History of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Endangered King of the Woodpeckers

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Ivory-billed woodpeckers thought to be extinct since 1944. Rediscovered in 2004

A Brief History of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) went by many names. The Seminoles called it Tit-ka, many early European settlers called it King of the Woodpeckers, it was known locally as Poule de Bois in southern Louisiana, and Kent in northern Louisiana. But the name that was most evocative for this largest of woodpeckers was the Lord God Bird, supposedly derived from startled bystanders who saw the enormous bird in flight and exclaimed “Lord God, what a bird!” Another possible derivation of this name is suggested by early ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) who described it as a “majestic and formidable species”that might “impress upon the mind of the examiner the most reverential ideas of the Creator.”

The ivory bill certainly was King of the Woodpeckers, its wings could be as long as three feet, it nested and fed in the tallest trees in the Southeastern forests, and its could live to be thirty years. Alas the ivory bill’s specialized habitat and lifestyle proved its doom. The ivory bill was beautiful, a slow-breeder, and a specialized feeder—all dangerous traits in a rapidly changing environment. The ivory bill’s beautiful beak made it popular with collectors ranging from Native Americans to our first bird illustrators, who collected their bird subjects first with rifles and later on canvas. The birds bred slowly in the Southeastern hardwoods that provided their home. The ivory bills preferred food sources were insects and larvae found in dead but not entirely rotten trees in old growth forests. As the forests receded so did the ivory bills. Beginning in the 1880s they disappeared in the Carolinas; a decade later they were gone from Mississippi; eventually Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama saw their birds disappear with the decline of contiguous old growth forests. The ivory bills retreated to the southernmost gulf areas and finally made their last stand in northeastern Louisiana.

On the Singer Tract, the last large uncut Southern swamp forest owned by the sewing machine company, some ivory bills remained. From 1937-1939, Jim Tanner studied the birds in the Singer Tract, for the first time giving a complete life history of the ivory bill. Tanner determined that ivory bills needed much larger forest habitats than previously thought and he found that there were only 22 birds remaining in the entire Southeast, a mere six of these in the Singer Tract. Unfortunately the onset of World War led to the final destruction of this virgin forest. In one of those sad historical ironies, in 1980 parts of the Singer Tract became the new Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, forty years after the ivory bill had run out of habitat and time.  Following the inevitable decline of forests, the last confirmed ivory bill sighting was in 1944.

For 60 years there were sporadic ivory bill sightings, none confirmed. Then in February 2004, Gene Sparling claimed to see an unusually large woodpecker while kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Tim Gallagher of Cornell University and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College went to eastern Arkansas to investigate and were rewarded with the second sighting of the bird in 60 years. An avian search and rescue team was formed. Finally, on April 25, 2004 four seconds of video footage were captured of an ivory bill taking off from a tree. Predictably, in this media age, it was the video which proved most convincing. By doing frame-by-frame analysis, ornithologists were able to note the distinctive markings on the ivory bill’s back and wings, important markers to distinguish ivory bills from the more common pileated woodpecker. Finally, the peer-reviewed article announcing the (re)discovery of the long-lost Lord God Bird occurred a full year after Sparling’s quick identification aboard his kayak.  

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Listen to the distinct ivory-bill call.

1979 FWS pamphlet describing the ivory-billed woodpecker

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Pamphlet

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Pamphlet