World Looks to Louisiana for Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Linda Benedict  |  5/5/2005 7:14:23 PM

Craig Gautreaux

Louisiana has been in the international spotlight because of a reported sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to have been extinct. The bird was never seen during the official 30-day search in January and February. However, search team members said they heard the unique tapping sounds made by the bird.

Separate from the official search, researchers from Cornell University had placed 12 tape recorders in the search area near the Pearl River in southeastern Louisiana. They took recordings for six weeks in February and March.

“They are now analyzing those recordings,” said Vernon Wright of the LSU AgCenter’s School of Renewable Natural Resources. “This will take time because special software has to be developed. We’re not sure when the report will be finished.”

With the findings from the report, the planning team, of which Wright is a member, will then decide on the next steps.

The search, sponsored by Zeiss Sports Optics, was the result of a sighting of the bird by LSU forestry student David Kullivan in 1999.

“People have called him a liar, but he knows enough to know what he saw,” Wright said.

Before Kullivan, the last documented sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1942, Wright said. It was seen in Tensas Parish at a location called the Singer Tract by Joseph T. Tanner. This area was logged during World War II, and the ivory-bills disappeared. Habitat loss is the main reason for the loss of North America’s largest woodpecker.

“It was a bird of the bottomland swamp and needed extensive areas of good timber to furnish forage,” Wright said.

The Pearl River Wildlife Management Area and the adjacent Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, while not ideal, could support a limited number of the birds, Wright said.

“The original habitat was virtually virgin woods, bottomland hardwoods, and that’s long gone. But we’re re-growing a lot of trees now, making sustaining the bird possible,” he said.

The six-member international search team also found tree bark scaling, the primary method used by the woodpecker to find food, and cavities that appeared larger than those normally used by the pileated woodpecker, another large bird common to both areas. However, the group concluded that there was insufficient evidence to say the bird exists.

According to Wright, the bird is about the size of a crow with a wingspan of nearly 3 feet. Its range extended from the Ohio River valley to the Gulf Coast and from North Carolina to eastern Texas. Surprisingly, a subspecies of the ivory-billed woodpecker was found in Cuba, but this species has been presumed extinct since the 1980s.

“It’s possible the birds persevered somewhere else and moved in here,” Wright said. “Nobody has been able to get a picture or record the calls of the bird. They may have been moving through. They may have moved on, or they may be here and we haven’t stumbled on them yet.”

(This article appeared in the spring 2002 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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