Extinct or not? New study claims ‘extinct’ ivory-billed woodpecker is still alive

Nestling ivory-billed woodpecker on J. J. Kuhn, March 6, 1938

(U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It is a mystery that has both fascinated and confounded everyone from ornithologists at top-tier universities to a casual weekend bird-watchers for decades.

There are still ivory-billed woodpeckers roaming in the wilderness of the south-east of the United States or are they all extinct?

While the bird has not been photographed since the 1930s, a new study conducted by a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory, posits that – despite the lack of a definitive evidence of the species’ existence – the so-called “Lord God bird” is not extinct and its habitat must be protected if the woodpecker hopes to thrive.

Michael Collins, who works at the Stennis Space Center in the south-east of the Mississippi river, and has the research to the ivory-billed woodpecker, a pet project of his for more than a decade, has published his findings in the online journal Heliyon. In his studies, Collins presents evidence – including three videos that show birds he is of the opinion that the ivory-billed woodpecker – that he says proves that the elusive bird is not extinct.


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Nestling ivory-billed woodpecker, and J. J. Kuhn, March 6, 1938

(U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“You’re not going to find the birds by going and looking for a week or even a year,” Collins, who spent 1,500 hours between 2005 and 2013 in Mississippi and Louisiana’s Pearl River region in search of the woodpecker, told Fox News. “More than eight years of intensive research, I have only had 10 sightings of the bird.”

Under his study, video-recordings Collins shot while kayaking and climbing in the trees of the alleged woodpecker signature of those flights, rapid wingbeats, and an audible double knock. These findings are consistent with reports of sightings of the bird in the 1940s.

The ivory-billed woodpecker – one of the largest woodpeckers in the world – saw its numbers dwindle in the late 19th century, as a result of the widespread deforestation of the south-East of the burgeoning logging industry and the hunting. By 1938, an estimated 20 woodpeckers remained in the wild, and six years later the last known ivory-billed woodpecker, a female, was gone.

Although not officially labeled as extinct, the species is listed as endangered and possibly extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Alleged sightings in Arkansas in 2004, however, renewed hope among conservationists that the woodpecker still existed and led Collins to conduct his research.


“There is no logical reason to conclude that the population is less than it was in the 1920s,” Collins said. “I doubt that they are extinct.”

Others, however, are not so sure.

Steve Milloy, author and founder of the blog JunkScience is of the opinion that there is no hard evidence that the bird is still alive, and the reports of the observations, are only meant to keep the land is developed.

“If exposed, in February 2006, alleged sightings of the Ivory-billed woodpecker are just a trick to keep the land is developed,” Milloy said on JunkScience.


Milloy argues that the sightings of the woodpecker in 2004 were organized and supported by the Nature Conservancy as the organization stood to benefit significantly from the observations and possibly be granted a $10.2 million federal dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres in Arkansas.

“Given the fact that the land purchase was made possible with taxpayer dollars and tax breaks for those who know what the ultimate goals – you can almost hear the Nature Conservancy laugh as that other fictional woodpecker, Woody Woodpecker, all the way to the bank,” Milloy wrote in an article for Fox News in 2006.

When they are in contact with Fox News, a spokeswoman for the Nature management can neither confirm nor deny that the organization received funds from the federal government in connection with the project.

Leading ornithologists in the united states does not dismiss Collins’ claims that he has spotted the ivory-billed woodpecker, but to say that there is more concrete evidence must be obtained before a definitive answer to whether or not this species still exists is given.


“Mike [Collins] provides good arguments. It certainly does not settle the issue — there is nothing definitive in what he presents — but it is an interesting case.” Geoff Hill, an ornithologist at Auburn University, said of Collins’ research back in 2011, an interview with LiveScience, “of course, whether something is ‘definitive’ is to some extent a matter of opinion.”

A clear picture of the bird is what ornithologists and bird-watchers are all hoping to get to prove that the woodpecker’s existence, but Collins is also questionable whether that will ever happen given a number of factors. The large surface area of the habitat, the dense swamp forest where it is known to stay and the fact that the travel km of the nest and the food already stacking the odds against researchers looking to snap a photo of the bird.

“It is unlikely that anyone will have a clear picture,” Collins said. “It’s like a perfect storm of factors.”

To that image is captured, everyone can agree that the discussion about the bird that John James Audubon described as “graceful to the extreme” will continue.

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