For decades, people assumed the ivory-billed woodpecker was extinct. The last confirmed sighting was in north Louisiana in the 1940s, but rumors of its existence persisted -- giving the bird a controversial reputation and a kind of mythic status.
Now, a ragtag team of birders is trying to prove everyone wrong: that the ivory-bill still lives in the woods of Louisiana. Thanks to some new technology, the team thinks they’re closer than ever before.
It’s almost Thanksgiving, 2015. Cold and overcast.
Mark Michaels and Frank Wiley lead me down a wooded trail, in a nondescript patch of thick Louisiana woods. I can’t tell you exactly where we are, because they don’t want a bunch of people swarming the area and scaring off the bird they’re looking for. What I can tell you is it’s a bottomland forest somewhere in the state of Louisiana. The soils around here are sometimes firm, sometimes soggy.
We reach a tree with a camouflaged trail camera strapped to it. The RealTree of the camera matches our clothes. The camera’s lens is aimed at a dead branch on the ground. Part of the branch is naked -- a jagged patch of bark has been shaved away by something.
Wiley walks over to the trail cam, pops out the memory card and puts it in his pocket
“This card is just burning a hole in my pocket right now,” says Wiley. “I wanna solve this mystery. We finally have a chance of solving it.”
The “mystery” is what kind of critter shaved the bark away. A pileated woodpecker? A squirrel? A deer rubbing its antlers? Wiley and Michaels think it was an ivory-billed woodpecker -- a big, black and white bird with a cream-colored beak. If they’re right, it's going to be a really big deal, since many people insist the ivory-bill is extinct.
Eager to solve the mystery, Wiley suggests cutting the day short to review the footage at his house. Mark Michaels agrees.
“But,” Michaels adds. “we gotta figure out what our plan of action is -- if this shows what we hope it shows.”
We retrace our steps to the car. As we walk, Wiley and Michaels talk about what they’ll need to do next: draft a statement, contact state and federal authorities. If they can show the ivory-bill is still alive, they’ll have proved a lot of people wrong.
On the surface, Wiley and Michaels don't have much in common. Michaels is a former lawyer, Wiley never got a college degree. Michaels is a New York liberal, Wiley calls himself a Louisiana libertarian. Michaels is cautious and chooses his words carefully, and Wiley tends to shoot from the hip. But share a passion for this bird -- for finding it, and beating the odds.
“I can’t deny that’s a big part of it,” says Michaels. “It’s just part of who I am.”
“I mean, to do something that even major universities -- with all their resources -- haven’t been able to do,” says Wiley. “You know, who wouldn’t like to be able to do something like that?”
There have been ivory-bill sightings reported across the South for decades now -- including in Louisiana -- but no one has been able to snap a definitive photo. Wiley and Michaels think that if they can document the ivory-bill, they’ll change the shape of conservation in the South. All those other reported sightings will sound more credible, they can fight to preserve habitat and help save the species.
“The more forest that can support ivory-bills, the better for all the animals,” Michaels says.
Woodpeckers, like the ivory-bill, are important members of their habitat, says Dr. Jerry Jackson, ornithologist and professor emeritus at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Without woodpeckers, Jackson says “we would probably have a lot more insect outbreaks that destroy trees, destroy our homes, and anything else that’s made of wood.”
More than just community exterminators, Jackson says woodpeckers also serve as avian architects. They carve nest holes into tree trunks, but generally only use them for one season, allowing other species to take up residence in the vacant cavities.
Frank Wiley, who is from Louisiana, feels a symbolic connection to the ivory-bill in particular.
“It’s a symbol of what the Southeastern woods were, before the white man got involved,” he says.
“To be part of proving that the bird still exists – perhaps in some way will give the human race a little bit of redemption for what we’ve done to the forests.”
By 2015, Wiley and Michaels have been searching for the ivory-bill for years. Dressing in camo, hiking into the woods, sitting, looking, and listening. They’ve got trail cams placed at strategic locations, and they’ve honed in on certain clues -- like the way bark is scaled from the trees.
“I think we’re really, really close to success,” says Michaels.
All things considered, we don’t know all that much about the ivory-bill. We know it was found across the South, from East Texas and Florida up to Missouri and North Carolina. Mostly in bottomland forests full of cypress and tupelo and sweetgum trees. It had dramatic black and white feathers, and it was the biggest woodpecker in North America. It’s much smaller than an a bald eagle, but slightly bigger than a crow.
“It’s breathtaking,” Michaels says of the ivory-bill’s appearance, struck by it’s large beak and claws. “It just looks...almost like a mythical creature.”
The main food source for ivory-bills was thought to be the beetle larvae that lived under the bark of freshly dead trees. That big bill was helpful for shaving away chunks of bark to fish them out.
One of the only definitive audio recordings of the ivory-bill was made in Louisiana in 1935, by two researchers from Cornell University. They’d heard the bird was in decline and wanted to document it before it disappeared for good.
An old black and white photo shows them sitting in a wooden carriage, surrounded by tall trees. It’s a scene that almost looks like something from the Oregon Trail, save for the headphones they’re wearing and the enormous movie camera behind them.
Dr. Jerry Jackson says the decline of the ivory-billed woodpecker began with hunting. Several Native American groups decorated their pipes with ivory-bill heads. Then, in the late 1800’s, people starting killing all kinds of birds to keep and sell as collectibles.
“It was like stamp collecting or baseball card collecting was in the 1950s,” says Jackson, “or Beanie Babies.”
The ivory-billed woodpecker was a prized, rare find.
Then, in the 1930’s and 40’s, the logging industry took off. Entire forests across the South were decimated, especially during World War II.
“We were sending troops overseas and a lot of people were getting killed,” says Jackson. “The Army needed more caskets and they needed a source of wood.”
As the Southern forests disappeared, so did the ivory-bill. The last confirmed sighting took place in 1944 in Northwest Louisiana, on a piece of land logged by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Within a few years, many assumed the ivory-bill was extinct.
Except people kept seeing it.
There have been dozens of reported sightings across the South since the 1940’s. According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), there were at least nine sightings between 1941 and 1999 in the state.
Michael Seymour is the resident ivory-bill expert on staff at LDWF. Since he started working there in 2007, he says he has received 26 emails and 38 phone calls from people claiming to have seen at least one ivory-bill.
Seymour hopes the bird is out there, and notes his interest in the species has “waned little” since he first saw a picture of it in a bird guide as a kid, but says many of the recently reported sightings were not considered credible.
“Although there is little doubt that all of the callers and emailers genuinely believed they had seen [an ivory-billed woodpecker],” Seymour wrote by email, “many of the sightings could be immediately attributed to other species -- most of those being the similar Pileated Woodpecker.”
In the 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did a study to decide, once and for all, whether the ivory-bill was still alive. Dr. Jerry Jackson was on that team. His team searched the South far and wide: canoeing through swamps and hiking through forests, looking in all the places they thought any remaining ivory-bills might be.
In the end, he “found no proof that there were ivory-billed woodpeckers out there.”
But, importantly, he felt he couldn’t scientifically pronounce it extinct.
“You can prove something exists,” says Jackson, “but you can't prove that it doesn't exist.”
The rumors continued to swirl, and the ivory-bill’s controversial status has only increased. Some have compared it to Bigfoot, something Mark Michaels objects to.
“The vitriol has led to a kind of intimidation factor that leads a lot of people not to want to speak about it,” says Michaels.
In 2005, everybody was talking about it. In April of that year, the federal government announced that the ivory-bill had been rediscovered in Arkansas, in an area between Little Rock and Memphis known as the Big Woods.
A sighting in 2004 caught the interest of Cornell University, which led a year-long search in the area. According to a press release from the announcement, the Department of the Interior claimed that there had been multiple sightings over the course of that year, and that the federal government was prepared to spend more than $10 million to preserve habitat and resuscitate the species. An academic paper was published in Science around the same time.
The primary documentary evidence supplied to the public was a grainy video shot from a kayak in the swamp. In the video, you can see the black and white splotches of a bird launching from a tree trunk and flying out of sight. For many, like Dr. Richard Prum, ornithologist at Yale University, that wasn’t good enough.
“I think there is absolutely no chance that the ivory-billed woodpecker is still alive on the planet today,” says Prum.
Prum was initially excited to hear the woodpecker has been rediscovered. But once he compared the grainy video stills to a taxidermied ivory-bill specimen in the Yale archives, his elation turned to doubt.
“I think you have to be skeptical,” he now says of the rediscovery allegations, “because extraordinary claims like that require great evidence.”
The pileated woodpecker is found across North America, similar in both size and markings to the ivory-bill. After a lot of visual comparison and analysis, Prum and some colleagues conclude that the bird in the video is a pileated. Word leaks that they are working on a rebuttal paper, and all hell breaks loose. Birders and ornithologists start takings sides, blogs pop up, and typical internet mayhem ensues.
“I was described as the turd in the punchbowl in one conservation blog,” Prum recalls with a laugh.
The controversial narrative of the ivory-billed woodpecker is part of what brought Frank Wiley and Mark Michaels together in the first place. They initially met through one of those blogs. They swapped stories of their own potential sightings, made plans to meet up, and eventually formed a partnership. The blog documenting their own searches is known as Project Coyote (a play on Frank’s last name, and a reference to the old Looney Tunes character Wile E. Coyote who was perpetually chasing his own bird).
After leaving the secret woods in November 2015, Wiley, Michaels, and I walk to our cars and drive to Wiley’s house to review the trail cam footage on his computer. Wiley fires up the computer and plugs in the memory card.
To our right, a small table is pressed against the wall, crowded with ivory-bill artifacts: photos, dusty books, and a decoy carved from wood. Giddy with anticipation, Wiley clicks open a folder. The first image fills the screen.
“Oh we got light! We got light!” Michael exclaims with bated breath.
The cheerfulness proves brief. Almost right away they realize something is wrong: there don’t seem to be enough files.
A few disbelieving expletives later they put the clues together: it seems the trail cam didn’t stop recording when the memory card was full, and wrote over the first three weeks of footage. In the earliest photo they have, the bark of the tree has already been shaved away. Whatever critter is responsible has gotten away scot-free. They missed their chance.
“This is the kind of thing that makes you wanna give up,” Michaels says with a defeated laugh. "It’s like, so disheartening. We’re back to square one.”
The technical mishap was a bummer for Wiley and Michaels. Michaels begins to wonder how much more energy he has for these searches, but he and Wiley keep at it for a couple more years. Dressing in camo, hiking into the woods. Sitting, looking, listening. Reviewing trail cam footage. But still, nothing good.
And then, in 2017, Frank Wiley dies of a sudden heart attack. Mark is on the brink of giving up.
“I really felt that I had done all that I could,” Michaels says. “I knew other people would be carrying on, but I thought that my job was done.”
Maybe they couldn’t produce a definitive photo, but they’d put in the work -- researching documents, honing field techniques, and documenting clues. At the very least, Michaels thought, their blog would live on as a resource for others.
“And then everything changed,” Michaels recalls.
Over the span of a few days in the spring of 2017, not long after Wiley’s death, Michaels and a couple team members captured they considered to be very promising audio recordings.
Eventually, one of the team members made a connection to Steve Latta, director of conservation at the National Aviary, a bird conservation non-profit. Intrigued, Latta connected him to Justin Kitzes, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who uses audio recorders to study biodiversity in the natural world. Latta offers his conservation expertise, and Kitzes has since loaned the group about 100 audio recorders to deploy in the woods.
More volunteers join the search team, too, and just like that, with new blood, new interest, new resources -- Michaels’ excitement is renewed.
In February of this year, I met up again with Michaels in that same patch of remote Louisiana woods (I still can’t tell you where). The team is bigger now, and no one seems to mind the early morning cold.
Over the next three days, they’ll break into teams and strap the recording devices to the trees in a carefully planned pattern. Once activated, the units will record for several hours a day. In a few months they’ll swap out the memory cards and send them to the University of Pittsburgh for analysis.
The idea is that the recordings will help them hone in on a hotspot, like a nest. If they can do that, then finally -- just maybe -- they’ll be able to get that definitive photo.
“Alright, let’s hit it,” Michaels tells the group on the side of the road. Trunks slam shut, they hop into their cars, and fan out in opposite directions with a clear sense of mission.
The first batch of audio recordings is being analyzed now. Michaels tells me he’s already listened to a few and that they contain a number of promising sounds.
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