Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Campephilus principalis

Male, Drawing by J. J. Audubon
  • Woodpeckers
  • Piciformes
  • Carpintero Real
  • Pic à bec ivoire

In 2005, wildlife biologists announced that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker endured along the Cache River in Arkansas, but independent video analysis and a lack of further confirmed sightings have brought a deepening sense of disappointment. Its elegance and power reminded John James Audubon of Anthony Van Dyck's idealized portraits of European nobility, echoed in two of its other names, the log-god and the Lord-God Bird.

Female, drawing by J. J. Audubon
Appearance Description
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a large black and white woodpecker, weighing about 1.25 pounds and measuring 20 inches long with a 30.5 inch wingspan. In the Western Hemisphere, only Mexico's Imperial Woodpecker surpasses it in size. Males have a red crest; females have a black head and crest. White wing patches and a stripe down the side of its neck continuing down the back distinguish it from the Pileated Woodpecker, the only bird that could be confused with this species. Its large, chisel-tipped bill is ivory in color, in contrast with the Pileated's dark bill. The flight pattern resembles a duck's, rather than the undulating flight of other woodpeckers. Its drum is a single or double rap, and its alarm call, a "kent" or "hant," sounds like a toy trumpet repeated in a series or as a double note.
Range Distribution
This species historically inhabited the southeastern U.S. and parts of Cuba's main island, and these populations are considered separate races, or possibly even different species, according to a recent analysis. They never occurred in high densities. The Ivory-bill became increasingly restricted to smaller and smaller areas as habitat was destroyed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1908, it probably occurred only in Florida and Louisiana. The last confirmed Cuban sighting was in 1988 in the Sierra de Moa Mountains of eastern Cuba. The next-to-last known population in the US disappeared in 1948 when the Singer Tract in Louisiana was cleared for soybean production. In 2004 and 2005, single birds were reported in Arkansas. One bird was videotaped, and seven or so people reported observations of an Ivory-bill. However, the identity of the bird in the videotape has been questioned. Additionally, sound recordings of birds nearby are far enough apart to be separate individuals. However, these recordings cannot be definitively assigned to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As of 2007, the search continues in Arkansas, Florida, and in other parts of the bird's range.
The Ivory-bill prefers thick hardwood and cypress swamps and pine forests with lots of dead trees for nesting and feeding. In an extensive forest, typical trees include American elm, bald cypress, cabbage palmetto, green ash, red maple, sugarberry, sweet gum, and various pines. In Cuba, it inhabits both tropical hardwood and mixed lowland forests and montane pine forests. Areas that recently experienced forest fires are also inhabited by Ivory-bills because of the large number of dead trees. An estimated 16 square kilometers of mature forest is needed to support one pair.
Dead trees provide not only nesting cavities, but also food. The Ivory-bill removes bark by chipping it with its bill in repeated blows. The Ivory-bill leaves pits in trees similar to those created by Pileated Woodpeckers, but these lead to beetle larvae tunnels not carpenter ants. In parts of its range, this woodpecker forages on tree species like sweet gum and Nuttal's oak, more often than on others. Through these foraging methods it collects wood-boring insect larvae (long-horned and engraver beetles). It also consumes seeds (southern magnolia and poison ivy), berries, nuts (pecan and hickory), and fruits (grape, persimmon, and wild cherry).
This species breeds from January to April in the U.S. and from March to June in Cuba. In early January, nest holes are excavated in large dead trees or the soft parts of living trees. In Cuba, palm trees are used occasionally. 25-50 feet above the ground, holes are usually excavated under a branch or a branch stub, probably as a weather guard. Pairs are probably monogamous, and the courtship may include perching close together and then holding each other's bill. For an unknown period of time, a clutch of 3 or 4 white eggs is incubated by both parents, with males assuming sole responsibility at night. The hatchlings have not been described. Each adult feeds the young as many as 30 times every day, but that rate is cut in half as the nestlings age. Juvenile Ivory-billed Woodpeckers remain dependent for up to a year.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker does not migrate, but will wander over vast areas in search of dead and dying trees.
  • maybe 1, not more than a few
  • maybe 1, not more than a few
  • Endangered
Population Status Trends
By 1891, U.S. populations were confined to forests near the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Between 1934 and 1935, just under 100 observations were made in South Carolina's Santee River basin. An estimate in 1939 put the total population at less than 24, and since the late 1940's, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been little more than a rumor. After the mid 1990's, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was presumed extinct.
Conservation Issues
Habitat destruction drove the Ivory-billed Woodpecker toward and perhaps into extinction. In the southeastern U.S. almost every acre of mature bottomland forest was cleared for agricultural development and timber. In fact, in 1948 when the Singer Tract in Louisiana was cleared for cultivating soybeans, the next-to-the-last known population of Ivory-bills in the U.S. probably went with it. The Cuban population suffers from the same threats. There, habitat was cleared for lumber, sugar plantations, and charcoal-burning. The remaining Cuban forest tracts that were known to support Ivory-bills are probably too degraded to maintain a population. This species also experienced dire persecution. For example, in Cuba, it was hung outside homes to prevent witchcraft. In the United States, it was also shot for its beauty, its feathers for human adornment, scientific study, food, and a souvenir trade in woodpecker heads and beaks.

The first step to helping this bird is to determine if any more exist. In 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as Endangered, but until 2005, the bird was presumed extinct, and no conservation was in action. The announced rediscovery in Arkansas' Big Woods launched a massive search effort that included dozens of trained field observers, remote sensors, and remote recorders. Building on the already existing Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the "Corridor of Hope" is now planned to protect the Big Woods, a forest tract measuring roughly 20 by 120 miles. The U.S. Department of the Interior released a Draft Recovery Plan in August of 2007. The effort to relocate and confirm the sightings of the Ivory-bill were intense in 2006/2007 and extended to locations in northern Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Sadly, no verifiable, unequivocal evidence has been produced. If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker does persist, it will need what Americans took from it: a place to live.
What You Can Do
If you are in deep forest of the southeastern United States, keep your eyes open for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Be sure to carry a camera because documentation of all sightings will be required. Be aware that Pileated Woodpeckers look a lot like Ivory-bills and are common. You can learn more about what you can do through the Cornell Lab for Ornithology , which leads part of the search.

If you are in the White and Cache River portions of Arkansas, please follow all guidelines designed to protect the Ivory-bill and other treasures of the region. Report any encounters to the Cornell web site above.

Support the preservation and rehabilitation of North America's bottomland forests. In 2003, after 34 years of effort by individuals and conservation groups, the Congaree National Park  was established southeast of Columbia, South Carolina. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is assumed to have inhabited the old growth forest in this park, also designated as an Important Bird Area, and in 2006 wildlife biologists enlisted the public to look and listen for the Ivory-bill. 

Find out about actions you can take to help birds, including taking part in Audubon programs and activities.
More Information
Read about the differences between the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the very common Pileated Woodpecker at  www.audubon.org/bird/ivory/differences .

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources.
Natural History References
Jackson, J. A. (2002). Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Accessed 15 August 2007.
Conservation Status References
BirdLife International (2007) Species factsheet: Campephilus principalis. Accessed 15 August 2007.

Jackson, J. A. (2002). Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Accessed 15 August 2007.