Winged Mystery

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on October 9th, 2006

Winged Mystery
A woodpecker considered the Holy Grail of bird-watchers could be in Pearl River Basin
Sunday, October 08, 2006
By Jenny Hurwitz

For nearly half a century, Susan Epps has been haunted by the specter of an ivory-billed bird.

She claimed her first sighting in 1958, at age 10, while scouting the fringes of a state park near St. Martinville. It darted into a tree: an oversized woodpecker with a telltale white beak, a ringer for the famous one she had scrutinized relentlessly in her birding books.

Her father said she’d made a mistake; the mythic, ivory-billed woodpecker had disappeared from Louisiana at the turn of the century, after loggers drove it from its natural habitat among old-growth hardwood forests, and into extinction.

But Epps was unconvinced. She has been searching ever since.

"It’s been this thing in my life — this gap, this missing part of me," she said. "I wanted to see it again."

A legend among scientists for its oft-disputed history and striking features, the ivory-billed woodpecker remains one of nature’s most elusive species, a mystery that has evaded even the most fervent bird-watchers for the past 60 years.

Despite repeated claims from ornithologists and bird watchers — and a pair of university-led sightings in Arkansas and Florida — the scientific community remains staunchly divided over the question of the ivory bill’s existence.

"It almost has a Bigfoot association," said Auburn University ornithologist Geoffrey Hill, who warned that skepticism runs high among ivory bill enthusiasts. One false move, and "you can get cast as a amateur."

Epps, a resident of Diamondhead, Miss., and fellow birder Michael Collins, of Washington, D.C., contend they saw one flit across their path just days ago, as they combed the forest in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area.

"You don’t need a Ph.D. to identify this bird," said Collins, an avid bird watcher who, in fact, holds a doctorate in mathematics from Northwestern University. "It’s an easy bird to identify."

But as hobbyists in a highly competitive and occasionally petty field, where careers have been ruined by ivory bill allegations, their sightings mean little to a dubious academic community.

"It’s an exciting experience, but it’s not something you can rejoice about or share," Epps said of the recent sighting "It just felt like, ‘OK, I’m going to go tell people I saw it, and they’re going to think I’m a nut case.’ "

Illusive sightings

Louisiana bird-watchers have long suspected the bird’s existence in the Pearl River Basin, a swamp and forested reserve that straddles the Mississippi state line.

In 1999, Louisiana State University forestry student David Kulivan inspired a full-fledged expedition after he reported seeing a pair while turkey hunting. That search proved fruitless, however, yielding only some possible nesting cavities and stripped bark patterns that could indicate the presence of the bird.

Since then, experts have turned their attention to other Southern states — and found varying degrees of success.

In 2004, researchers from Cornell University announced they had rediscovered the ivory bill in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. And last year, during a small-scale search led by Auburn professor Hill, woodpeckers were spotted along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle.

But each announcement unleashed a steady stream of criticism, skepticism and disbelief. Neither yielded what scientists had most desired: a clear-cut photograph, video or nesting cavity.

Cornell’s best evidence consisted of a blurry video, which experts continue to dispute. Even Hill, who says he saw the bird with his own eyes in Florida, admits his findings fell short.

"Sight records are never definitive proof," he said. "We don’t claim proof — no one’s had it since 1944," when the bird’s existence was last verified.

Pursuit persists

Oddly enough, the ivory bill isn’t subtle-looking or particularly quiet, making its obscurity even more puzzling. Dubbed "the Lord God bird" for its elegance and stature, the woodpecker is crow-sized and conspicuous, jet black with white wing markings. Males sport a pointy, red crown, while female caps are black.

It also has a distinctive rap — two, quick knocks — and a call that sounds like the plaintive bleat of a tin horn.

But the ivory bill is also skittish and shy, which makes capturing it on film difficult. In an added twist, it is often confused with the pileated woodpecker, a smaller, squatter species common to the South with a grayish beak and thicker neck.

Additionally, the question of Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the population remains largely unanswered, although experts say the severe deforestation in both Louisiana and Mississippi probably had some impact.

"It’s a mixed bag for birds," Hill said. "They will not stay in an area with no canopy cover. But then, lots of dead trees means lots of beetles, which means lots of food."

The ivory bills use their chisel-like beaks to drill through tree bark and feast on beetle larvae that cling just below the surface.

The swaths of felled trees across the region have led to a banner year for beetles, which are drawn to damaged or stressed trees.

Still, researchers have not given up on their quest for absolute proof. On the local front, Epps and Collins plan to continue scouring the Pearl in hopes that their efforts will win greater protection for the wilderness they believe is serving as home to the endangered species.

Collins, who has recorded 12 sightings in the past year, intends to return in the winter, after hunting season, when the forest is still.

Hill is launching a second Florida search in December, armed with a bigger team and time-lapse cameras. They hope to check every cavity they come across for evidence of nesting.

But even with more manpower and better technology, nothing is certain; the quest will still depend on the finicky patterns of a creature that has eluded scientists for decades.

"We’ve just got to get lucky," he said.

Source: The Times-Picayune

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.

19 Responses to “Winged Mystery”

  1. Sky King responds:

    “It was driven from its habitat, therefore it’s extinct.”

    I’m always bemused by this not-so-well reasoned argument. Like they’re too stupid to go somewhere else.

  2. Ceroill responds:

    As I recall the old rationale about the Ivory Bill, supposedly it was considered incapable of adapting to any other envrionment, due to a very picky diet. Something about insects that themselves could only be found under the bark of certain very old trees. Hence the apparent need for old growth forest to support the Ivory Bill. I even seem to remember it being phrased as Virgin Forest. Meaning untouched by loggers and developers.

  3. joppa responds:

    I commented on this sometime back, I’ve seen Ivory Bills in the Okeefeenokie in South Georgia back in the mid 80’s. I was a park ranger for Georgia DNR, and was told to keep it quiet; the birds are soooo skittish that any unwanted human contact will disrupt their nesting and mating habits. It seems that the “experts” won’t believe they exist until a stuffed on ends up on their desks.

  4. One Eyed Cat responds:

    All the fuss does sound familiar.

  5. kittenz responds:

    Of course there IS a difference between the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker situation and Bigfoot: the bird’s former existence is undisputed (although its possible continued existence has raised controversy). There are preserved specimens and ample documentation. Bigfoot’s existence, on the other hand, is more problematic. Despite thousands of reported sightings, there really isn’t any concrete, unambiguous evidence to confirm the existence of Bigfoot.

    Hopefully that will change soon.

  6. MojoHotep responds:

    If there were not a similar species such as the Pileated Woodpecker this situation would have been resolved long ago. The last Ivory Bill I saw in the field, pretty much shocked me. At first, I looked up and thought to myself, “wow, that’s a pretty big Pileated Woodpecker”. Then, I stopped in my tracks when I realized it had a white bill. I did a double take, I checked out the wings, still an ivory bill. He was on the side of a large tree, not thirty feet away, I stood in complete amazement. Then, I said to myself, “nah, can’t be, wrong place” and I got back in my truck and drove off. In hindsight, I realize now, that it was an Ivory Bill and I wasn’t having some type of episodic break. But I convinced myself that it could not be what it was, because the experts tell us what we can believe and what we cannot believe. I have been an avid birder since 1968, I was flying hawks in 1978, I have a degree in biology and more time in the field than a whole lot of experts. But I convinced myself that I wasnt seeing something that was right in front of me. Because there is a bird called the pileated woodpecker. How many people have seen an ivory bill and were told or convinced themselves that it was a pileated. I think a bunch.

    When I was in the last year of my degree I had to spend quite a bit of time in the field with a professor doing ecology field studies. This professor decided to take it on herself to convince me that I had not witnessed a whole lot of wildlife events that I had actually seen take place in the wild. I grew up in the woods and swamps. I had seen alot of things that the books said did not or could not happen. Yet, I had seen them take place. I think alot of this attitude still prevails in the wildlife and biology community at times. It is sad, really, because the “Amateur Public” is quite often the first to see something new or different from the norm.

    Sky King said:
    “I’m always bemused by this not-so-well reasoned argument. Like they’re too stupid to go somewhere else.”

    I agree 100%. I don’t buy the argument either.

    One similarity to the bigfoot situation is that it is gonna take a dead one to convince the naysayers.

  7. joppa responds:

    Well, hey there is concrete evidence that bigfoot “existed”. However the evidence is several million years old.

  8. shovethenos responds:

    Despite thousands of reported sightings, there really isn’t any concrete, unambiguous evidence to confirm the existence of Bigfoot.

    It depends on whether you consider unidentified DNA and metals content analysis from hair samples “concrete, unambiguous evidence”. Since this is scientific evidence and it coincides with the sightings – location, description, etc. – I tend to think it is.

  9. youcantryreachingme responds:

    Amen, MojoHotep! I applaud your comment!

    I’m in a semi-similar situation myself. When I was a kid I used to catch cicadas here in Sydney, Australia. On school holidays my family took us to the country where there were some absolute monster cicadas. I was always amazed at how they dwarfed the Sydney varieties.

    Now, twenty years later, I happen to pick up a copy of Australian Geographic which happens to feature a special on Australia’s largest insects. There, the cicada is magnificently illustrated at life-size as being the largest in this country. But it’s only as big as what you catch in Sydney.


    Oh well, the magazine must have got it wrong – and I leave it at that.

    A few months on again – just this weekend in fact – and I find myself at the Australian museum. A poster reminds me to ask about those cicadas. Sure enough – the largest they know about are your Sydney varieties.

    Now – I never doubted my own memory of the size of these cicadas – because I recall comparing them to Sydney cicadas and thinking they were nearly double the size – but I just assumed the magazine had to have made some mistake (mind you, it’s a good quality magazine).

    So it turns out I may have in fact found Australia’s monster cicada. After my road trip these upcoming summer holidays (winter, stateside) … and if I can find them again … I’ll let you all know 😀


  10. youcantryreachingme responds:

    I’m waiting for the passenger pigeon sightings to begin 😀

  11. mystery_man responds:

    I think there are a lot of very good field observations made by amateurs and as stated in previous comments, it’s a shame when the experts lead them to believe they must be crazy or tell them what and what not to believe. I’m sure there have been some good observations done that have never come to light because the observer was an amateur and felt afraid to come forward with their finding. Being a biology teacher myself, I always listen to my students with a careful and nurturing ear when they come to me with unusual things they have seen out in the field. Yeah, maybe they are mistaken, but they deserve to be listened to. As MojoHotep said, often amateurs are the first to find things and often their fresh, not overly regimented and jargon filled brain can give a fresh take on the situation. Amateur field biologists should be given an ear, not made to feel afraid to come forward with what could very well be the find of the century.

  12. JRC responds:

    “Well, hey there is concrete evidence that bigfoot “existed”. However the evidence is several million years old.”

    Well not really. Gigantopithecus (to which I think you are referring) was not bi-pedal. Sasquatch supposedly is. I have never liked this notion that giganto was or is bigfoot. Giganto was a giant ape not a bipedal hominid.

  13. joe levit responds:

    This idea of preconcieved notions can work against amateurs and professionals alike. I have read many reports of people convincing themselves they were not witnessing what was really there, because either they assume it is something else that could in some way be close to the object seen, or they do not want to deal with the implications of such a discovery. Denial is a powerful agent, and often is used as some form of personal protection.

    It makes perfect sense for many people to convince themselves they have seen a Pileated woodpecker rather than an Ivory-Billed. In the same light, thunderbirds become storks, cranes, herons or oversized turkey vultures, and bigfoot, especially from a distance, becomes a bipedal bear, or simply humans in dark clothes or a ghillie suit.

  14. MattBille responds:

    A few somewhat disjointed thoughts:

    For what it’s worth, the best scientific writer ever on UFOs, J. Allen Hynek, wrote that most witnesses tried very hard to fit a sighting into some recognized category before deciding they had seen something unidentifiable. That does not mean the “convinced UFO” witnesses were right – even Hynek agreed most of them were still wrong – but it does matter as an illustration of human psychology. [The applicability of the analogy is somewhat limited because we know what an ivory-bill is supposed to look like (and, in more general terms, what a bigfoot is supposed to look like), while a UFO is, by definition, something that does NOT look like anything we know of.]

    It’s interesting that most of us who have been in the crypotozoology business, even armchair researchers like myself, know someone who is convinced they saw an ivory-bill, and often a very good witness.

    The bigfoot comparison comes up a lot in ivory-bill literature, and in a lot of ways it fits. In one critical way, though, it does not: there is no question the ivory-bill did live in North America decades ago. That an ape big enough to account for sasquatch sightings lived on another continent hundreds of millions of years ago is not the same at all when it comes to making current sightings plausible. The standard of proof is, and should be, higher for sasquatch. That said, the standard of proof some experts demand for the ivory-bill is unreasonably high, darn close to what they would demand for a sasquatch.

    Matt Bille

  15. kittenz responds:

    shovethenos Says:
    “It depends on whether you consider unidentified DNA and metals content analysis from hair samples “concrete, unambiguous evidence”. Since this is scientific evidence and it coincides with the sightings – location, description, etc. – I tend to think it is.”

    That evidence still can’t be conclusively tied to any creature that we can definitely say is Bigfoot. Until it can be definitely associated with a known creature, it remains ambiguous evidence.

    That’s why we need to actually capture one and get biological samples, or to find a dead one reasonably fresh and intact. Notice I did not say “Bag a dead one”. Modern biological research methods methods don’t require the sacrifice of a rare, sentient creature.

  16. shovethenos responds:


    Well the metals content analysis of the alleged Yeren hair sample goes farther – those analyzing the results said they indicated “unknown primate”. That tends to cut down on the “ambiguity”. I know mainstream science and the mainstream media have a mental block and herd mentality when it comes to this, but this approaches the ridiculous. One could say there is more hard evidence for some cryptid hominids than the Ivory Bill. Especially since the Pileated is so similar in appearance.

  17. MattBille responds:

    Not to get off track, but on the hair samples – those are all Yeren, right? Applicability to any species in North America is just speculation.

    Matt Bille

  18. JRC responds:

    If the DNA is unknown then the genus and species would also be unknown. Therefore they cannot and should not say that the hair is from an unknown “primate”. There is no way to tell if the hair is from a primate or not.

    If I provide two hair samples. One from my own head and one from some unknown source, and you have the DNA analyzed, they will be able to tell you that my hair came from a human only because they have a DNA record for human hair. The unknown sample may come back unknown but there would be no way to tie it to a primate without the adequate history to compare it to. It may be primate “like” but that’s it. The primate-ness of the samples is pure conjecture on the part of the “experts” performing the tests.

  19. Raptorial responds:

    Trust me, I’ve seen a pair of thunderbirds before. I tried and tried to tell myself that they were big turkey vultures, but what I saw definitely wasn’t any turkey vulture.

Sorry. Comments have been closed.

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