Environment First Look

Why one researcher wants to protect the habitat of an 'extinct' woodpecker

There have been numerous reported sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker over the years, but officially, the species has been considered extinct for decades.

A stuffed male ivory-billed woodpecker is displayed Monday, May 2, 2005, in the main lobby at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y. The museum is uncertain about the date or place of acquision of this artifact or the female ivory billed woodpecker, which is also on display.
Jim McKnight/AP
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There’s a bird living in the swamps of Louisiana and Florida. Navy researcher Michael Collins has video footage of it. The question is whether it’s the one he thinks it is.

In a study published this week in open-access journal Heliyon, Dr. Collins presents three videos of a bird he identifies as the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that has been declared extinct but glimpsed by researchers on rare occasions over the years. The images may be too blurry to serve as incontrovertible evidence. But in eight years and 1,500 hours of searching, Collins says, the videos "show birds with flights, behaviors, field marks, and other characteristics that are consistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but no other species inhabiting the region."

The study surfaces questions about what scientists should do to protect the habitat of a bird whose continued existence isn’t well-established – and whether existing standards of proof are sufficient for species that are notoriously elusive. 

Back in 2005, The Christian Science Monitor reported on the first confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in nearly 60 years, by Living Bird magazine editor Timothy Gallagher in a remote part of northeastern Arkansas:

President Teddy Roosevelt noted seeing the ivory-billed on his bear-hunting trips. But by 1940s, the species was virtually gone, its bottom-land hardwood habitat of ancient swamp cypress devastated by clear-cutting across the Southeastern United States during the 19th and early 20th century. ...

"It's just like a miracle – I had given up on this bird," says Greg Butcher, a senior scientist with the Audubon Society in Washington and author of its "State of the Birds" report last year. "This discovery is just off the charts. There's just been nothing like this in my lifetime." 

Lost species are regularly found, he says, but almost always in jungles of Asia or Brazil. For a bird of this size to be discovered hiding in the continental US after so long is "absolutely astounding," he says. 

Collins says that in solo expeditions dating back to 2005, he’s glimpsed the bird on 10 occasions. In a press release, he compared it to watching the moon landing. 

"I feel very privileged to have been a direct eyewitness to a symbol of the vanishing wilderness of our world as well as one of the great achievements of mankind," he said. 

But the swamps where the woodpeckers are thought to live are not easily plied – they’re heavily hunted and full of alligators, wild boars, and venomous snakes, and the vegetation is generally too dense to see very far through it. Plus, the woodpeckers aren’t keen on conspicuous behaviors, and attempts to photograph them could interfere with nesting. 

For these reasons, he argues, indisputable photographic evidence could take years to obtain. And by then, it might be too late. 

"There is no logical reason to require a particular form of evidence," says Collins. "When faced with an exceptional case, scientists often develop alternative approaches and make progress using different types of data."