Skip to content


March 20, 2012

MORE ABOUT WOODPECKERS – An adaptation of my article in the Palm Beach Post, March 7, 2009



In 1731 Mark Catesby wrote about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in his book Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. “The bills of these birds are much valued by the Canada Indians, who made coronets of ‘em for their Princes and great warriors, by fixing them round a Wreath, with their points outward. . . they purchase them of the Southern People at the price of two, and sometimes, three, Buck-skins a Bill.”

In those early days, the Ivory-bills could be found in the Gulf States and up the Mississippi Valley to Ohio and Illinois and east into the Carolinas. In 1939 Arthur A. Allen wrote in Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers that they remained “in a precarious position” in a few isolated localities in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. Extirpated by extensive logging, the species has been considered extinct since the 1950’s.

In the last several years ever-hopeful ornithologists and birders have been searching the former haunts of this magnificent bird to see if just maybe some still survive. Reports of hearing their distinctive knocks on trees, seeing their characteristic pecking marks on trees, and getting fleeting glimpses of them through the cypress trees have given rise to the belief in their continued existence.

In the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Sixth Edition), they state:

“In April, 2005, came the much publicized announcement that the [Ivory-billed Woodpecker] had been rediscovered more than a year earlier in the Big Woods of the White River-Cache River system of eastern Arkansas. Documentation was provided in the form of sound recordings and brief blurred images on a videotape. [For many years, the only way a bird could make it into the record books was to have the dead body as bona-fide evidence. Nowadays, identifiable photographic records – especially videos and sound recordings – are sometimes considered acceptable.] However, intense searching subsequently has yet to produce more documentation, seemingly not possible in an age when most rarities discovered are photographed and those images are posted on the Internet the same day; many question the original evidence.”

John Agnew, a wildlife artist, photographer, and non-birding skeptic, (and a friend of ours) is occasionally invited to participate in hunts for the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Florida Panhandle. One of his illustrations inspired by his experience  is shown above. His blog and website are shown below. I’ll let him tell his story:

“We arrived in the study area . . . and hiked to a known ‘hot spot’ where we found trees that the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers had been feeding on. They leave a unique horizontal groove in the wood when they chisel the bark off dead trees in search of grubs. The next day we got out very early in the morning and stationed 5 people in various spots within a hundred yards of the feeding tree. I heard some Pileated Woodpeckers raising a ruckus about 100 yards from me, and from that direction came a large, dark woodpecker . . . The bird landed on a cypress tree about 20 yards from me, but on the other side. Thinking that I might as well practice on this “Pileated”, I was raising my camera up to focus on the tree when it took off and flew right over my head at about 15 feet up. It was then that my eyes fixed on the brilliant white secondaries, the trailing edge of the wing. In the 3-4 seconds that the bird was in view, I could clearly see the field marks of the Ivory-bill, but still didn’t believe what I was seeing . . . By the time I turned the kayak around, it was long gone.”

Retrospectively, John added, “If only I had been quick to prepare, I would have been focused and ready when the bird took off toward me. A photo would have gone a long way to convince skeptics, and possibly save this area from being turned from pristine river swamp into a major international airport.”

On a recent trip to a 100 square – mile area of Ecuador, we saw over 200 species of birds. In this small country, ornithologists are hopeful that rainforest logging will be curtailed soon so they have an opportunity to discover what “new” birds are out there that they didn’t even know existed. It’s bad enough losing the ones we do know about! In the whole  Earth scheme of things, species come and go, appearing gradually in the universe, lingering perhaps a million years give or take, and gradually fading out, never to return. Except possibly for one time when we thought the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was gone – forever. The search continues.

You can read John’s blog at and see more of his art at

Thanks to Dr. George Rogers for the article inspiration.



From → Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. George Rogers permalink

    Gee thanks. Cuz of you I’ve played hooky at my desk half the afternoon digging around on Ivory Billed Woodpeckers and wathing you-tubes on the subject instead of earning my stinky pay. Think I’ll get a canoe, videocamera, giant lens, and big-ear, then go down to the White River with a video camera and the same high hopes of the early part of a fishing trip!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: