Rare Woodpecker Hunted in Last-Ditch U.S. Effort

From United Press international

Scientists are scouring some of the South’s oldest and densest forests for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker before officially declaring one of nature’s most spectacular birds extinct in this country.

Two years into a five-year “last-effort” search, the scientific sleuths have failed to spot the American subspecies of the ivory-bill.

But there have been unconfirmed sightings and tape recordings purportedly of the bird’s distinctive, trumpet-like call, said Jim Lewis, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


“We’re trying to determine whether any ivory-bills are left in some of the more mature forests in the Southeast,” Lewis said in a telephone interview from his Albuquerque, N.M., office.

The federally funded search is being conducted in areas where the birds (scientific name Campephilus principalis ) were last seen in the mid-1940s.

“Recent studies suggest several remote areas still may harbor this elusive bird,” Lewis said. The areas include the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, the river bottoms of the Altamaha in Georgia, the Yazoo and Pascagoula in Mississippi, the Santee in South Carolina and the Suwannee, Withlacoochee and Ochloconee in Florida.

Nearly three years ago, bird lovers and ornithologists thrilled to the news that at least two ivory-billed woodpeckers had been sighted in a Cuban forest, the first sighting in years of a species many experts had believed extinct.

One of the Cuban sightings was made by Lester Short, chairman of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Short reported that he saw an ivory-billed woodpecker several weeks after Cuban biologists made the first sighting.

Short said he saw a male ivory-bill fleeing a crow, but the bird disappeared in some underbrush before Short could aim his camera.

“I thought, ‘My God, I’ve seen it,’ ” Short was quoted as saying on his return to New York.


Short, a woodpecker authority, had been invited by Cuba to help organize a search for the elusive bird, which had been rumored to exist in northern Guantanamo province.

Word that the ivory-bill, North America’s largest woodpecker, had been sighted in Cuba aroused hope that the bird might someday be reintroduced to the southern United States, where it once flourished.

Ivory-bills have shiny black plumage with white stripes down the back and white-tipped wings. Some exceed 20 inches in length. They have large bills the color of pale ivory. Males have a crimson crest on their heads, females a black one.

The wildlife service said the major problem in confirming an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting is its similarity to the slightly smaller pileated woodpecker, which are still common in areas that once harbored ivory-bills.

Because of this similarity, “there have been many false reports of ivory-bill sightings,” the service said, “so many that it has been impossible to investigate all of them.”

It said the single most reliable characteristic of the ivory-bill is the shield of white formed by the white wing feathers of a perched ivory-bill. The back of a perched pileated is solid black.


The famous ornithologist John James Audubon, on a trip down the Mississippi in the early 19th Century, reported often hearing the loud call of the ivory-bill, which sounds like a toy trumpet. But the ivory-bill disappeared along with the vast reaches of old-growth forest in which the bird pecked for beetles.

Short has said that introducing ivory-bills to the United States probably would not be practical for 10 or 20 years because they should first be firmly established in three areas of Cuba to protect the species from extinction.

The wildlife service has asked the public to notify its offices in Atlanta or Albuquerque of any possible sightings of this rarest of the woodpeckers.