48" x 62" unframed
© SHELLEY HESSE 2020
No bird on earth has received quite the level of attention that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has. Audubon called it “God’s bird” and ornithologists around the world have searched for it much like the holy grail of birds. Since its presumed extinction, many mourned its loss, while many others went out to prove that its species was diminished to so few birds, that those who did survive in the wild simply went into hiding.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is the largest of the woodpeckers north of Mexico and the third largest in the world. It is 20 to 22 inches long, with a 30 inch wing-span. The males usually measuring at 22 inches and the females at 20 inches. The males have the distinct red head, while the female’s head is black, though the crest is more pronounced and generally reaches higher than the male’s. It is a bird of old-growth forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba. Destruction of its habitat caused severe population declines in the 1800s, and only very few numbers survived into the 20th century. It was believed to have gone extinct in the middle of the 20th century, but was rediscovered in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas in 2004 with several sightings, though it has not been officially located since. The Ivory-bill is a dweller of treetops and sunshine, not the shade, and is known by all who love it by its distinct “kent” calls.
The preferred food of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is beetle larvae, though they will also eat acorns, pecans, hickory nuts, poison ivy seeds, hackberries, and magnolia cones. To hunt wood-boring grubs, the Ivory-bill uses its bill to hammer, wedge, and peel the bark off of dead trees. They are capable of boring a 6 inch hole in less than a minute. They mate for life and both parents share the task of incubating the eggs as well as building and protecting the nest. Ivory- billed woodpeckers are not migratory, and pairs were frequently observed to nest within a few hundred yards of previous nests year after year.
Michael Collins, a bird-watcher, mathematician, and acoustics researcher with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory argues that the Ivory-bill still persists in the forested swamps of Louisiana and Florida. Collins collected video footage while stationed at the Stennis Space Center between 2005 and 2013. Working in his free time, with no outside funding, he kayaked solo through the swamps of Pearl River along the Mississippi-Louisiana border with a camera fixed to his paddle, collecting a total of 1,500 hours of footage. There is a global refusal to accept his findings and those of trained ornithologists who all claim to have seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker alive and well. Many believe it is because the habitat of the Ivory-bill and so many other beautiful birds deserves much better protection from clear-cutting, dredging, and climate change. By admitting that the Ivory-bill is indeed alive, it forces the issue of further environmental protection to an area that is already struggling.