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The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Escapes the Extinct List Again — But Are They Really Out There?

Bottomland swamp forest

In 2021, eleven birds were chosen by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as candidates to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Removal from the list of endangered birds is often cause for celebration; a signal that conservation efforts have borne fruit and that precariously positioned populations have recovered to a position of relative stability. For these eleven species, though, removal from the ESA was a grave and frankly heartbreaking proposition. They had not recovered. They were proposed to no longer be “endangered” because there were none left at all. They had been driven to extinction.

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The birds on the list were slated for removal from the ESA, but this process is lengthy and complicated. It wasn’t until October of 2023 that many of the birds, along with several other formerly endangered U.S. animals, were finally removed from the list and declared conclusively extinct. Among them is the famous Bachman’s Warbler, a vibrant black and yellow migratory songbird once found in the southeastern and midwestern United States.

One bird, however, was conspicuously absent from the October 2023 delisted group. Despite being slated for delisting alongside the Bachman’s Warbler in 2021, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker escaped removal from the ESA. For many birders, this is a controversial, if not entirely surprising decision. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is more famous for the debate surrounding its continued existence, and for the constant recurrence of hoaxes and false sightings, than any other attribute.

The ultimate “life lister,” the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been given the nickname of “Lord God Bird” in acknowledgement of the incredible excitement that one might feel upon seeing one of these large bottomland woodpeckers again. Its resemblance to the Pileated Woodpecker, a decidedly more common relative, has sparked many reports of “Lord God Bird” sightings that have amounted to nothing more than disappointments. Although the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is apparently hesitant to officially declare this species extinct, the last confirmed sighting was in 1944 and a devastating portion of the habitat that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers relied upon for survival has degraded or disappeared.

So, does the decision to delay the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s delisting indicate some measure of hope for the species? There are certainly those who still consider this bird to be extant. It seems like every year, new grainy footage emerges, claiming to show an Ivory-billed Woodpecker alive and well in some remote bottomland swamp.

Despite so many claims to have seen or even recorded this lost bird, nothing conclusive has ever been found. The ESA is intended to help designate species in need of conservation efforts. It is like a priority list for animals on the brink. Some critics have pointed out that the continued search for the Lord God Bird consumes energy, resources, and awareness that might be better spent preserving one of America’s 89 threatened and endangered birds; birds that are still within reach for rescue.

But letting go is hard. The final death of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker may have taken place almost 80 years ago, but the act of giving up is a fresh wound for those who still hold on to hope for this long-lost woodpecker.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Emily Dickinson

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