The ivory-billed woodpecker is a beautiful bird: a denizen of the southeastern United States, flitting around on black-and-white wings, peeling away tree bark looking for beetle larvae. Or at least it was, before its home forests were ravaged by logging and destruction. These days, the species may very well be extinct.

Footage of a female woodpecker captured in 1935 in Louisiana (via Texas Parks and Wildlife/YouTube)

The first recordings of ivory-billed woodpeckers were taken in 1935 in Louisiana, during one of many observations in the early 1900s (you can listen to its call here). The last confirmed sighting was made in 1944. Since then, there have been only rumours of the birds' continued existence. But Michael Collins of the US Naval Research Lab has spent nearly a decade in the South searching for the species, and he believes he's found it.

Between 2005 and 2013, Collins made annual trips to Louisiana and Florida, and he's come away with video footage he claims shows the presence of the woodpeckers he was looking for. He hopes his evidence can inspire people to work on protecting the species before it's truly gone for good.

The footage isn't ideal: many of the videos were taken from a great distance, and show only brief, grainy glimpses of the birds. As you might imagine, not everyone is sold on the evidence. Yet Collins points out in great detail various features that indicate these shadowy figures are indeed ivory-bills, displaying "flights, behaviours, field marks, and other characteristics that are consistent with the ivory-billed woodpecker but no other species inhabiting the region."

But if the birds are really still out there, why is it so hard to catch them on camera? Collins offers some explanations: for starters, they're naturally quiet and elusive, particularly when humans approach. On top of that, their habitats can be difficult to navigate, with lots of hiding spaces, low visibility through the foliage and potentially hazardous conditions. Even earlier naturalists commented on just how hard it is to track the ivory-bills down.

Ivory-bills exchanging places on the nest (left), and a female ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana (right). Photos taken by Arthur Allen in 1935. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since snapping a photo of the birds can be such a difficult task, Collins contends that his more indirect evidence should be proof enough. "When faced with an exceptional case, scientists often develop alternative approaches and make progress using different types of data," he said in a press release.

He also points out that time is a factor. The IUCN classified the ivory-billed woodpecker as extinct in the late 1990s, and then revised the listing following rumoured sightings. If the species is still around, its numbers are probably so low – and its habitat so threatened – that it is now considered critically endangered at best. We may not have time to wait for someone to get better videos.

Collins's hunt for the rare species isn't the first in recent years to turn up tantalising evidence. In the 2000s, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology conducted extensive searches in a number of southeastern states. "It was probably the largest search in history for any endangered or potentially extinct species," conservation biologist Ron Rohrbaugh, who was involved in the Cornell search, told me.

A male ivory-billed woodpecker specimen at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Image: James St. John/Wikimedia Commons

This expedition sparked excitement when sightings, sound recordings and even some poor-quality video footage seemed to indicate the presence of the woodpecker in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. The evidence wasn't perfect, and further analysis has led to some debates. What's more, later searches in the region didn't turn up any more support. Similar intriguing but contested sightings have come out of Florida and Louisiana.

Rohrbaugh says that for some birds, un-recorded sightings or auditory evidence may be enough to show the presence of a species, but the ivory-billed woodpecker is a "wholly different case". Given the rumours surrounding the species and the length of time since the last confirmed sighting, the expected standard for evidence is higher.  

"I think that Collins is doing good work, and I commend him for continuing to stay out there and search when many others have given up," Rohrbaugh said. He has reservations about the new footage, however. "What we would want to see is irrefutable evidence based on the field marks from a photograph or a video, something that clearly depicts those key characteristics."

Rohrbaugh admits it's still possible some birds are out there, especially given all the possible sightings, but a species needs more than a few individuals to sustain itself. And in the places where the Cornell searches were thorough, the chances of any future finds look slim. "I can say with some high degree of certainty that we did not miss a breeding population of ivory-billed woodpeckers," Rohrbaugh said.

In the end, the issue is all about conservation. Persistent folks like Collins continue to search, and institutions like the Cornell Lab keep an ear out for new sightings. If a population of ivory-bills is still hanging on somewhere, they hope evidence is found before it's too late to save them.


Top header image: Painting of ivory-billed woodpeckers by John James Audubon.