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Is the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Really Extinct?

Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1826, by John James Audubon, watercolor, accession number 1863.17.066
©Collection of The New-York Historical Society

There have been no documented sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker - the largest woodpecker in the United States - since the 1940s. They were a spectacular species with a 20 inch length and 30 inch wing span.

Hope has lingered that they might still survive in the southern United States, or even Cuba, but "sightings" have usually been ascribed to the similar, wide-spread, Pileated Woodpecker. (See John Audubon's depictions for comparison.)

A recent report in 1999 was persuasive enough to send an international team into Louisiana's Pearl River Wildlife Management Area and adjacent woodlands this winter to comb the protected area. Pileated Woodpecker, by John James Audubon, watercolor, accession number 1863.17.111
©Collection of The New-York Historical Society

After a month long search, by late February there was no conclusive proof that the Ivory-Bill still exists. There was an oddment, however, that keeps hope alive:

In January, members of the search team heard a series of double raps characteristic of the Ivory-Billed, and none other. A Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reearch team heard it, too, in the same area, as did others. Although there were possible nesting cavities in the area, the bird was not seen, nor did investigators hear its call.

Hope remains for this most spectacular of American birds. Cornell Lab has left recording devices in the woods.

SOURCES: "Searchers Say Rare Woodpecker Was Possibly Heard," by James Gorman, The New York Times, February 21, 2002, page A16; "Biology: Encouraging Signs But No Woodpecker," Science News, March 2, 2002, Vol. 161, page 141.

For a list of lost species and the last date they were reliably seen, visit:

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