Researchers from the National Aviary in Pittsburgh’s North Side are among a group of experts presenting new evidence to prevent the federal government from declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker as extinct.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating whether it will list the large, charismatic woodpecker that inhabits swampy bottomlands as extinct.
At stake are resources for protecting the birds, whose numbers were decimated by habitat destruction and collecting.
The aviary’s research effort, Project Principalis, continues the work of other researchers. It has amassed multiple images and sightings over 10 years. The researchers already have submitted an academic paper while preparing research for peer approval on what they say are ivory-billed woodpecker sightings at undisclosed sites in Louisiana.
“What separates the project from others is that it has been an ongoing effort for a decade with multiple people and sustained effort in one area,” said Mark Michaels, an aviary research associate and project co-founder. “As a result, we built up a body of evidence over years.”
Michaels said he went before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on July 22 and presented new drone footage that shows a “landing sequence when the bird is coming through a fairly open area. You can see it landing. When I reviewed the footage, I jumped out of my skin — it’s an ivorybill.”
Among other tools, Project Principalis researchers have been flying high-definition drones with wide-angle lenses to visually sweep the tree tops where the bird is known to feed in flooded-out Southeastern U.S. bottomlands rife with cottonmouths and wild hogs.
The images from Project Principalis are not clear, close-up images that critics and the public want, Michaels said.
Finding a nest is extremely hard because the birds are wary and scarce, and seem to spend a great amount of time high in the trees, he said. They also are fast fliers.
John Fitzpatrick, a former director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, told The Associated Press, “Nobody has gotten that cover-of-Time-magazine foldout that everybody wishes they could. But there is still legitimate believable evidence that these birds still exist in remote locations of Louisiana and Arkansas.”
Fitzpatrick referenced Project Principalis’ “interesting videos” of three large woodpeckers feeding together. The only U.S. woodpecker that foraged together in small groups was the ivory-billed woodpecker, he said.
Steven Latta, the aviary’s director of conservation and field research and co-author of the Project Principalis paper, said the team of researchers is grateful to present its evidence to the wildlife service.
“The ivorybill is perhaps the most iconic North American species. Its story has inspired countless people to engage in conservation and to work to ensure species and habitats are around for future generations,” he said.
In his statement to the wildlife agency, he said, “To give up on the ivory-billed woodpecker now, when the evidence for persistence exists, would be tragic.”