Extinct or elusive? Why birders aren’t giving up on the ivorybill.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Matt Courtman, co-founder of Mission Ivorybill, scouts ivory-billed woodpecker habitat in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, May 5, 2023, in Tallulah, Louisiana.
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Birding is all about the elusive hunt. But in the swamps of Louisiana, the search for one particular bird has evolved into a quixotic quest.

By most accounts, the ivory-billed woodpecker disappeared from the American wilderness around the end of the 19th century.

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Experts say the ivory-billed woodpecker is probably extinct. Others think they’re wrong – and that the natural world still holds some surprises.

The major birding guides deem the bird extinct. Yet they hedge. As Audubon’s “Birds of North America” puts it, “Most experts concede the species is probably extinct.” Probably.

For some, that “probably” keeps hope alive. Matt Courtman is one of them. He returned to Louisiana four years ago to search for the bird full time.

Mr. Courtman’s love for the ivorybill, as for nature itself, is as much spiritual as ornithological. “The bird belongs to all the people as stewards of God’s heritage,” he says.

Some ivorybill skeptics worry that bestowing so much attention on a bird so rare, and possibly not there, detracts from more pressing conservation needs. 

But thus far, arguments in favor of the ivorybill’s existence have kept it from officially being declared extinct in the United States.

And so the searches continue, with Mr. Courtman’s treks beginning before dawn. Just after noon one day, he emerges wearily from a long morning in the woods. The pre-dawn coolness is gone. So are the day’s high expectations.

“It’s hard and boring, to be honest,” Mr. Courtman says later. “It’s not a lot of fun.”

But when it comes to the ivorybill, hopes die hard. He was out the next week, searching again.

Matt Courtman was 8 years old when he first saw an ivory-billed woodpecker, possibly the most famous and controversial bird in American history. It happened not in some deep Southern swamp or lonely river-bottom forest, places where ivorybills once flourished, but in the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The museum holds one of the largest university-based collections of bird specimens in the country and, in Mr. Courtman’s memory, smelled heavily of formaldehyde. There, on a Saturday evening after an LSU football game, the museum’s director showed the young bird lover a pair of ivorybills that had been shot and stuffed more than a half-century before. 

“I was awestruck,” Mr. Courtman says. 

The years since have only deepened his regard for a bird many experts think is extinct. Mr. Courtman disagrees. He’s one of a small but determined group of conservationists, ornithologists, and bird lovers engaged in a decadeslong search for the ivorybill – and in an equally long and contentious debate over its status. Is the bird truly extinct, or does it still survive in the remnants of Southern forests?

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Experts say the ivory-billed woodpecker is probably extinct. Others think they’re wrong – and that the natural world still holds some surprises.

The ivorybill was no ordinary bird. It was the largest woodpecker north of Mexico, prized by Native Americans and Europeans alike. At one time it ranged from the Carolinas to Texas and as far north as southern Illinois. But hunting, logging, and even the collecting of museum specimens made it scarce by the end of the 19th century. By the time Mr. Courtman saw two stuffed birds in 1969, most experts thought the ivorybill had gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the great auk.

Jim McKnight/AP/File
A stuffed male ivory-billed woodpecker is on display at the New York State Museum in Albany, May 2, 2005.

Yet somehow the bird keeps showing up, defying scientific judgment and suggesting it may not be gone after all. Reports of new sightings keep trickling in. Some come from hunters and other accidental observers. Many come from ornithologists and experienced birders taking part in organized searches. Despite all the doubts, these reports keep alive the hope that the ivorybill may have been tougher and wilier than we thought, and that maybe, at least sometimes, nature can be, too.

The ivorybill is the reason Mr. Courtman returned to Louisiana four years ago to search for the bird full time. It’s the reason he and his wife, Lauren, started Mission Ivorybill, a campaign not only to search but also to build public support for the bird. And it’s the reason he often rises before dawn to search the bottomland forests near his home in Monroe, as he did one recent spring morning, following an old, overgrown logging road into the deep woods of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, slogging through mud and water in knee-high rubber boots, and swatting with a stick at the tick-infested grass, hoping to scare off any venomous snakes. He’s convinced ivorybills are out there, and he’s determined to find them.

“Who knows?” he says, pausing to gaze up at the oaks, sweet gums, and other trees that rise above him in the dark. “Maybe we’ll have a contact.”

The question of the ivorybill’s status came to a head in late 2021, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed striking the bird from the list of endangered species, making its extinction official, at least in the eyes of the government. The proposal drew protests from those who said they had seen the bird and who pointed to a long history of purported sightings. Even the more skeptical worried that declaring the bird extinct was premature. There were so many places that hadn’t been searched. The Fish and Wildlife Service put off its decision and has yet to reach a final determination.

Meanwhile, a May report in the journal Ecology and Evolution challenges the Fish and Wildlife proposal. In it, a group that has carried out perhaps the most intensive search yet offers new evidence that the ivorybill still lives in the Louisiana woods. The evidence includes photos from cellphones and trail cameras, drone videos, and audio recordings from a decade of searching.  

“We’re confident in our data, in our interpretation of the data,” says Steven Latta, director of conservation and field research for the National Aviary, the Pittsburgh-based group behind the search.

The new report seems to have changed few minds. The problem all along has been that the evidence consists mainly of grainy videos and blurry photos taken from a distance and requiring interpretation. Stories abound of ivorybill hunters stumbling through the underbrush, fumbling for their cameras, or simply having no time to do anything but watch in helpless astonishment as the bird disappears.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Pat Haberman walks toward a shelter in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge as he helps Matt Courtman search for signs of ivorybills.

Searchers say this is unsurprising, since the ivorybill is not only rare but also very shy, all the more so because it was hunted so intensively in the past. It may have learned to be warier. Or maybe just the wariest survived. Moreover, they say, the ivorybill lives in swampy habitats so remote and difficult to access that few care to spend much time exploring them. 

Skeptics remain unconvinced. 

“I know folks will say there are a lot of fairly hard-to-get-to forests in the Southeast,” says David Wilcove, a conservation biologist at Princeton University. “But I personally would be astonished if the ivorybill existed in the United States. I just feel there are enough people out looking for the bird, long enough, that if it were around, it would have been recognized and rediscovered and confirmed with an unambiguous photograph.”

Still, it’s difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. The major birding guides deem the ivorybill extinct and yet still hedge. As Audubon’s “Birds of North America” puts it, “Most experts concede the species is probably extinct.” Probably.

The story of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a familiar one. It’s about the ongoing destruction of the natural world – the cutting of forests, the plowing of prairies, the filling in of marshes and wetlands, the elimination of whole species. 

But it’s more than that. It’s about a love of nature and the stubborn persistence, even obsessiveness, of some of its most fervent acolytes. To skeptics, the determination to find the ivorybill only adds to the confusion. “If you go out wanting to see it, you are very likely to see it,” says Jerome Jackson, an authority on the ivorybill.

The ivorybill may also suggest something about the limits of our understanding. “I never say never,” says Jeff Hoover, an avian ecologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “I’ve learned that the natural world can trick and fool you when you say that something can never happen. I’m still hopeful.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Matt Courtman (left) and Pat Haberman point out potential woodpecker activity high up in a tree in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Mr. Haberman came down to Louisiana from Minnesota to help look for ivorybills.

The ivorybill would not be the first bird to have been thought extinct, only to be rediscovered years later. The Bermuda petrel was hunted by Spanish sailors for food and last seen in the 1620s. It reappeared in 1951. Two American birds thought extinct since the 1960s – the Eskimo curlew and Bachman’s warbler – have been the subject of later, unverified sightings.

But the ivorybill is different and has been for a long time. It was a charismatic bird that stood out because of its size, its brilliant black and white feathers, its jaunty crest and pronounced bill. Long before Europeans arrived on the continent, Native Americans were trading ivorybill heads and bills. Later, rural people in Louisiana bestowed on the ivorybill names like the “Lord God Bird” and the “Good God Bird.” 

The ivorybill has been rediscovered before. Many thought it was extinct when two were seen, then shot, in Florida in 1924. In the 1930s, ivorybills were again found near the Tensas River, the area where Mr. Courtman searches today. A study there yielded the most detailed account of the ivorybill ever, complete with photographs and audio recordings. Soon afterward, the demand for lumber during World War II led to the destruction of much of that forest – and to the disappearance of the ivorybill again.

A stuffed male ivory-billed woodpecker (right) and female (left), with a male pileated woodpecker, are on display at the Natural History Museum at Tring, England.

Everything seemed to change in 2005, when an article in the journal Science announced that an ivorybill had been found. Searchers affiliated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said they had seen the bird in the Big Woods of southeastern Arkansas, in a backwater called Bayou DeView. And they had video to prove it.

The report sent a shiver of excitement through the ornithological world – and beyond. The ivorybill made newspaper headlines and earned a slot on “60 Minutes.” Ornithologists recall it as a time of “ivorybill fever.” But a backlash soon followed. Experts like Dr. Jackson questioned whether the bird in the video was really an ivorybill, or just the more common pileated woodpecker. And when searchers could not find the bird again, more doubts arose.

Still, the 2005 report gave new energy to the quest. Scientists and amateurs alike descended on river-bottom forests across the South, hoping for a glimpse of the bird. 

Geoffrey Hill, an ornithologist at Auburn University in Alabama, was one of them. Dr. Hill and a handful of assistants spent two years searching along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida Panhandle. It was a place no one had bothered to look before, he says. They reported sightings.

“I think there are still birds there,” he says. “There is no reason the birds would have disappeared.”

Other searches proved less fruitful. Dr. Hoover had spent years studying birds in the southern Illinois swamps and adapted easily when government agencies asked him to add the ivorybill to his research. He and his students set up trail cameras, did vegetation assessments, and studied trees for woodpecker cavities, bark scaling, and other signs. But they didn’t find any ivorybills and couldn’t verify any of the sightings amateurs claimed to have made. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Matt Courtman holds a book called “Louisiana Birds” by George H. Lowery, Mr. Courtman’s mentor, May 5, 2023, in Monroe, Louisiana.

Eventually, when the excitement died, no one felt the disappointment more acutely than the people of Brinkley, Arkansas, near the sighting written up in 2005. After that report, visitors descended on the town to catch a glimpse of the bird, and local businesses responded. A salon even offered ivorybill haircuts. Some hoped the tourism might lift the struggling economy, but that hope proved as elusive as the ivorybill. 

For some, though, the 2005 report and other sightings around that time rekindled a long-smoldering fire. Mr. Courtman had first taken part in a search on the Pearl River in 1999, followed by others. He had a few glimpses of the bird, he says. And in 2019, he reported his best view of it since he held the two stuffed birds in Baton Rouge.

It was March. He was pushing through a holly thicket when he heard what sounded like an ivorybill’s call. He knew the call from recordings – the naturalist John James Audubon had compared it to the bleat of a tin horn. He waited. Finally, he moved toward the sound. Suddenly, two birds exploded in front of him. He recalls seeing all the important markings: the pale iris, the bright white on the wings’ trailing edges, and the prominent ivory-colored bill, sitting on the bird’s face like a smashed ice cream cone.

Then they were gone. Everything happened so quickly that he never thought to take out his cellphone for a picture. But there was no mistaking what he saw, he says. “From that point on, that’s when my life was committed to whatever I could do to make sure we searched systematically.”

It’s still dark when Mr. Courtman turns off Interstate 20 and goes south, following an empty two-lane road through the flat Louisiana countryside. The full moon casts a dim light over the fields. This is old plantation country, a part of the Mississippi Delta, where settlers and slave owners long ago cleared the forest to plant cotton. Today corn, not cotton, is king.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A framed photo from 1938 of birder J.J. Kuhn with a fledgling ivorybill named Sonny Boy sits on a shelf in Matt and Lauren Courtman’s home.

After a while he turns east toward the Tensas, a sluggish, meandering tributary of the Mississippi. Here, not far from Vicksburg, Mississippi, lies one of the largest expanses of bottomland forest left in this part of the country. The road narrows, blacktop turns to gravel, and the fields give way to thick woods. At last he pulls off to the side and gets out. At this hour the air is cool and still. In the grass, the eyes of spiders shine like stars in the light of his headlamp. A barred owl hoots in the distance.

Most searching for the ivorybill happens in secret, largely to protect the bird, if found, from unwanted attention. Mr. Courtman’s approach is different. He has opened his quest up to anyone who wants to help. And people come from all over the United States to join him – even one from Canada. With him this morning is a Minnesotan named Pat Haberman, a man of deep reserve who nonetheless shares Mr. Courtman’s intense love for birds.

Mr. Courtman also holds twice-monthly Zoom calls with Mission Ivorybill supporters. These events offer a glimpse into the small community of ivorybill enthusiasts that he and his wife are cultivating. On a recent call, a local hunter describes how he saw an ivorybill fly past as he drove down a road in the Tensas River area several years ago looking for a place to hunt doves. A man from Arkansas chokes up as he recounts how an ivorybill crossed the road as he drove out of the Tensas forest after a day of searching. “I didn’t sleep for three nights,” he says. 

Mr. Courtman and his companion walk through the dark until they reach a small creek where the land dips and the forest opens up. Mr. Haberman continues down the creek a distance while Mr. Courtman pulls on a camouflage mask and leans up against a tree. His method is to enter the forest before first light and simply wait for an hour or so, watching and listening. He might hear the ivorybill’s distinctive call – or maybe a blue jay’s imitation of it. The day before, he says, he heard what sounded like an ivorybill’s “double knock,” a distinctive quick rap against a tree.

After a while the sky grows light. Birds awaken, filling the air with their songs. Woodpeckers of different sorts – the pileated, the redheaded, the red-bellied, and more – add their percussive rapping. Finally, as the first sunlight hits the treetops, Mr. Courtman and his companion trudge off through the forest. They scan the treetops. They look for dead and dying trees, and evidence on them of large woodpeckers, including roosting cavities and places where the woodpeckers have stripped the bark to get at the insects and larvae underneath. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Evidence of woodpecker scaling is seen in a tree in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. The markings may have been made by a pileated woodpecker, a prevalent species in these woods.

Mr. Courtman is built like a football player, tall and husky, with a neatly trimmed beard and a strong hint of Louisiana in his speech. His nature is outgoing and gregarious, more grackle than ivorybill. He grew up in Monroe, the son of a surgeon, a product of both the Louisiana woods and Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite New England prep school he attended. After college, he studied law and worked as a lawyer in Louisiana. But that didn’t last, and he moved to Ohio to research mineral rights for the oil industry. Then the ivorybill called.

To him, the search is both the fulfillment of a boyhood enchantment and a tribute to the museum director who showed him his first ivorybills, ornithologist George Lowery. But Mr. Courtman’s love for the bird, as for nature itself, is as much spiritual as ornithological. “The bird belongs to all the people as stewards of God’s heritage,” he says.

Likewise, Mr. Courtman believes that building public support for the ivorybill is more important than getting a good photo of it. “The evidence is not the primary thing,” he says. “Conservation is the primary thing.”

Some ivorybill skeptics worry that bestowing so much attention on a bird so rare, and possibly not there at all, hurts conservation by detracting from more pressing needs. Ivorybill searchers disagree.  

“Many of us like to call it a beacon of hope,” says Dr. Latta of the National Aviary. “It’s encouraged so many people to become engaged in conservation efforts.” He thinks documenting the ivorybill’s survival will inspire people to care not just for the bird itself but also for the many other plants and animals that share its river-bottom habitat.  

Dr. Latta’s colleague in the search, Mark Michaels, says the possibility of the ivorybill’s survival suggests a toughness and adaptability we didn’t know was there. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mr. Courtman holds his phone with an app he uses to mark locations he has scouted that show signs of roosting holes or scaling that could be from ivorybills.

“I think part of the reason people get as passionate about the ivorybill as we do is a question of resilience,” he says. He adds, “That’s where the hope is. Maybe there is a greater resilience than many of us believe.”

At the same time, he says, the ivorybill also suggests the need for humility in the face of the natural world. “We as humans like to think we know it all,” he says. “I think the ivorybill is a constant lesson that you just don’t know.” 

For Dr. Jackson, the ivorybill appears less a beacon of hope than the flickering of illusion and disappointment. The ornithologist, who taught for many years at Florida Gulf Coast University, once wrote, “My years of following tantalizing leads and probing Florida’s remaining wild areas have thus far been fruitless. Sadly, with each return visit to once prime ivory-bill habitat I find increasing evidence of human activity and fragmentation of forest habitats.” 

Dr. Jackson, too, once felt the allure of the ivorybills. He spent two years looking for them – and even saw one, he thinks, flying away from him while he watched from a canoe on the Noxubee River in Alabama. Now retired in Naples, Florida, he still hears about other people’s ivorybill experiences. 

But he worries that “the heady wine of ivory-bill dreams,” as he once called it, has misled experts and amateurs alike. To Dr. Jackson, the ivorybill saga is a reminder that science is a human endeavor and subject to ordinary human shortcomings, including self-deception and wishful thinking.

Still, when he’s out in the Florida woods, Dr. Jackson can’t help himself. He, too, looks for signs that ivorybills might be out there yet, however unlikely he thinks that is. “I would love it if they were,” he says.

And so the search goes on. Just after noon, Mr. Courtman and his companion emerge wearily from their long morning in the woods. The pre-dawn coolness is gone. So are the day’s high expectations. It’s getting hot. Mosquitoes swarm. 

“It’s hard and boring, to be honest,” Mr. Courtman says later. “It really does beat you down. It’s muddy and it’s wet. The first hour of the day, you’re thinking this is the greatest thing ever. By the thousandth hour, you’re thinking of other things you might be doing. It’s not a lot of fun.”

But when it comes to the ivorybill, hopes die hard. He was out the next week, searching again.

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