A three-year expedition into undisclosed Louisiana forests, in the south of the USA, has captured images of birds via unmanned trail cameras and drones that the scientists claim are ivory-billed woodpeckers. They also say that every scientist in the team had encounters with the species and heard its call.


In their online preprint, a pre-published version of a scientific paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed, the researchers have argued that the images definitely do not show other woodpecker species, such as the pileated or red-headed woodpecker.

No images have been taken of the species with conventional cameras during the hours spent on this search or previous searches.

Two grainy images showing birds on a tree trunk. Caption underneath says Trail camera photos taken within 50 m of one another on 30 November 2019 (top), and 1 October 2021 (bottom) of apparent Ivory-billed Woodpeckers showing a prominent white saddle present on the lower part of the folded wings. The image from 30 November is extracted fro the “video” clip composed of trail cam photographs taken at 5-sec intervals and presented as Supplemental Movie S1.
Figure 1 from the preprint.

The authors say that despite "more than a dozen high-quality observations of ivory-billed woodpeckers" by “skilled reliable observers”, these sightings are not included in the paper due to lack of photographic evidence.

The audio data collected from automated recording units was not included “because of the nature of the known sounds of ivory-billed woodpeckers, auditory evidence of the presence of this species is unlikely to be generally persuasive.”

Once common in the US, the ivory-billed woodpecker was (or is) the larger woodpecker species in the US, which feed on insects in recently deceased trees. The males have a large red crest on their heads, and the females have a black crest.

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The species was a very shy bird, and thought to have a vast home range that may have varied seasonally.

Numbers dropped due to human activities in their habitat, including deforestation and overhunting for food, and for their feathers as they became increasingly rare and thus valuable to collectors.

The last universally accepted sighting of the species in the USA was in 1944 in Louisiana, although there have been a number of reports since then. There was a sighting of the Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, a subspecies, in Cuba in 1987.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared as extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2021, along with 22 other animal species. It is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and was last assessed in 2020.


Main image: Antique illustration of the ivory-billed woodpecker. © Getty


Megan ShersbyNaturalist, writer and content creator