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Editor's Note: July 2008-- Since documented (but controversial) sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Big Woods of Arkansas in 2004 (Science: 3 June 2005), efforts to locate this bird in Florida, Arkansas, and elsewhere have proven difficult, and no unequivocal evidence of the species has emerged. An unprecedented search across the species' former range continues, with the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service coordinating efforts. This account will be updated to reflect any developments. Basic life history information in this account remains accurate and unchanged. This is an extraordinary species that we all hope is not lost. Read more about search efforts at the CLO website, or BNA contributer Louis Bevier's site, or on the entry for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in the Sibley's Field Guide.
To John James Audubon, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker brought thoughts of the “satin and lace” portraits of the genteel by the seventeenth-century artist Van Dyke. Indeed, this species is an “aristocrat” in appearance among woodpeckers: Its great stature, heavy, ivory-colored, chisel-tipped bill, pale lemon-yellow eyes, crisp black-and-white markings, distinctive crest, and lean, long appearance distinguish it from all others. Colonial naturalists Catesby (1731), Wilson (1811), Vieillot (1807), and Audubon (1842) all expounded on this “largest” of all woodpeckers. Linnaeus, basing his description on Catesby’s (1731) illustration and description, gave it the specific name principalis, believing it was the largest of woodpeckers, although the Ivory-billed in fact stands third to fifth in the hierarchy of picid size — the largest being the congeneric Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis) of Mexico, and the next being the Great Slaty Woodpecker (Mulleripicus pulverulentus) of Southeast Asia (Short 1982, Winkler et al. 1995).
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was once found in virgin forests throughout much of the southeastern United States and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at least as far north as St. Louis. It was also known from mature forests through much of Cuba. The past 100 years of this species’ history link U.S. birds to bottomland swamp forests and Cuban birds to upland pines. In truth, throughout its range, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was associated with extensive old-growth forests, the solitude of wilderness, and the availability of immense beetle larvae that were its principal food. The specific forest types in which it survived may have been an accident of human actions.
Human attention to this lord of the forest and human destruction of its realm have led to its current status as one of the rarest birds in the world, or extinct. In spite of a continued flow of unsubstantiated reports, some with tantalizing but inconclusive evidence, the scientific community has no conclusive documentation for recent occurrence of the species in the United States. The population in Cuba seems little better off, its habitat decimated and the last reported (undocumented by photos or sound recordings) sighting in 1992 (J. McNeeley pers. comm.). James Tanner (1942a) took the last universally accepted photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the United States in northeast Louisiana in 1938; John Dennis (1948) took the last photos of this species in Cuba in April 1948.