Story and photos by Judd Brink
Owner, MN Backyard Birds
One of the rarest birds in North America is known as “Lord God Bird,” “Grail Bird,” “Ghost Bird” or, by its common name, the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). It was thought to be extinct for nearly 60 years until recent sightings started to surface in the early 1990s. But it was officially rediscovered in 2004.
If the bird still exists today it may only be found in very small remote old growth swamps such as the Everglades found in Florida or other secluded areas. Historically the ivory-billed woodpecker was found from Cuba to southeastern states in the U.S. The ivory-billed is larger than our backyard visitor the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), having an ivory colored bill with large white patches on the wings. Preferred habitat includes old growth cypress, tupelo and oaks among others found in the bottomland hardwoods of the south. Ivory-billed woodpeckers feed on beetle larvae from dead or dying trees that are still standing. Since 2004 research teams have gathered to find and document any evidence but not a single photograph has captured its presence. It might be one of most well-known, rarest birds in the world. Extremely shy birds that avoid most human activity makes for difficult relocation of any sightings.
Early studies of the ivory-billed woodpecker took place in 1924 by Cornell researchers. One of the pioneers was ornithologist Arthur Allen who observed one pair in Florida that year. The first ever documented sound recordings were captured in hopes of studying rare birds including the ivory-billed. Today the recording is still used in research. In 1935 Allen and James Tanner led the first large expeditions into the old growth Singer Tract in Louisiana that was about 81,000 acres in size. The owners of the land belonged to the Singer sewing company which at that time was the largest private forest in the south. Tanner spent two years here from 1937-1939 studying ivory-billed woodpeckers. Tanner estimated there to be 22-24 left in the U.S. and the only birds he found were at this location. Unfortunately the famous Singer Tract was sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company where it was logged despite efforts in trying to save the last stronghold for the ivory-billed woodpecker. In 1943 back at the now-logged Singer Tract, a single bird was found surrounded by destruction. A year later an artist named Don Eckelberry went back and re-found the single bird and spent two weeks watching and sketching. It’s now the last accepted sighting.
In February 2011 I was invited to participate in an ivory-billed woodpecker search team in Louisiana. As an avid birder for nearly 30 years it was an honor and privilege to take part in this experience. The team spent five days in the swamps and bottomland hardwood forests at several National Wildlife Refuges during the trip. We also met with other search teams, and one team member told us of her encounter over dinner as she witnessed the bird go across one of the trails she was on. Our searches started very early in the morning as we tried to be on the trail, ready to walk and search. We walked many miles each day through some old growth forest but much of the habitat was second growth or young forest. Seeing some of the big trees gave us the sense of what it must have looked like in the 1940’s. So, after hearing of the many years of searching I just had to ask the question: why hasn’t anyone gotten a credible photograph yet? Well, it was explained to me as if someone saw a ghost. They simply froze and in shock, forgetting to take the photo. From what I have heard these encounters or observations are very brief, only seconds before the bird disappears in the dark swamp. We were obviously looking for the bird by sight and sound but we also looked for clues that would indicate its presence. Ivory-billed woodpeckers feed by stripping or peeling off the bark to look for beetle larvae. We also looked for any large oval tree cavities that could be used for nesting especially in the larger trees in good habitat. I still keep in touch with one search team member who still is on the trail and continues to follow up on any reports received. I still believe that someone will eventually come forward with an authentic photograph and accurate documentation of the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Happy Birding!
Judd Brink is the owner of MN Backyard Birds in the Brainerd Lakes area. MN Backyard Birds provides birdscaping for home owners and businesses to attract and enjoy more colorful songbirds. The business was recently featured on Kare 11 news with Belinda Jensen and MN Bound with Ron Schara. For more information about birdscaping or a free backyard consultation visit our new website birdminnesota.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org