plenty of dead trees to forage in.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were restricted to the United States and Cuba. They were known or suspected to occur in the following US states:
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were forest birds that foraged, nested, and roosted in trees. They were said to be somewhat nomadic, moving from area to area in search of dead and decaying trees which attracted the beetles they fed on.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers probably occurred naturally in low numbers, but they became increasingly rare as they were hunted and their forest habitat was destroyed by logging. Their range had already contracted considerably by the start of the twentieth century.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers could be seen in forested areas of the American Southeast up until the early 1900s. Today, taxidermy specimens are still displayed at various museums.
Close up of a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Credit: James St. John, CC BY 2.0
Humans were a major predator of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and they were likely also preyed upon by large birds of prey like the Great-horned Owl. Their eggs and young may have been vulnerable to snakes and raccoons.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were protected and listed as an endangered species in the United States as early as 1967. They are still federally protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are not officially extinct, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, the last confirmed sighting in the USA was way back in 1944 in Louisiana, and the last sighting of the Cuban subspecies was in the late 1980s. Excluding more recent reports, the species may have been extinct in the United States for over half a century.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers probably nested throughout their former range in the American Southeast and Cuba. They were cavity nesters that excavated their nest tunnels in dead trees or those infected by fungus. They nested in many tree species, often in swampy areas.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers began nesting in late winter, with records between February and May.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers laid up to six large plain white eggs, each measuring about 35 millimeters long and 25 millimeters wide.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were thought to form long-term pair bonds and may well have mated for life.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were not particularly aggressive birds and were said to be fairly social, allowing other individuals or pairs to forage nearby.
Like many other members of their family, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers roosted in tree cavities that they excavated for that purpose. Males would also sleep on the eggs at night when nesting.
Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimen, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, CC BY-SA 3.0
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were not known to migrate. They probably remained within the same areas during all months of the year when food supplies were good but may have moved nomadically in search of prime foraging grounds.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were a native species in the United States.
Finding the critically endangered or extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker alive and well would be rewarding enough for most birdwatchers, but various rewards have been offered to assist in finding and leading scientists to these birds. At one point, there was even a reward of $50,000 on offer!
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers lived in the Southeast from Texas to Florida and north to North Carolina. At earlier times, they also extended inland to Illinois.
Despite the last verified sighting being in 1944, there have been repeated claims of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings right up to the present. A 2022 study found some evidence for their continued existence, but concrete proof in the form of high-resolution photographs or footage remains elusive.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were large birds that were hunted for their food value but also for their desirable eggs and feathers. They were also taken for display in museums and collections.
Williamson’s sapsuckers are found in scattered breeding locations between southwestern Canada and parts of the southern and western United States. Winter territories extend into central Mexico. Unusually for a woodpecker, male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers are very different in appearance, with males a striking, bold black, white, yellow and red, and females mainly a cryptic mottled brown, with heavy light and dark barring.
Arizona woodpeckers are small woodpeckers, native to a small area centered on oak, sycamore and pine forests in the southwestern corner of Arizona and across the border in a strip that runs through western Mexico. Due to their remote nesting sites, there is little detailed information available about this species.
Similar in habits and appearance to the more widespread northern flicker, the gilded flicker is a colorful resident of the desert landscapes of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, where it excavates nest cavities high up in giant saguaro cacti.
Formerly known as cactus woodpeckers, ladder-backed woodpeckers are native to the desert landscapes of the southern United States and Mexico. They construct nest cavities in trees or cacti on arid scrublands, where they feed on insects and larvae living on the thorny vegetation.
Only found in mountainous pine forests of the western United States and in a small region of British Columbia, white-headed woodpeckers are one of North America’s least numerous woodpeckers. Habitat loss, due to logging and removal of snags from coniferous woodlands, is a potential threat to the stability of the species’ population.
The only North American woodpecker to excavate cavities in living, green wood, the red-cockaded woodpecker is also the most endangered on the continent, with a population of only around 15,000, a decline of more than 80 percent since the 1970s.
A small woodpecker native to oak woodlands of western California, the Nuttall’s woodpecker takes its name from the British naturalist Thomas Nuttall. Year-round residents of the extreme southwest corner of the United States, Nuttall’s woodpeckers excavate their own cavities, but do not reuse them in subsequent seasons, making them a key contributor to the survival of secondary-cavity nesters, such as wrens and titmice.
Black-backed woodpeckers are found in coniferous forests of southern Canada and parts of the northern United States. Their inky black plumage acts as effective camouflage against the charred trees of burned forests they inhabit after forest fires, where they thrive, feasting on the larvae of wood-boring beetles.
American Three-toed Woodpecker
One of two North American woodpecker species with three toes, the American three-toed woodpecker is widespread across much of Canada and also resident in the Rocky Mountain states of the US. Three-toed feet are a particularly useful adaptation that allow these woodpeckers to lean back further while clinging to a tree, and therefore deliver stronger, more powerful blows when striking the trunk.
Native to the western coastal regions of North America, red-breasted sapsuckers are unmistakable woodland birds with a crimson head and breast and bold white shoulder stripe. Perhaps what makes them more remarkable still are the neat rows of holes they drill into trunks of trees to access the sweet sap inside.
An active, noisy and conspicuous bird, the golden-fronted woodpecker adds a splash of color to the mesquite brushlands of southern Texas. Fruit, nuts (especially pecans) and seed make up a large portion of its diet, which also comprises insects and larvae, gleaned from the trunks of scrubland vegetation.
The Pileated Woodpecker is an impressive bird by all accounts. As the largest American representative of the Picidae family, they are twice the weight of any other surviving woodpecker in the United States.
Named for its characteristic call, or perhaps the flash of white rump and brightly colored wing feathers, the Northern Flicker is a large, handsome woodpecker that you’re more likely to see foraging on the ground than up in the trees.
The deserts of the Southwest are home to a unique and rowdy woodpecker species. Gila Woodpeckers are adapted to life in the arid zone, where the mighty Saguaro cactus replaces regular trees.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a bold and bright forest bird that occurs almost throughout North America. They are regular and welcome visitors to backyard bird feeders, although less common than the similar Downy Woodpecker.
Despite their name, the most conspicuous feature of red-bellied woodpeckers is the vibrant red coloring on the head, crown and nape of males of the species. The “red belly” is limited to a pinkish patch, barely visible unless at very close range. These highly patterned black-and-white woodpeckers are present across much of the eastern US, where they are both common and widespread.
A colorful member of the woodpecker family, the red-headed Woodpecker is widespread across the east-central United States. It is an occasional visitor to backyard feeders in winter, with its brilliant crimson head in deep contrast to its black and white body making it instantly recognizable.
Often dubbed the “clown-faced woodpecker”, acorn woodpeckers are distinctive red-crowned woodland birds found along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As well as their striking appearance, they are known for their intricate carpentry work to create “granaries” in trees for storing acorns.
Anything but a typical woodpecker, the Lewis’s woodpecker forages for flying insects like a flycatcher, has the shape and stature of a crow or jay, and the coloring of a hummingbird. They are not particularly skilled at excavating nest cavities and their drumming abilities are limited.
Known for their fondness of tree sap and ability to drill neat rows of sap wells into tree trunks, red-naped sapsuckers are the most common species of sapsucker in the western regions of North America, and favor aspen stands and ponderosa pine forests for both nesting and foraging.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does not have the most flattering (or accurate) name. Widespread across the eastern half of North America, these birds are one of just four species in the Sphyrapicus genus.
America’s most common woodpecker is also its smallest. The boldly marked Downy Woodpecker is a familiar little bird of forests, woodlands, and backyards across the United States and Canada.
Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the United Kingdom’s rarest woodpecker species, and its unexplained decline is of great concern. This elusive, sparrow-sized species presents a real birdwatching challenge.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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