Since 1944, nobody—in a way that can be verified, anyway—has seen an ivory-billed woodpecker alive. Once common from the Carolinas to Texas, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended last year the bird be removed from the Endangered Species List because it was extinct. Meanwhile, a group of scientists was climbing through humid Louisiana forests, chasing whispers the big bird—largest woodpecker in North America—still lived there.
Trail cameras, drone cameras, audio recordings, and, just as importantly their own eyes and ears, confirmed to members of the study the ivory-billed woodpeckers had survived in small numbers after all. They published their findings in a recent and not yet peer-reviewed paper.
Photos from the cameras were enough to give an indication of size, as well as distinctive markings that are, nevertheless difficult to distinguish, even for experts, from other woodpeckers that have similar colorings. Even better, the use of video allowed the scientists to make detailed observations of how the birds foraged for food and interacted socially, adding further differentiation that these were indeed the elusive ivory bills.
Steve Latta, who led the research team, had one particularly memorable encounter with the bird. “It flew up at an angle and I watched it for about six to eight seconds, which was fairly long for an ivory-billed woodpecker,” Latta told The Guardian. “I was surprised. I was visibly shaking afterwards. You realize you’ve seen something special that very few people had the opportunity to see.”
Many ornithologists had a hunch the swampy forests of the southeast held a small population of the shy birds.
“No one has held a camera and got a picture of one in years because it’s a scarce bird in tough swampy habitat and they don’t want people close to them because they’ve been shot at for 150 years,” said Geoffrey Hill, a biologist who unsuccessfully tried to spy the bird in Florida in 2005.
“They have better eyes than we do, they are high in the trees and actively flee people. They aren’t great thinkers but they have developed a pretty simple strategy to avoid people.”
Clearly, that strategy might need some tweaking.