A new study claims that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct

In October last year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared 23 species of birds, mussels, bats, and fish to be extinct. One such species, the ivory woodpecker, has been on the endangered species list since 1967 but has not been officially seen since 1944.

The key word here is “official”. Lots of people have claimed to have seen one since 1944, but plenty of people also claim to have seen black mountain lions in Arkansas (sorry, Clay). The ivory-billed woodpecker suffered from deforestation and poaching in the 19th century, and very few numbers survived until the 20th.y a century. Since there is not enough solid evidence for any individuals to exist in 2021, the USFWS has determined that the ivory-billed woodpecker is already extinct.

But that may not be the end of the story. In a new research paper that has not yet been reviewed, a team of biologists claim to have documented photographic evidence that ivory woodpeckers still live in an unknown location in Louisiana, like CIA agents who taste okra.

The nine-year search from 2012 to 2021 yielded photos and videos that the team collected using tracking cameras and a drone. The researchers also claim to have seen and heard the bird on numerous occasions, although they did not provide these sightings as official evidence in their paper.

From my point of view, the images are not as crucial as I would have liked. Despite how far photographic technology has come in the past few years, the photos are grainy and seem to have been taken from a distance. Reminds me of trying to count the points on a buck rack from obscure trail camera footage.

To help me decipher these images, I reached out to the paper’s principal investigator, Dr. Stephen C. Lata. I asked him why his team thought they captured the ivory-billed woodpecker and not the similar-looking but more common woodpecker.

Dr. Lata told me there are some important points to keep in mind about these images. First, although it’s hard to tell, the photos show the distinctive white “saddle” of the ivory-billed woodpecker that forms when the bird’s wings are closed to its back. You can also see the position of the bird’s long neck and feet, which Dr. Lata says distinguishes the ivory beak as opposed to the beak.

Lata also noted that the photos clearly show a group of three woodpeckers feeding together. Engineered woodpeckers rarely feed even in pairs and are fierce defenders of their territory. The fact that the team captured three large woodpeckers feeding on the same tree strongly suggests that the birds are ivory-billed.

The story of the ivory-billed woodpecker shows how difficult, if not impossible, to prove the extinction of a species without a doubt can be. The world is a big place, and despite the illusion that humans control it, there are far too many places where a little bird, mouse or lizard hides.

Latta and his team offer some explanations for why the ivory-billed woodpecker is so difficult to track. The researchers note that the species occupy some of the most difficult and hard-to-reach lower forest habitats in the United States. The birds live within a large home range up to four miles in diameter and feed on insects from dead and dying trees that don’t last. for long periods of time. These factors help explain why birds are often not seen in the same place twice and why scientists have difficulty finding them on purpose.

And if you believe in imprinted behavior, ivory beaks were persistently hunted, and the density at which they were already hunted increased when their numbers were known to be dwindling. The scarcity of birds drove the demand – only the best and most determined hunters could approach them. If they really existed in this Louisiana swamp, then these birds are a descendant of birds that have become so wary of humans and so good at avoiding them that they are in fact thought to be extinct.

So, the next time you’re wandering through the lowerlands of Louisiana, keep your eyes and ears peeled. Here’s what you listen to.

For more conservation news and drugged animal facts, check out Cal’s Week in Review. New episodes drop every Sunday.

Main image from Wikicommons.

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