History of the Ivorybill

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), one of the largest woodpeckers known at; has become elusive to ornithologists as well as birdwatchers.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s primary habitat is the virgin forests of southeastern United States, but has been spotted as far back as 1820 when Naturalist John James Audubon and his apprentices Joseph Mason shot and collected ivory-billed woodpeckers along the Ohio, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. It was not until 1837 that John Audubon in Texas, and discovered many ivory-bill woodpeckers along the Buffalo Bayou in Texas. But in the 1870’s the laws put in place to protect the ivory-billed woodpeckers throughout the southern forests in the United States were removed, and the habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker was clear cut by timber companies. In the 1890’s collectors began collecting specimens of the rare bird declining their population further making the bird more obscure.

In 1893, Johannes Gundlach published an accounting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in a two-volume Ornitologia Cubana, in Cuba. By 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, the US took control of land and economy in Cuba, much of Cuba’s forests were cleared for sugar cane; the ivory-billed woodpecker moves deeper into the forests of Cuba.

Not until 1907, until President Theodore Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Northeastern Louisiana notes a spotting of the ivory-billed woodpecker; describing the bird with brilliant white bills in contrast to the finely black feathers. Arthur A. Allen the founder of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology along with his wife, Elsa, spotted a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers near the Taylor River, Florida. He noted the woodpecker was still in existence, even though many ornithologists thought the bird to be extinct. The pair was shot by two taxidermists hearing of the discovery.

Attorney Mason D. Spencer and a state legislator from Tallulah, Louisiana shot an ivory-billed woodpecker in Singer Tract swamp forests in 1932 to prove to the state wildlife officials the ivory-billed existed in the area. For 3 years back in 1937 Cornell ornithologist James Tanner collected information on the species and was able to monitor one of the nests; producing the first motion picture and sound recordings of the ivory-billed woodpecker. James Tanner in 1939 was able to estimate that only 22 of the ivory-billed woodpeckers were left in the United States. The National Audubon Society launched a campaign to preserve the Singer Tract as a wildlife refuge for the woodpecker.

There were several other accountings of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States and Cuba, up to 2004 when Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, AR spotted the bird on The Cache River confirming the existence of the Ivory-billed woodpecker.

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