The active search for the long-lost bird of science and myth — the ivory-billed woodpecker — is officially ending. At least it is for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“The preliminary conclusion we’ve come up with at this point is that it’s unlikely that there are recoverable populations of ivory-billed woodpeckers in those places that have received significant search efforts over the past five years,” Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Lab’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, told Discovery News.
The exhaustive, five-year search took biologists and volunteers throughout the historic range of the bird. With one team stationed in Arkansas, another, smaller team traveled from North Carolina to Florida to Texas.
In 2007 I headed into Arkansas’ Black Swamp to follow the team as they trudged through the muck to find evidence — any evidence — that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still exist. Striking deep into an almost alien landscape with black tupelo and bald cypress trees reaching high overhead. All we found on my visit were mud-colored cottonmouths, giant bullfrogs and the tantalizingly similar (at least to my untrained eyes) pileated woodpeckers.
But no ivory-bill.
“I think we’d say that (the searches) are suspended until any new information would come about that would provide impetus for starting up systematic searching again,” he said.
That first impetus was seven solid sightings and a video shot by David Luneau. It spurred Cornell to launch the extensive search and to publish an article in 2005 in the journal Science that concluded that the bird was still alive. But since then, nothing conclusive has emerged.
“We’ve been unable to acquire definitive evidence for the persistence of ivory-bills in Arkansas or any of those other states,” Rohrbaugh said. “We continue to get occasional bits of information that are substantive, and we can follow up. But nothing has led to anything definitive just yet.”
Cornell’s decision in 2005 to declare the bird re-discovered caused excitement and uproar in the birding community. Rohrbaugh acknowledged the controversy, but said it’s all part of the scientific process.
“Obviously some other scientists have looked at that same information and come to different conclusions,” he said. “And you know, that’s how science works; that’s OK.”
Still, he stands by their original hypothesis.
“When we apply the scientific method and our own video analysis to that information, the interpretation is that that bird is an ivory-billed woodpecker,” he said.
And despite the results, Rohrbaugh said he believes all the time, money and effort were worth it.
“We had what I perceive to be strong evidence of an ivory-billed woodpecker at least for a short period of time in Arkansas,” he noted. “One path is to say, ‘OK, the bird was there. We’re not going to do anything about.’ … That seems insane. You have one of the most critically endangered birds on the planet; why wouldn’t you follow up? And the other path is to mount a significant standardized search of the area, which is what we did.”
So the question remains: Is the ivory-bill still out there?
“I do think it’s possible,” he said. “We haven’t searched every place. It would be impossible to put together teams to search all of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s historic range. We’ve done the best we could.”
No doubt individual sightings will continue, and Rohrbaugh cautions against declaring the bird officially extinct.
“We have to be sure that the bird is really gone before we give up. As soon as one decides that a species is extinct, there are a lot of consequences,” he said. “That bird can lose protection under the Endangered Species Act, its habitat can be lost, and there’s a change of attitude among scientists and the public to submit new observations because they might be scoffed at.”
So instead of heading back into the swamp, Cornell will sift through all the data they’ve collected over the years. Rohrbaugh said a book on their findings will be published next year.
The Lord God Bird by Sufjan Stevens: