Apples to Apples and Sweet Gums to Sweet Gums

I’ve been corresponding with Mississippi-based searcher Christopher Carlisle both privately and on Facebook, and our conversations have inspired some additional thoughts on bark scaling and led me to revisit Cornell’s 2006-2007 final report, which includes two interesting photos of Pileated Woodpecker work on sweet gums taken by Martjan Lammertink in Congaree National Park. I was familiar with the document, which is available here but had forgotten about the images. Scroll to page 30 (some additional images of interest from Texas appear on the following page.)

While it’s a tiny sample, there may be some value in comparing the Congaree photos with the work on two heavily scaled sweet gums in the Project Coyote search area.

Correction: the tree in the second image is a hickory.

Photo by Steve Pagans

Photo by Steve Pagans


While it was not possible to examine this scaling up close, the bark appears to be tightly adhering on both trees, and the decay state is likely comparable to the Congaree sweet gum. The work in both cases is on the boles, and the size of the trees involved seems to be roughly comparable. Beyond that, the scaling is dramatically different in a number of ways. Most obviously, the suspected IBWO work from our search area is far more extensive than the PIWO work from Congaree (I suspect the small patches of scaling in the lower photo are the work of a Hairy Woodpecker). As I’ve discussed, PIWOs are not well-suited to scaling bark, anatomically, and it’s not a preferred or efficient feeding strategy – accounting for 23% of observed foraging behavior in Tanner and 7% in Patricia Newell’s more recent and PIWO-focused study.

The most significant difference though is in the appearance of the edges. When Pileated Woodpeckers scale tight-barked hardwoods, they typically remove the bark in layers, as in these images. This layered scaling is also very apparent in the photos from Congaree, and it’s absent from our sweet gums as well as from the extensively scaled oaks and hickories that we found in 2013-2014. Our trees show very extensive scaling with no indication that bark has been removed in stages; the edges are clean and incised and very large areas have been stripped, down to the sapwood. If Pileated Woodpeckers were the cause, it would be reasonable to expect that there would be some sign of layering, especially given the surface area involved, which far exceeds that shown in the Congaree photos or any others I know of (on hardwoods) from the Cornell searches.

The high branch work from Texas is intriguing, but the resolution of the images is insufficient to determine whether this clean scaling or whether there’s some excavation, especially on the lower portions. In addition the work is not nearly as extensive as some of the high branch work we’ve found.


Edited to add: I’m more intrigued by extensive work below the crown, as in these images. One tree (in the third photo is), definitely a sweet gum is from the old search area. The other tree, which I believe is an oak, is within a hundred yards of where I recorded kent-like calls in 2013, although the photos were taken a year before.



There are several other images of sweet gum scaling from Congaree in this report from the mobile search team, but this work does not involve the removal of bark from large contiguous sections of trunk, and the resolution is not sufficient to tell whether the bark has been removed in stages, although it appears to be in at least one of the four photographs. If I were to find it, I would assess this work as being mildly interesting but would not get excited about it in the absence of other indicators.

To return to my exchange with Chris, it gave me the opportunity to revisit this material, to give some more thought to my hypothesis about feeding sign, and to make some adjustments:

  • I think scaling on pines, even live ones, is physically possible for a pileated, although the bark will often show signs of having been removed in layers, meaning the edges will not appear as clean. Nonetheless, I do not think there’s a way of reliably determining what species has scaled a pine in the absence of a direct observation and suspect that even HAWOs and RBWOs can scale extensively even on recently dead pines.
  • For the work that I think is diagnostic, the species that I think are most reliable are oaks, sweet gums, and hickories. I think that the distinction is an easy one to make once you’ve seen the work firsthand.
  • In the old Project Coyote search area, we had persimmons, hackberrries, and honey locusts that had very suggestive scaling and lots of it. But the bark on honey locusts tends to loosen early in the decay process. Hackberry bark fractures, and while persimmon bark is thick and tight, it tends to loosen when the wood is still very hard. These qualities complicate the analysis, though I’m confident some of that work was done by IBWOs. There was a vast difference between the size of bark chips from known PIWO foraging on honey locusts and suspected IBWO foraging on the same species.
  • Extensiveness and quantity (concentrations) are important to look for too, especially when there are a lot of pines or an abundance of more easily scaled hardwoods. For this analysis, I include looking at high branch work but otherwise don’t ascribe a great deal of importance to “Tanneresque” sign, unless there’s a lot of it, and it’s associated with what I think is diagnostic.

I am not suggesting that this is the only way that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers forage. There may be seasonal and regional variations, but I suspect that some of this type of work will be present in any area where IBWOs are resident. It’s not necessarily easy to find. I agree with Fangsheath, from, that the failure to do so should not be treated as evidence of absence, but I’m convinced that finding this very specific type of work is compelling evidence that IBWOs are present.


Additional Thoughts on Behavior and Rapid Evolution

I’d like to address an interesting post from “Sidewinder” on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Researchers’ Forum on the rapid evolution question. His key points:

“Cyberthrush and others have suggested that natural selection has favored high levels of wariness and human avoidance in the IBWO. This position assumes that the change has a genetic rather than experiential (learned) basis. I have questioned this possibility based on the simple fact that behavior is usually one of the fastest traits to evolve. I have no problem with intense human predation on the IBWO resulting in increased vigilance among the surviving remnant, but if the IBWO persists, human predation has been absent now for dozens of generations. While many studies demonstrate that predation pressure can select for increased wariness in animals, what about the inverse? Can multiple generations of relaxed selection over a relatively short term (<100 years) result in relaxed vigilance?”

He concludes that the evidence is mixed and that the, “ . . . findings do not really support or refute Cyberthrush’s hypothesis. Clearly, we need more study–particularly of birds–to learn whether avoidance of humans might persist for many generations after selective pressure (predation) no longer exists to maintain vigilance. In the meanwhile, let’s acknowledge the highly tentative nature of this hypothesis.”

I hadn’t considered relaxed vigilance as a possibility, and it’s an interesting idea. With regard to the general evolved vigilance hypothesis, it’s certainly possible; I just don’t see it as being necessary to explain the difficulty of detection. I think normal wariness, difficult habitat, and extremely low densities suffice.

The hypothesis that the IBWO would dramatically change its foraging behavior, which is to a large degree morphologically determined, is considerably more extreme than the idea that the species became more wary. I have taken issue with the notion (or simplistic reading of Tanner), that the species is (or was) an extreme specialist, but its anatomy and historic range point to some degree of specialization – considerably more than exists in the PIWO.

I suspect that Tanner significantly overstated matters when writing about the canopy and high branch work, but even Tanner made it clear that IBWOs foraged at all levels. Some of the known prey species primarily feed and develop in the boles and in some cases quite near the ground (H. polita, for example). I suspect the high branch foraging Tanner observed was for larvae that he dismissed as being unsuitable because they feed on longer dead wood – Tenebrionidae in particular, although there’s no evidence from stomach contents to support this idea. The larvae we found under bark of this downed sweet gum have been id’d as belonging to that genus, and the tree was not very long dead.

One of the Singer Tract (in a pin oak stub, Mack’s Bayou) was in a clearing.

Mack's Bayou Ivorybill nest tree. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Mack’s Bayou nest tree. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

John Dennis’s photos of Cuban IBWOs at a nest also appear to be from a very open area (and even if the Cuban IBWO is a different species, it’s a very close relative, and the hunting pressure there was almost certainly equal, if not more intense.) These seem odd nest locations for a bird that has rapidly evolved to hide in the canopy.

It’s also pretty clear to me that the John’s Bayou birds learned to tolerate human presence, while other IBWOs in the Singer Tract did not. As I’ve pointed out in several posts, Tanner and Kuhn (to a lesser extent) had a difficult time finding ivorybills in other parts of the Tract. This also suggests a behavioral rather than a genetic basis for the wariness or at the very least a substantial behavioral component.

Rapid Evolution – I Think Not: More on Game Cams and Challenges

Cyberthrush’s blog has been an important resource for people with an interest in the IBWO for nearly a decade. I’ve agreed with him at times and have taken strong issue with him at others. His latest post falls into the latter category and strikes me as being somewhat irresponsible; it’s worthy of submission to The Annals of Armchair Quarterbacking. I responded in the comments but have some additional observations that seem better suited to posting here.

The inspiration for Cyberthrush’s post is an image someone sent him of suspected bark scaling low on a tree. The image is not shown in the post, but I suspect I’ve seen it and, if so, am sure it was the work of a mammal. In any case, he hypothesizes that the IBWO has rapidly evolved to live almost exclusively in the canopy. He uses the specialization of certain species – seabirds, Chimney Swifts, and warblers – to draw parallels, ignoring entirely that none of these species evolved nearly so rapidly. The only basis for this theory is the failure to obtain clear photographs.

He digresses to dismiss virtually all the photographs of feeding sign, cavities, and putative IBWOs and virtually every recording of putative kents or DKs he’s seen over the past 9 years. He writes: “I don’t want to discourage people from sending such things along, but I do want folks to know that the chance of getting a positive response from me is extremely slim . . .”

He goes on:

“I’m in the camp that believes any remaining IBWOs have evolved heightened wariness and caution, and as such DO NOT spend ANY extensive time at ground level, where they would be far more vulnerable. In fact, I believe they are now almost exclusively residents of the upper canopies, other than when flying from point A to point B and requiring a clear pathway. While they might land momentarily lower on a tree, they probably spend most of their daily lives minimally 35+ ft. high up (maybe 50+ ft.) on tree trunks/branches and inside cavities, well above levels frequented by Pileateds and other woodpecker cousins (and generally out of easy sight-line for searchers). It’s not clear to me how many of the remote automatic camera traps were ever set that high (though it’s clear several were not). Like Swifts in the air and Albatrosses at sea, I think Ivory-bills may spend most of their lives solely in the canopies… if you send me a photo of foraging sign or a cavity or a fuzzy bird lower than ~35 ft. high, I probably won’t take it too seriously (even though there are historical records of such cases), unless there are overriding additional details to catch my attention. If Ivory-bills currently lived and foraged below 35 ft. to any significant extent I believe we’d have the definitive evidence we need by now (well before now!); only perhaps as a denizen of the upper reaches might they be able to carry on successfully, while also evading encounters and detection to the degree they have . . .”

I don’t know who else is in his camp. Some have certainly argued that hunting pressure led the IBWO to become hyper-wary, and I can accept that hypothesis to some degree, although I think scarcity and the nature of the habitat have far more to do with the lack of conclusive documentation. The suggestion that the species evolved to exist almost exclusively in the canopy, when it was not infrequently seen feeding near the ground, is nowhere near as plausible, and it’s invented out of whole cloth.

As I wrote in the comments:

Your exclusion of any work below 35′ is arbitrary and wrongheaded, IMO. Forget Allen and Kellogg, Tanner even observed that they’re “not averse” to coming near the ground. Do you really think such a significant behavioral change evolved post-Tanner? An animal seeking food is going to go where the food is, and as it happens, the largest quantity of food is often to be found in the boles. I agree that cavities will be high up and also that work that’s exclusively near the base of the tree is suspect, but when the work goes higher than about 10 feet you can pretty well rule out a mammalian source (unless giraffes are around or there’s some heretofore undiscovered porcupine species in the swamps of Louisiana and Florida). When it’s very extensive, you can be pretty confident that it’s either PIWO or IBWO, and as I’ve argued at length on the Project Coyote blog, I think there is a limited range of work that is identifiable as IBWO.

This really is giraffe foraging sign, photographed in Louisiana . . . Long story.

This really is giraffe foraging sign, photographed in Louisiana . . . Long story.

One avian example of rapid evolution (though not nearly so rapid as Cyberthrush’s IBWO) is the Cahow, but that adaptation involved a change in nesting behavior due to a lack of adequate sites, something that’s far more akin to the kinds of survival strategies discussed in this recent post. There’s simply no reason to think that IBWOs could have suddenly evolved to live almost solely in the canopy. Not when Allen and Kellogg even observed one feeding on the ground; not when Kuhn observed one feeding a foot up; not when one of the clearest photos of bark scaling shows the work going to the base of the tree (the bark chips in this image are worth a close look, and they resemble many that we have found.)

With regard to aiming cameras at the canopy, I discussed the limitations of game cam technology in this post. The challenges increase dramatically when the cameras are aimed even higher, as is illustrated in this photo of a bird about 75’ up in a tree. There’s simply no way to get a conclusive ID. I think it’s suggestive of a female IBWO and that red would be visible in the crest if it were a PIWO, although it’s clearly nowhere near as intriguing as our other two Reconyx photos. Frank disagrees and thinks it could be anything.

IMG_9463 Red Box

Reconyx image and detail. Old Project Coyote search area, March 2009

Reconyx image and detail. Old Project Coyote search area, March 2010

Either way, aiming these very poor resolution, short focal length cameras high complicates matters exponentially. The likelihood of getting a clear image at such a great distance and with backlighting is infinitesimal. Aiming high is likely to be a wasted effort. One final note about game cameras, Cyberthrush attaches a great deal more significance to the lack of photos than I do. As far as I’m aware game cameras were only extensively deployed in Arkansas, South Florida, and the Choctawhatchee. They’ll only work if they’re deployed at the right time and in the right place, something that’s much easier said than done. As I’ve mentioned previously, virtually all the scaling we’ve found seems to have been done in a very limited number of visits to the tree, perhaps just one, and in the very rare instances where we’ve found evidence of a return of whatever removed the bark, there has been a gap of several months between visits.

The key to all of this is going to be finding a roost or nest site (unless someone gets extremely lucky.) I’m convinced that feeding sign is what can point searchers in that direction; it’s what led Kuhn and the Allen and Kellogg expedition to birds in the 1930s. That’s the reason for my focus on it. Cyberthrush does a disservice to all searchers by suggesting, based on unfounded speculation, that virtually anything found below 35’ feet is not worthy of attention.

Heavily scaled young oak with suspected IBWO work extending from the base to well up on the trunk.

Heavily scaled young sweet gum or oak with suspected IBWO work extending from the base to well up on the trunk. Note the large bark chips at the base.