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Peckergate: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Hoax


The Little-Known Status and Distribution of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker*

by Strix nebulosa

The Auklet. Centennial Issue. New Yauk, 1983, pages 1-7.

[*This paper was not refereed by Lester L. Short.]


G. Stuart Keith, who unfortunately passed away in 2003, was a great world birder and ornithologist. I believe he was the first person to compile a world list in excess of 5,000 birds. His landmark trips to Africa and Madagascar in the 1950s were without the benefit of tours, guides and stakeouts. A self-taught naturalist who read Classics at Oxford, Stuart had a long professional career in ornithology, culminating in the publication of the magnificent, seven-volume Birds of Africa, the ultimate reference on the birds of the "dark continent." But it was birding humor for which I best remember Stuart. His awards presentations at the annual dinner of the Linnaean Society of New York, often preceding some dry travelogue by a distinguished guest, were invariably hysterically funny. Stuart wrote this article for the Centennial issue of the Auklet, the AOU humor magazine. It is based on actual reports that certainly are no worse than the alleged sight records in support of the Arkansas Ivorybill hoax, and actually are arguably better, as they weren't self-impeached with a misidentified video of a Pileated Woodpecker. However, the article by Fitzpatrick et al. claiming a "rediscovery" that somehow got into Science magazine lacks the polish and sophistication of Stuart's little masterpiece of ornithological humor.


The ornithological community of North America has long believed that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, is "on the verge of extinction if not extinct" (Robbins et al., 1966), "probably very close to extinction..." (Terres, 1980), etc. No one wants to pronounce the final obituary, or sign the death certificate, but suspicions are strong that the species is no more. There are those who believe that the species still survives in remote riverine woodlands of Louisiana, Texas, or Mississippi, known only to certain researchers associated with Louisiana State University, who are sworn to secrecy by the most dire Creole blood oaths and voodoo spells. Rut the consensus of scientific thought is that Campephilus principalis is, sensu lato, a dead duck.

This paper proves that this is a canard, that the presumed extinction or near extinction of the species is based on false assumptions. In fact, we will demonstrate that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that magnificent creature that is Number One (Numero Uno) on everyone's want list, is in reality not only fairly common, but widespread. That the ornithological world is confused by the status of the species can be blamed entirely on the dominance in recent years of studies in such fields as ethology and thermoregulation; there seem today to be a thousand doctoral candidates computerizing the defecation rate of Empidonaces and the preening postures of the Siberian Tit, whereas no serious scientist is investigating the whereabouts of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In the review of the literature in a recent issue of The Auk (Vol. 100, No. 2) for example, there were 506 papers on Behavior and Vocalization, Ecology and Population, Evolution and Genetics, Feeding and Diet, General Biology, Migration and Orientation, Morphology, Paleontology, Pesticides, Taxonomy, etc., and not a single paper on the mysterious whereabouts of, or the estimated population of, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Preposterous!

And yet, the author's own research, and the many convincing communications he has received during the last 13 years, are conclusive evidence that there is a substantial population of the species, still thriving, and highly visible to those psychologically receptive, to seeing it, and that the species' range is perhaps wider today than it was two or three hundred years ago. In fact, using the same mathematical statistical formulae by which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently calculated the population of Falco peregrinus in North America at 21,000 (Shepherd, U.S. F. & W. Bull. 1983) one can easily extrapolate a continental population for Campephilus principalis (excluding Cuba) of 3,621!

The author is not the only collector of records of the species in recent years. Many museums and conservation organizations quite regularly receive reports. Dr. Richard C. Banks of the U.S. National Museum, following a newspaper report of the final demise of the species, received no less than 100 reports of sightings in just a few weeks; unhappily the file has disappeared, undoubtedly the work of some subversive group within the museum bent on perpetuating the extinction myth. The locations of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings from the author's own (partial) file will be found on Figure 1 (MAP). Place names have been omitted, to save overcrowding of the small-scale map, but are noted, along with observer, place, and full date, in Figure 2. A number of other sightings, reported by telephone, are not listed. However, the thirty-six sightings represented in both figures give a composite picture quite radically opposed to the official, published status of the species. Note that this list has sightings as recent as June, 1983, just one week prior to the deadline for this paper. And sightings will continue to come in, since the species is so widespread and individuals are so uniquely marked and highly visible.

FIGURE 2:

UNPUBLISHED RECENT SIGHTINGS OF THE IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER, 1966-1983.

1 Blacksburg, VA Nov., 1966 Glenn M. Cahilly
2 Santee-Cooper Swamp, SC ? Bob Manns
3 Santee Swamp, SC (Little Pee Dee River) June 1, 1968 Marjorie K. Long + 12
4 Central Florida 1967-69 N.G. Agey, G.S. Heinzmann
5 Cornersville, KY Fall, 1970 Joe Sparkman
6 Anniston, AL Feb., 1971 Maj. & Mrs. Wm. J. Kontur
7 Rte 319, E of Hosford, FL Mar. 7, 1971 G.K. Black
8 Greensburg, PA Apr. 25, 1971 Ray & Alice Laughead
9 Goshen, NY May 15, 1971 Geo. F. Weber
10 Tallahassee, FL 1972 Mrs. Michele Glenn
11 Dahlonega, GA Sept. 15, 1972 Lee Duval
12 Manning, SC Dec. 1972 Bessie Gerow
13 Astor, FL Apr. 1973 L.G. Willingham
14 Athens, GA 1974 Don Smith
15 Lake O' the Ozarks, Osage Beach, MO Nov. 1974, Feb. 28, 1978 Mrs. Lynn Brill & Leo Sawatski
16 Opelika, FL 1975 Frank Shields
17 Jackson, MS Jan., 1977 Mrs. Les Blaine
18 Marion County, AL Nov. 1978 (2) Nancy Wyers
19 Hillsborough River, Tampa, FL Jan. 22, 1978 Frank M. Greco
20 Baileys Crossroads, VA Feb. 10, 1979 Willard Walker
21 Caddo Lake, Jefferson, TX Mar. 1979 Mr. Walmsley
22 Bend, near Medford, OR May 3, 1979 Euleta O'Malley
23 Rte 57, Jackson, MS May 6, 1979 Lea Blaine
24 Pound Ridge, NY May 12, 1979 Pat Frankel
25 Bearce Island, Clinton, IA Oct. 24, 1979 John Whalen
26 Little Meadows, PA Nov. 18, 1979 John J. Selinsky
27 6 m. NW Ashville, NC Apr. 7, 1981 A.L. Barnett
28 Osage, AR Aug. 1, 1981 Sheila Sawyer
29 Silver Cliff, WI ? Mrs. H. Van Kirkvoorde
30 Sabine N.W.R., LA-TX Apr. 22, 1982 Mark Kossuth
31 "western NC" Oct. 13, 1982 Jeffery D. Weber
32 Gouldsboro, PA Nov. 3, 1982 H. Grenning
33 Corydon, IN Dec. 27, 1982 Steven Sheridan
34 Meridian, MS Feb., 1983 Tyler Wiggins
35 Warner Robbins, GA May, 1983 Billy F. Smith
36 Greenfield, MO June 1, 1983 Niki McKechnie

Verification remarks, excerpted from the personal communications in which these sightings were recorded, are also keyed to the map numbers. It should be noted that sightings numbers 3 and 4 have, in fact, been published several times, once in Aviculture Magazine, June, 1979, by John V. Dennis, who also reported on a sighting Nov. 11, 1974, 20 miles west of Baton Rouge, LA., and other sightings in Big Thicket, TX, 1966-1976, and in Florida in 1966. The Agey & Heinzmann observation was published in Florida Naturalist, 44 (3) 1971. These earlier sightings have been well documented, but they do add credence to our file of more recent reports.

3. "I am convinced that ... the bird may exist in the many remote wilderness areas of South Carolina. These areas are often inaccessible except by canoe or johnboat, and no one enters them but a few casual intruders ... or fishermen."

5. "Last fall l saw two of these giant Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, the first of these birds I had seen in several years. These birds are about the size of a medium frying chicken."

6. "Please be advised that my wife and I have located a near wilderness area, within which for about a year, we watched a family of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, not the Pileated variety, which are fairly common here. Please don't send any birdwatchers here."

8. "On this date at 6:30 AM. male Ivory-billed Woodpecker ... sited on dead sassafras tree, took flight of 100 ft. or more or less to dying Chinese elm. Then in exquisitely beautiful flight away to neighboring thicket. The white markings were guide to its identity."

10. "We were never absolutely certain it was an Ivory-billed or Pileated Woodpecker until just last month when the latter paid our backyard a visit. Comparing this bird with the bird we saw in Tallahassee, we immediately realized that our Tallahassee bird was a good deal larger with more white on its back ... it gives me great pleasure to verify my Tallahassee sighting."

11. "I should report a sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on our property here in north Georgia. My wife and I have-seen this bird several times this year ... there is no doubt that this is the bird. We have seen it from a distance of 10-15 feet."

12. (As reported by G.C. Carleton): "She was positive about white bands going back from the neck to big blocks of white, both on closed wings. She emphasized a broad, square-shouldered look as compared with the Pileated. She heard the birds, describing a high trumpet-like call. When I mentioned the Pileated, she said 'Oh, I have lots of them; their call is a deep kuk, kuk, kuk, kuk."'

14. "Yesterday I was out by my pool when a noise caused me to notice this large woodpecker ... with an ivory beak and large white areas on his wings that became even more pronounced when he flew. He was pulling away large areas of bark from a dead tree in the woods."

18. "This, in our considered opinion, is Not a Pileated. Since that first sighting we have seen the birds on two more occasions. It appears to be larger than any Pileated we have seen, its bill is definitely a light color, and its tail appear pointed when in flight."

22. "I was recently talking to a Mr. Walmsley that lives here on Caddo Lake. He claims be has definitely identified an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. There are several persons who have told me they have seen this bird. I understand there are very few left."

23. "I was alone except for my three year old grandchild Amy and she, Amy, even stared in awe at their lively antics about 50 feet away. She might be the only one in her generation to have seen one of these great birds."

24. "l and my husband are delighted to inform you that we saw in our yard, in Pound Ridge, New York, today, what we are convinced was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker."

25. "Although I am not even an amateur watcher I have always been interested in birds. I believe I saw one (a male) in late Aug. while fishing in a chain of inland water ways and dense forest known as Beaver Island located in the Mississippi River opposite Clinton, Iowa."

26. "Saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, noon, 11-18-79 near Little Meadows, Pa., large but weak, not able to fly."

27. "My wife and I saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in our back yard about 8 A.M. on 4-17-81. Standing upright on the side of an old pine about 60 ft. from our window. This bird was about 18 to 20 inches long ... the bird we saw had a solid bright red head."

28. "I believe this bird to be an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I have not reported this sighting until now because my husband does not wish anyone to come calling upon us in an effort to bundle me off to the booby hatch. After making a couple of phone calls, I realize that they have not been sighted by anyone else. Everyone thinks I am a candidate for the funny farm, but I will persevere."

29. "[The book] stated that any record of one is noteworthy and should be reported at once. I sighted one several months ago."

30. "He knows the Pileated and it was not that species. He saw the white bill, etc. Seems like an authentic record."

31. "The resulting transparency shows the Woodpecker in flight, with both wings down ... it clearly shows a large white area on the back of the wing nearest me. In addition, the large crest appeared completely black, possibly indicating that it was a female."

32. "I saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker this afternoon -- thought it was a hawk or eagle, but at closer glance I saw its red head and white feather wings. It was alone, came very close to me (20 ft.) but flew away when my dog moved."

33. "I am writing back to tell you that you are mistaken, and that the birds are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. I am positive of this beyond any doubt. My father has also seen one in May of this year (82)."

34. "I have recently read that the above-mentioned bird is extinct. I don't believe they are because I see two and three each day in my back yard."

36. "He was huge and when he flew away I noticed his white-tipped wing."

As a postscript. the author has discovered two equally, or perhaps even more startling records buried in this file. One is a lengthy report, followed by several more letters of documentation, from Mrs. Theodore Reischmann, of a multiple sighting of the Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, at Oakdale, Long Island, in 1971 - a record that extends the known survival of the species for at least 57 years. The second, dated Jan. 17, 1978, from Gerald Foster, of Orangeburg, S.C., reports witnessing in 1974 a flight of 8 Carolina Parakeets, Conuropsis carolinensis at the feeder of Mrs. Spiney, since deceased, in Edisto Beach, S.C. This sighting extends the known survival of that species some 60 years.

The ornithological world -- indeed all Americans -- should be thrilled to finally have proof that this magnificent creature the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long considered a secretive denizen of the most remote southern forests, is neither extinct, endangered, nor secretive, but a very widespread and conspicuous backyard bird over a range larger than ever previously reported!


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