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Environment & Energy

Pittsburgh researcher part of a team documenting the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker

ivory-billed woodpecker
Project Principalis
This image shows, from left to right, an apparent Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the study site; a colorized Ivory-billed Woodpecker photo taken in 1935; a Pale-billed Woodpecker from Central America; and an Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the study site.

Once thought to be extinct, the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker has been documented by researchers with Pittsburgh ties.

Steven Latta, director of conservation and field research at the National Aviary and Project Principalis, along with scientists from around the U.S., spent three years in Louisiana tracking the black, white and red ivory-billed woodpecker.

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“I was just fixated, almost mesmerized,” Latta said of his first encounter with the bird. “Frankly, I was left visibly shaken. And moved, of course.”

His awe is understandable. The last widely accepted documentation of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1944. Since then, it’s been seen so infrequently that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to declare the species extinct last year. That could change with Latta’s team’s findings, which have yet to be peer reviewed.

“We have photos and videos from 2019 through late 2021 depicting apparent ivory-billed woodpeckers, including a group of three woodpeckers foraging together,” Latta said. “[Since 1944] there’s been an occasional single photograph or short video, but nothing compared to the quantity and quality of data that we’re presenting now.”

The woodpeckers prefer wet, swampy bottomland forests in the American Southeast. Latta said they generally require mature forests full of big, old trees.

Project Principalis - in the field .jpg
Project Principalis
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The team in the swampy forests of Louisiana.

“They feed on very recently dead or dying trees, hardwood trees, and especially species that have what we call very tight bark, so that they’re not so old and dead that the bark is falling off.”

The bird’s chisel-like beak strikes the tree somewhat sideways to strip off the bark, a technique in the scientific community called “scaling.” Unlike woodpeckers that might be found in Pennsylvania, the ivory-billed woodpecker does a “double knock.” It’s a big, loud knock followed by a lighter, softer tap. Its call has been compared to a “child’s tin horn,” a nasally noise.

The woodpecker's demise, Latta said, was largely due to deforestation and loss of habitat. But the birds' bills have also historically been a commodity to collectors over the years.

“As things get more and more rare, they become more and more valuable,” Latta said.

Despite decreasing population, Latta said he hopes his team’s findings can encourage conservation efforts for the ivory-billed woodpecker. In observing the birds, researchers used drones, trail cameras and small recording devices. They were able to fly above the tree canopy to track the ranges of birds and help them understand how far away from their roost they might travel and why. They also used environmental DNA testing to determine if the woodpecker had, at one point, been in different parts of a forest.

Ultimately, Latta said human researchers on the ground are just as important as technology. Plus, seeing the woodpecker is an incredible experience.

“There’s this almost suspension of belief that, you know, ‘oh my gosh, that’s an ivory-billed woodpecker!’” Latta said. “The instinct is not to go through your binoculars or go for your camera. It’s to watch the bird and this magic that’s unfolding in front of you.”

The methodologies Latta’s team used during their time in Louisiana can also translate to future projects, he said.

“Our findings start to tell a larger story, not just about the ivory-billed woodpecker and the fact that it persists in Louisiana, but about how it has survived and why that survival has been so difficult to document and what we can do to ensure its survival into the future.”