Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Aviary researchers say Ivory-billed woodpecker is endangered, not extinct

A collage of Ivory-billed woodpecker images, both old and new.
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.

A new study from researchers with Pittsburgh’s National Aviary suggests there is hope for the Ivory-billed woodpecker.

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Evolution, the group detailed over a decade of evidence they say showed the bird in its native, bottomland habitat in the southeastern United States.

Steve Latta, the report’s lead author and the director of conservation and field research at the National Aviary, said the collection could help keep the black, red and white species on the endangered species list.

The National Fish and Wildlife Service has considered whether to declare the bird extinct since 2021, though it has yet to announce its decision.

“Our hope is that in documenting the persistence of these birds — despite all the odds that they have faced — that we will inspire other people to care about not only the Ivory-billed [woodpecker], but all of the other species that rely on bottomland forests,” Latta said, “and also the many other threatened and endangered species that require our attention.”

Alongside citizen scientists in Louisiana's wetlands, Latta and other researchers collected what they believe to be audio, video and photographic evidence of the species’ persistence after nearly 100 years of critical endangerment.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker experienced rapid decline in the late 1800s when the rise of the lumber industry led to habitat loss, in addition to widespread hunting and collecting.

While there have been occasional reported sightings of the bird over the last several decades, the last universally accepted record of the American subspecies occurred in 1944. (The last confirmed sighting of the Cuban subspecies occurred in the 1980s.) Still, its persistence remains the focus of debate among ornithologists.

“The standard of evidence for documenting rare birds, and especially for documenting that Ivory-billed woodpecker, has become quite high in the ornithological community,” Latta explained. “There's been many reports — credible reports — by well-respected ornithologists. But those sightings are not verified, and so they're not enough to meet these very high standards.”

Even for those who say they were able to capture evidence of the bird, it’s hard to do so up close. They prefer swampy old-growth forests where they typically sit high in the forest canopy and out of sight. Field researchers’ recording of the bird’s calls are faint, and the photos are admittedly grainy.

But Latta and the papers other authors say there is hope for the Ivory-billed woodpecker: forests that were clearcut in the early 1900s are regrowing, which the team is hopeful will give the Ivory-billed woodpecker a better chance at survival.

“This bird is iconic, and it represents fragility and conservation, “Latta said. “And it represents hope for endangered species.”.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first announced its intention to declare the Ivory-billed woodpecker extinct in 2021, though it has delayed formal action multiple times to allow for public comment.

Latta said classifying the species as extinct would strip it of protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, “especially in terms of habitat and direct persecution.”

“The [possible] removal of the Ivory-billed from the endangered species list should make us collectively redouble our efforts to save species and to protect their habitats,” he added.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.