If there is any new hope, it is a blur. What's certain: The roller coaster tale of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a majestic bird that was thought to be extinct has been punctuated by a series of hotly contested rediscoveries, only getting stronger.
The newest touch is a peer-reviewed study Thursday in the journal Ecology and Evolution presents sighting reports, audio recordings, camera trail images and drone videos. Collected over the past decade in a Louisiana swamp forest, site precise removed for bird sanctuary, the authors write that evidence points to “intermittent but recurrent presence” of birds that look and behave like ivory-billed woodpeckers.
But what are they?
“It's this cumulative evidence from our many years of searching that makes us so confident that this iconic species exists, and persists in Louisiana and probably elsewhere as well,” said Steven C. Latta, study co-author and conservation and field director. research at the National Aviary, a Pittsburgh non-profit bird zoo that helps lead the search for the species.
But Dr. Latta admits that there isn't any conclusive evidence, and the research is carefully tempered with words like “supposedly” and “possible”.
Therein lies the problem. As one expert wrote during the previous round of ivory bills: “Evidence is only as strong as one strongest piece — ten cups of weak coffee will not make a pot of strong coffee.”
This time, two experts who were skeptical of previous sightings said they remained unsure.
“The problem is, all of the videos are awful,” said Chris Elphick, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Connecticut who studies birds. Crested and red-headed woodpeckers, among other species, can closely resemble an ivory bill from a distance or from certain angles. Light can play games with the eye. Audio is easy to misinterpret.
“I don't think this has changed much, frankly,” he said. “I'd love to be wrong.”
The stakes from the recent find are up as federal wildlife officials have proposed that the ivory-billed woodpecker be declared extinct, which would end legal protections. Last year, citing “substantial disagreement among experts regarding the status of the species,” the United States Fish and Wildlife Service extended time limit to make the final decision.
A spokeswoman, Christine Schuldheisz, said the agency did not comment on the study beyond but was working towards a final decision, which is expected later this year.
According to the authors of the new study, removing federal protections would be bad for any remaining ivory bills. But other scientists say there is a heavy price to keep them on the endangered species list.
“Whether or not limited federal conservation funds should be spent chasing these ghosts, instead of saving truly endangered species and habitats, is an important issue,” said Richard O. Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale.
Ivory bills fell into sharp decline as Americans cleared their habitat, the old-growth swamp forests of the Southeast. Little remained in the 1930s, but a scientific expedition found a nest in Louisiana, in one of the largest remaining patches of habitat. The land, called the Singer Tract, is leased out for logging. Conservation groups tried to buy the rights, but the company refused to sell them. The last widely accepted sighting of a ivory beak in the United States was in 1944, a lone female, seen in her nest with forest cleared all around.
Since then, the purported sightings have sparked excitement and reactions. One, in 1967, was touted on the front page of The New York Times. Twenty years later, another one, in Cuba, where a subspecies or similar species may or may not survive, is also reported on Page One. In 2002, searchers in Louisiana thought they had captured audio of an ivory bill's signature double rapping, but computer analysis determined it was a distant gunshot. Reported sightings in Arkansas in 2004 resulted in a papers in Science and a flurry of bird tourism, but the evidence was roundly criticized.
For Dr. Elphick, a birder as well as a scientist, one of the most obvious results is what hasn't resulted in so many attempts: one clear photograph.
“There are very rare birds living in the middle of the Amazon that one can get good, recognizable photos of,” said Dr. Elphick. “Yet people have spent hundreds of thousands of hours trying to find and photograph the ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States. If there really was a population out there, it's inconceivable to me that nobody could get a good picture.”
But Dr. Latta, a co-author of the study, insisted he had seen it clearly with his own eyes. He was out in the field in 2019 setting up a record unit, and he thought he scared the bird off. While flying up and away, he can see up close, unhindered by his signature signature.
“I couldn't sleep for, like, three days,” says Dr. Latta. “It's because I have this opportunity and I feel this responsibility to build the whole world, or at least the conservation world, that this bird really exists.”