Researchers claim to have footage of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird species thought long extinct
Videos to be analyzed by experts as the U.S. government considers declaring the bird extinct
When a group of researchers caught sight of a large bird last year flying above an undisclosed forest in Louisiana, they thought they had spotted the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
Using a drone, they recorded the bird's flight. They only recently released the footage in a public hearing, which is now evidence in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's inquiry into whether the rare bird can be declared extinct.
"I've seen it myself," Mark Michaels, co-founder of the group Project Principalis, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. "After many years of having sightings … that I could partially talk myself out of, I had a sighting in October that I was sure of."
Since 2008, Michaels and his team of researchers at Project Principalis, formerly known as Project Coyote, have been working alongside the National Aviary in Pittsburgh to collect proof of the bird's continued existence.
The group set out to find acoustic data, environmental DNA samples and roost and nest sites of the woodpecker. They have recordings of what Michaels describes as auditory encounters, but to him the drone footage is more "compelling" evidence.
The last sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker that ornithologists have widely accepted as verified occurred in northeast Louisiana in 1944. More recent claims have been met with skepticism.
"I know that it's out there," Michaels said. "My team is committed to continuing to work on documenting it and hopefully getting to a place where we can really study the population that we're confident is in our area."
A legendary bird
The ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest species of woodpecker in North America, about the size of a crow.
It has a black body with white plumage along the base of its 76-centimetre wingspan that matches its brilliant bill. Females have black crests while males have red crests.
"They're really dramatically coloured and their image is just a very powerful one," Michaels said.
According to Michaels, the bird was heavily hunted in the late 19th century across the southern United States. By the turn of the 20th century, it became quite rare.
The woodpecker has been called the Lord God bird, based on some people's reactions to witnessing it, and the Grail bird, for those who pursued it like knights were thought to pursue the Holy Grail.
"The presumption was always that it would go extinct," Michaels said. "In fact, one of the founders of the Audubon Society searched for it for 50 years before seeing one."
Michaels said debates about the bird's existence go back nearly a century, citing a particular episode in the 1930s that ruffled feathers.
"A man named Mason Spencer in Louisiana claimed that he had ivory bills on his property and the state said, 'Oh, no. That can't be. They're all extinct.'
"He got a permit to shoot one and he went into the conservation agency with a shot bird and said, 'Extinct, huh?' or something to that effect. So it's had this quality of being controversial for a very, very long time."
Another key period in the bird's decline happened during the Second World War. Ornithologist James Tanner documented the devastating loss of old growth forests, destroying the birds' habitat.
Researchers at Project Principalis hypothesize that beavers, which gnaw on trees and restore dead wood, have also played a key role.
"What's actually happening now is that the beavers are recovering throughout the range to the point of being pest animals in some areas. There is more and more a kind of optimal habitat being created just by that change," Michaels said.
Chance of survival called 'laughably ludicrous'
Last fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planned to declare the bird, and 22 other species, extinct. Their proposal opened up a public comment period, giving researchers and residents who disagreed with the decision to have the chance to submit evidence for experts to analyze.
In July, the agency announced that there was a significant scientific controversy about the bird's status and extended the comment period by another six months. That encouraged the team at Project Principalis to share their findings.
"So it's not a foregone conclusion. It could still happen," Michaels said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation nonprofit, has since submitted several letters in support of a declaration of extinction.
"In a place that is as easily accessible as Louisiana, where one is never more than five miles from a road or boat access, it is beyond implausible that a bird as large as an ivory-billed woodpecker, with a distinct and unique song/call/drumming pattern, can go for decades without a confirmable and credible sighting," the nonprofit's government affairs director Brett Hertl wrote in an email to As It Happens.
"The drone video is laughably ludicrous, as no distinguishing features of any species can be discerned from it. They will say, look at the white on the top of the wings, without even discussing the routine reality that sun glare on any bird species' wings always distorts the colour," Hertl continued.
Ornithologist David Bird, a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal's McGill University, has also been following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's moves. At first, he says he concurred with the government agency's plans to declare the rare woodpecker extinct
"I immediately added the bird to my PowerPoint slide of definitely-extinct birds," Bird told As It Happens in an email. "I did this despite the fact that several of my respected friends and colleagues in ornithology on both sides of the border swore vehemently to me that they had personally seen or heard the big woodpecker."
But the footage has him reconsidering.
"I have now decided to keep an open mind, at least until their evidence is thoroughly scrutinized and confirmed, by not one, but several independent experts," Bird wrote.
Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Ashley Fraser.
- An earlier version of this story stated that the Center for Biological Diversity has filed lawsuits in support of declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. In fact, the organization has not filed any lawsuits, but rather submitted letters in support of the classification.Aug 29, 2022 2:05 PM ET