The strange tale of the American woodpecker that came back to life, at least for a little while

As North America’s mighty Mississippi River meanders southward to its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico, it creates a range of spectacular wetland habitats unlike anywhere else on Earth. Bayous, swamps, and bottomland hardwood forests thrive on the fertile alluvial soils of the Mississippi floodplains, which are saturated by regular to near-permanent flooding. These primeval ecosystems existed for millennia prior to European settlement and the subsequent river engineering projects of the 19th and 20th centuries, which suppressed natural flooding regimes and paved the way for agricultural expansion. Mississippi bottomland forests fell rapidly as swamps and bayous were drained and cleared for crops like cotton, corn, and sugarcane. In less than 200 years, more than 9.5 million hectares of continuous habitat were reduced to fewer than 2 million forested hectares, which occur mostly in fragmented patches.

Some bright spots for America’s swamplands remain, however, including the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana and the aptly named Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. The Big Woods ecosystem includes more than 222,500 hectares of bottomland hardwood forest, which has remained largely intact throughout its history. Standing on the floodplains of the White, Cache, and Arkansas rivers, the Big Woods encompass multiple wildlife refuges, preserves, and management areas, which together provide a home for rare and highly diverse biological communities. Despite its importance as one of the largest stands of bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S., the Big Woods were largely unknown outside of Arkansas until 2004, when a controversial sighting attracted global attention by temporarily bringing an iconic species back from the dead.

Photography by Mr.TinDC / Flickr
A blurry snapshot of the alleged ivory-billed woodpecker. Photography by Mr.TinDC / Flickr

Glimpse of a Ghost

In February of 2004, a kayaker paddling through a flooded forest of the Big Woods ecosystem was shocked to catch a close-up view of a species that had been declared extinct more than half a century earlier. Over the course of the following year, seven more independent sightings were reported of a large, unusual looking woodpecker, with markings that matched the profile of one of the American South’s most charismatic extinct species.

The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), also known as the ‘Lord God Bird’, once enjoyed a wide distribution in the mature hardwood forests that blanketed much of the southern United States. Known for its prominent ivory coloured bill and dramatic black and white feather pattern, this species was one of the largest and most impressive woodpeckers in the world. Ivory-billed woodpeckers were considered to be specialists of primeval swamps and hardwood forests, which supplied an abundance of standing dead or dying mature trees. These habitats provided the primary diet of the species, in the form of large wood-boring beetle larvae, as well as ideal sites for the woodpeckers to carve out their nesting cavities.

Photography by James St. John / Flickr
A stuffed male ivory-billed woodpecker from 1758. Photography by James St. John / Flickr

Ivory billed-woodpeckers were observed to form close pair bonds, and are thought to have mated for life. Even when populations were at healthy levels prior to the American Civil War, ivory-billed woodpeckers were never particularly common, due to their huge size and specialised diet, which required each pair of birds to hold a large territory (around 25 square kilometres) of mature forest. This rarity gave the species special significance to local human populations, but also made ivory-billed woodpeckers particularly vulnerable to the impacts of development and deforestation. As swamplands and primeval forests were drained, logged, and converted to cropland, the species’ habitat disappeared. Coupled with the impacts of hunting for trophies and feathers, the ivory-billed woodpecker soon followed America’s sprawling swamplands into oblivion, with the last confirmed sighting of the species recorded in 1944.

Photography by Cyndy Sims Parr / Flickr
Photography by Cyndy Sims Parr / Flickr

Searching for the Lord God Bird

The cluster of sightings, which were published in the journal Science in 2005, set off a firestorm within the scientific community. The urgency of the situation was particularly acute among serious birders, for whom the loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker from the American landscape was a visceral tragedy. Headed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, teams of scientists descended upon the swamps and bayous of the Big Woods to systematically search more than 2,116 square kilometres of bottomland forest. The investigation lasted more than five years, and was undertaken largely in secrecy, allowing conservation organisations to discretely purchase tracts of ideal ivory-billed woodpecker habitat that were identified during the hunt.

Despite the multi-year effort, which eventually included a $50,000 bounty for information that led to the discovery of a living bird, only blurry images and inconclusive audio recordings emerged. The lack of evidence supported the position of staunch sceptics, who argued that all of the reports could be attributed to mistaken sightings of pileated woodpeckers, a relatively common species known to occupy the Big Woods. The controversy continued for several years in both scientific journals and popular media, with unwavering advocates on both sides of the debate. While some true believers continue to advocate for the persistence of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods, the current consensus considers the Lord God Bird to be extinct, or hovering near the brink of extinction in tiny isolated populations.

Photographer: Garry Tucker, USFWS.

Refuge for Wildlife in the Big Woods

While the status of the ivory-billed woodpecker remains unconfirmed, the swamplands of Arkansas’ Big Woods continue to provide critical habitat for America’s southern biodiversity. Within its boundaries, populations of black bears and American alligators have recovered from near-extirpation, to establish thriving populations. The area also serves as an important breeding ground for Neotropical migrant songbirds, and provides safe habitat for actively hunted species like the massive alligator gar, which has an important role as an apex predator in aquatic ecosystems. The same inhospitable terrain that once hampered human settlement in the flooded forests of the Mississippi basin has created a vital refuge for plants and animals that have been largely driven from the American landscape. In the Big Woods, the floods of the Mississippi and its tributaries still hold sway, preserving a space for nature in America’s wild swamplands.


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