The ivory-billed woodpecker, or Campephilus principalis, is one of the most mysterious birds in North America, with a storied past.
Today, while there’s a distinct possibility that the species is extinct, some ornithologists claim to have seen ivory-billed woodpeckers deep in their native habitat.
1. Is The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Extinct Or Not?
The last confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker female was in 1944 in Louisiana, and since then any reported sightings have not been universally accepted.
Grainy photos and videos taken in the last 20 years are considered by some to be proof of their continued existence, but not everyone agrees, with many scientists arguing that the bird sightings are actually of pileated woodpeckers, a much more common species.
Currently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct.
2. Habitat Destruction And Hunting Doomed The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Several factors have contributed to the decline of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Like other, now-extinct species such as the passenger pigeon, these birds were hunted extensively during the 19th century.
Indigenous nations had always hunted them, with their feathers and beaks being used as decorations.
The bills and skulls were traded far outside of the range of the ivory-billed woodpecker. A bill has been found in an indigenous burial site in Colorado.
Woodpeckers were believed to have curative properties for venereal diseases.
With the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, more and more ivory-billed woodpeckers were hunted not just for their bills and feathers, but also as a source of meat.
Some ornithologists theorize that the reason any remaining ivory-billed woodpeckers are so elusive is that they are understandably wary of humans.
At the same time, loggers were aggressively cutting down the old-growth forests that were the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat.
3. Beavers Were Their Friends
One of the reasons that the population of ivory-billed woodpeckers declined so dramatically may be connected to the dwindling numbers of beavers.
Beavers specialize in cutting down or girdling trees, creating lots of dead wood where the beetles that ivory-billed woodpeckers preferred to eat would burrow into.
They didn’t just take advantage of the work of beavers, however. Any place where there were dead trees as a result of fires or hurricanes could expect an influx of ivory-billed woodpeckers.
Between the decline in beaver populations, and widespread logging of old-growth forests, the habitat that ivory-billed woodpeckers depended on started to disappear.
4. They May Have Lived As Far North As Michigan
While the population of ivory-billed woodpeckers was concentrated in the Deep South, there are reports from the 18th and 19th centuries of ivory-billed woodpeckers as far north as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and as far west as St. Louis, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
5. Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers Lived In Bottomland Hardwoods
While the popular image of the habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker is the cypress and sweet gum swamps of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi, that isn’t universally true.
There is evidence that ivory-billed woodpeckers lived in bottomland hardwood forests, with their range following river courses.
The floodplains would have provided them with ideal conditions, with a fair percentage of dead trees where they could hunt for the insects that made up most of their diet.
Each nesting pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers would need a large tract to support themselves, with average territories of 2,000 acres or 10 square miles.
6. Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers Mostly Ate Beetles
It is generally accepted that the main food source for the ivory-billed woodpecker was long-horned beetle larvae. These are found in dead and dying trees, whether standing or on the ground.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers were the only woodpecker species known to forage for food in small groups; all other woodpeckers work alone.
7. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Is The Largest In North America
At a length of 20 inches with a wingspan of 30 inches, with a weight of 15 to 20 ounces, the ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest woodpecker north of Mexico, and the third-largest woodpecker in the world.
While some scientists insist that recent sightings are actually pileated woodpeckers, the smallest ivory-billed woodpecker would be larger than the biggest pileated woodpecker.
8. They Have A Very Distinctive Appearance
Ivory-billed woodpeckers certainly had a unique look. The males had a bright red crest, while females have a less flashy black one.
Most of their bodies and wings were a glossy blue-black, with 2 long white stripes down from the neck, and deep white edges on the wings.
The beak that gives them their common name was large and white, with an end like a chisel, perfect for peeling bark off of dead trees in search of beetle grubs.
9. Their Call Sounded Like A Toy Trumpet
The distinctive call of the ivory-billed woodpecker was recorded in the early part of the 20th century, so we know exactly what they sounded like. It has been described as sounding like a child blowing on a toy trumpet.
More technically, the call had a nasal quality and was brief in duration, sounding like “kent”.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers also made a double-knock hammering sound as they tap at trees.
10. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Has Some Colorful Nicknames
The ivory-billed woodpecker has been given some distinctive nicknames. The most common one is the “Lord God Bird”, because that’s apparently often what people cried out when they saw this large, brightly colored bird.
They’ve also been called the “King of the Woodpeckers” for their size, and the “Grail Bird” because people have gone on so many quests to find this rare and possibly extinct species.