If you’ve seen news stories about ivory-billed woodpeckers over the past few years, you might, very understandably, be confused: It seems like some expert is always announcing either that the birds are definitely extinct, or, that they definitely still exist somewhere. But how much do you really know about the charismatic “Lord God bird”? Here are 10 facts to introduce this legendary (maybe?) extinct avian—and a look-alike species that might be the source of all the rumors.
1. The first description of the ivory-billed woodpecker was published in 1731.
English naturalist Mark Catesby dubbed the bird the “largest white-billed woodpecker” and wrote that they “subsist mainly on ants, woodworms, and other insects, which they hew out of rotten trees.” In 1751, Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus drew on this description when he named the species Picus principalus, or “first woodpecker.” Their official, modern scientific name is Campephilus principalis . And their famous nickname—the “Lord God bird”—comes from the exclamations of amazement uttered by birdwatchers seeing one for the first time.
2. They depended on huge trees in large, uninterrupted areas of forest.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers were considered birds of lowland swamps; famed 19th-century naturalist Alexander Wilson wrote that they “seek the most towering trees of the forest, seemingly particularly attached to those prodigious cypress swamps, whose crowded giant sons stretch their bare and blasted or moss-hung arms midway to the skies.” However, swamps may simply be where the last untouched forests able to support them remained, following extensive logging.
3. They sometimes hung out in groups, searching for tasty beetle larvae.
Nineteenth- and early 20th-century naturalists described as many as 11 ivory-billed woodpeckers foraging together in the same dead tree, stripping off the bark in search of the enormous beetle larvae that were their favorite food. They were probably nomadic, seeking out places where large numbers of trees had recently been killed by flooding or storms. In spring, they paired off and excavated huge cavities in the snags, in which they raised one to four young.
4. The last 100 percent-confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the U.S. was in 1944.
Habitat destruction and fragmentation led to these birds’ downfall. Their last stronghold in the United States was a patch of old-growth forest in Louisiana called the Singer Tract. Seven pairs were believed to have nested there in the 1930s, but the logging company that owned the rights to the land ignored pleas from the Audubon Society and multiple state governors and federal agencies to preserve it as a refuge—and began clear-cutting. The final universally accepted sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker occurred in the remnants of the Singer Tract in April 1944.
5. A population in Cuba persisted into at least the 1980s.
A distinct subspecies of ivory-billed woodpecker lived in montane pine forests on the island of Cuba. Although scientists hadn’t thoroughly documented its population since before the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, sporadic sightings continued to be reported through the 1960s and ‘70s. Finally, an international team of ornithologists observed a male and female in a remote area of Cuba in 1986 and 1987. Return trips in the 1990s failed to turn up any trace of them, however, and logging in the region was ongoing. Experts now believe that Cuba’s ivory-billed woodpeckers went extinct around 1990.
6. Ivory-bills were the third-largest woodpecker species in the world.
They were very large birds: over a foot-and-a-half long from beak to tail. They ranked just behind their close cousin the imperial woodpecker (native to Mexico, now extinct due to habitat loss) and the more distantly related great slaty woodpecker (extant but vulnerable) of Southeast Asia.
7. An extremely similar-looking species is still relatively common in forested areas across North America.
Pileated woodpeckers are smaller than ivory-billed woodpeckers and lack their namesake white bills and large white wing patches. But pileated woodpeckers are still pretty big (at well over a foot long, they’re the largest woodpecker still present in North America), and they do share ivory-billed woodpeckers’ distinctive red crests and white-striped necks. The pileated species may be responsible for at least some of the supposed ivory-bill sightings that continue to be reported occasionally in the U.S.
8. Some ornithologists claimed to have rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker in the 2000s.
In 2005, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology-led team published a paper in the journal Science assembling evidence that ivory-billed woodpeckers still lived in eastern Arkansas, based on sightings, call recordings, and one short, low-quality video clip. Further searches of the area failed to turn up additional proof, however, and other bird identification experts believe that the video likely showed a pileated woodpecker.
9. In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed declaring ivory-bills officially extinct.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially listed as an endangered species in 1967. A 2021 proposal to remove the birds from the endangered species list and formally declare them extinct—which cited the continued lack of proof that living ivory-bills still exist—was immediately controversial: Ivory-billed woodpecker proponents worried it would eliminate any incentive to protect what they believed to be the birds’ last remaining areas of habitat in Arkansas, Louisiana, and other states.
10. New (but still inconclusive) evidence was released in 2023.
Another paper claiming the woodpeckers’ continued existence, this time led by scientists from the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and drawing on data collected in Louisiana, was published in May 2023 in the journal Ecology and Evolution. The most noteworthy new bit of evidence this time around consisted of drone footage that appeared to show possible ivory-billed woodpeckers flying between trees. Many ornithologists and birders remain unconvinced (those pesky pileateds again!), but as of 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to make an official decision on the plan to remove them from the endangered species and declare them extinct once and for all. Hope lives on.