In September of 2021, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the removal of twenty-three species from the Endangered Species Act. This decision would effectively declare these animals as no longer endangered by way of extinction. The most famous creature on this list by far is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Sometimes referred to as the “Lord God Bird,” the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has become a sort of conservation Bigfoot. Birders, ornithologists, researchers, and even cryptozoologists have hunted desperately for sightings of this bird since its last confirmed sighting in 1944. When the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was finally declared extinct, the decision was hotly contested by the many, including hopefuls who claim to have sighted the long missing bird.
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The Return of the Ivories?
Now, a new research paper claims to have located and documented a small reclusive population of the supposedly extinct woodpecker. The paper, which is in pre-print at the time of writing and has not yet been peer-reviewed, claims to have documented several Ivory-billed Woodpeckers using trail cameras which were set to record tracts of Louisiana’s bottomland hardwood forests. Bottomland hardwoods are the known habitat of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and, in fact, it is thought that the shrinking of these types of habitats has been the primary contributor to the vanishing of the species.
It was in a similar habitat in Louisiana that the last widely accepted sighting occurred in 1944. Since then, sightings such as the 2004 sightings in Arkansas, have occasionally reignited hopes but have largely remained fruitless.
This most recent study includes several photographs with comparisons to the older accepted photographs of Ivory-bills before their apparent disappearance. The photographs, according to the paper, have been digitally edited for brightness and contrast, however the shapes of the alleged Ivory-bills in them are unedited.
Extinct or on the Brink?
If you’re looking for absolute proof that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still alive on this earth, the photos in this new study are bound to disappoint you. They are blurry, distant, and indistinct, even with the digital enhancements that were apparently performed. Does that mean that they aren’t credible? Certainly not. The scientists involved in this study have managed to do what so many sightings have done over the course of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s long and largely disheartening saga: inspire just enough hope to keep the flame lit.
The study is unreviewed, but seems largely convincing. It is not, however, decisive. For many who have followed the decades and decades of searches and sightings that this woodpecker has inspired, this is simply a fresh reminder of an old wound. For others, though, it is proof that nature is mighty enough to persist in the quiet untouched places which have become so scarce on this planet. Do Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still exist? The answer is still a matter of personal judgment without conclusive evidence. Many will find that this study provides evidence enough, others will liken it to past sightings which amounted to nothing.
In any case, the fate of the Ivory-bills who may remain in the southern United States is in the hands of mankind. If, in the ensuing years, more Ivory-bills are recorded, then it will only be through intense conservation that they may be preserved. We may never get the chance to reacquaint ourselves with this lost species, however, we can still return the mighty California Condor to the skies. We can still preserve the Monarch Butterfly whose population has sunk rapidly over the past twenty years. No matter the fate of the Ivory-bills, conservation is never a lost cause. Just like the Peregrine Falcon whose numbers have recovered spectacularly over the last few decades, dwindling species can be preserved through dedicated conservation. In the future, it is of paramount importance that we learn to covet and protect nature’s creatures before they become legends.
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