'Lord God' bird a ghost of past

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Wood carving of the extinct
Ivory Billed Woodpecker,
called during its active life time
the lifetime the "Lord God Bird"
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker impressed European settlers so much that they came to be called "The Lord God Bird". This massive woodpecker has been the topic of considerable speculation as to its status extinct or present in almost negligible numbers - for the past 75 years. Those who have reported it are criticized for lack of unambiguous proof of their reports.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is certainly the largest woodpecker ever documented in the United States. The bill is literally ivory-colored. The body is basically black with extensive white wing patches on both sides of the wing. From beneath, a thin black strip separates the two white patches. The male has a distinct red crown that curves backward. The female's crown is black and curves forward. Long white stripes on both sides of the back extend forward on the neck on to the face.

The last undisputed report of Ivory-billed Woodpecker came in the late 1930s from old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the Tensas area of Louisiana. The "rediscovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker dates to 2004 in the Cache River region of Arkansas. However, an extensive follow up search for the woodpeckers did not generate definitive pictures or voice recordings.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have been heavily exploited ever since humans settled the southeastern USA. Reports of skins and the distinctive ivory-colored bills being important, expensive ornaments for Native Americans date back to the first contacts with Europeans. And, European settlers coveted these birds as well, paying good money for skins.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are not especially prolific breeders, have very large home ranges of 4-6 square miles, and favor old-growth bottomland hardwood forests. The favored forest habitat was decimated by the 1950s. So, in the absence of "acceptable" definitive proof of their existence, most ornithologists concluded that the magnificent woodpecker was extinct by then. I say "acceptable" definitive proof because the late Professor George H. Lowery came into possession of decent instamatic pictures of a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker taken in the early 1970s. The photographer was the late Fielding Lewis, a well known outdoorsman, who contended that he found the bird in the coastal bottomland forest near Franklin, Louisiana. The authenticity of those pictures remains in dispute to this day.

I know of at least 6 books written about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since the announcement about finding one in Arkansas. Each has its strengths and each has its weaknesses. The one closest to home is Michael K. Steinberg's book "Stalking the Ghost Bird. The Elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana" [ISBN 978-0-8071-3305-7, LSU Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA, 2008]. I recommend this book to anyone sincerely interested in the history of the bird in the immediate region and reported sightings into early 2008.

More recent information can be gleaned from reports on the Project Coyote website: http://projectcoyoteibwo.com.

A small cadre of dedicated people continue to search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Louisiana and present tantalizing information.

One hotspot for reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers has been the Pearl River Swamp in the coastal area located in eastern Louisiana and western Mississippi. Readers may wish to consult the following website for further information about recent searches http://fishcrow.com/

There is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker researchers' forum. It may be accessed through the following website http://www.ibwo.net/forum . Readers are advised, however, that this is a very serious group and one must join the forum in order to access information about the sightings.

Do I think the Ivory-billed Woodpecker persists? Yes, but in perilously low numbers in difficult to access areas across the southeastern USA. To have persisted, the birds had to change behavior patterns and become very reclusive. It is not by chance that most reports have come primarily from hunters who are active in the woods during the active mating and breeding season extending from early winter into early spring. Readers are advised to learn more about the smaller but still impressive Piliated Woodpecker so they can help to document Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should they encounter them while in the woods. If you think you see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pull out your smart phone and take pictures!