Bits ‘n’ Pieces Part 2: A 19th Century Report from . . . Nebraska? Updated – Turns Out to Be Pileated.

Update and correction: Since writing this post, I have sought additional, and it appears that the record was due to a miscommunication (not an erroneous report or false claim). It turns out it was retracted as pertaining to Pileated Woodpecker a few years later (T. Labedz, pers. comm.). Pileated Woodpeckers were extirpated in Nebraska ca. 1900 and only resumed breeding there in the late 20th century. Rather than delete this post, I will leave it up. I stand by the broader point about internalized beliefs and the variety of habitat types in which ivorybills were found in the past. More on that to come.

Part 1 is here.

What I envisioned as a single post has evolved into a series, as sometimes happens when I start digging into a topic. This one will probably involve two more posts and was inspired in part by Matt’s comments about internalized beliefs in Part 1. With those in mind, I started looking at reports from the edges of or outside the range described and mapped by Tanner in the monograph. (At the time, he was unaware of a number of these reports, some of which he accepted in 1989.)

I’ll be discussing those records and some others in the next post. For now, I’ll be focusing on one that seems to have been missed by other researchers. At first glance, it may seem improbable, since it goes against internalized beliefs about “suitable” habitat and extensive tracts of southern bottomland hardwood swamps as a requirement. While I’ve been a frequent critic of these beliefs, they’re part of the ivorybill legend, and they still affect me.

In the end, I think there is some basis for treating this report, which appeared in the 1896 Proceedings of the Nebraska Horticultural Society, as credible. It comes from Nemaha County, in the southeastern corner of the state, approximately 100 miles NNW of Kansas City.

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It’s worth pointing out that Audubon described the ivorybill’s range as extending to the “very declivities (slopes) of the Rockies.” This was undoubtedly mistaken, but Hasbrouck (1891)treated Kansas City as the northwesternmost edge of the range. Several of the records accepted by Tanner in the monograph come from farther west in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Red and Arkansas River watersheds. I’ll have more on the range descriptions from these three authors in the next post, but the evidence suggests that the post-contact range followed riparian corridors and extended into the eastern Great Plains. Thus, a 19th century record from southeastern Nebraska is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

After I found this record, I did some research on G.A. Coleman, who was cited 66 times in the 1896 compilation of state records, including for Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Downy, Hairy, Red-headed Woodpeckers. He was not cited for Pileated, which was described as rare or a winter visitor along the Missouri.

The first reference I could find for Coleman was a description of American Coot behavior in the January 1, 1887 edition of Ornithologist and Oölogist. It mentions that Coleman had attended The Normal School in Peru, so he had some college education. Coleman remained active in Nebraska until around 1901 and appears to have  been respected in ornithological and mammalogical circles. He is cited and quoted in several journals, and in 1892, he stood in for the chairman of the ornithology committee and delivered a brief paper to the State Horticultural Society. In the presentation, Coleman mentioned the Agriculture Department’s Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, a government body that would soon become his employer.

I was able to find some additional information about Coleman and the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy in a U.S. Geological Survey publication:

. . . [O]n the 3d of March, 1885, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the promotion of “economic ornithology, or the study of the interrelation of birds and agriculture, an investigation of the food, habits, and migrations of birds in relation to both insects and plants.” The money became available on the first of July following. Upon the recommendation of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, physician and lifelong student of natural history, was appointed head of the new project. He selected as his assistant Dr. A. K. Fisher, also well trained in field zoology and botany, and a graduate in medicine, and these two men, with a secretary, who in 1886 became Mrs. Merriam and was succeeded by Mrs. A. B. Morrison, constituted the entire force of the new organization. It was first established as a branch of the Division of Entomology. The year following the appropriation was doubled and the unit became an independent “Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy.” In 1896 the name was changed to “Division of Biological Survey.” On March 3, 1905, just twenty years after the date of the first appropriation, the name was changed to the Bureau of Biological Survey.

Gradually, through the years, the little band that started the Survey–the Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy–was enlarged by the enlistment of other naturalists, mainly young men raised in many States from New England to California, who from boyhood had studied the birds and mammals and other wild inhabitants of the woods and fields about their rural homes, and including also a number of older men with extensive field and laboratory experience in various phases of natural-history study. During this period both Merriam and Fisher, for a part of nearly every year, carried on field work, mainly in the Western States or in Alaska, and published widely on their findings.

. . .

April 1892 witnessed the addition to the Survey’s field force of J. Alden Loring, of New York. Loring was an enthusiastic collector, and during the next few years worked in most of the Western States and the southern part of the central Provinces of Canada. At this period the standard salary for a field man was $100 a month, from which he had to pay all or nearly all his field expenses. For example, Loring thus financed two expeditions into the Rocky Mountains west of Edmonton, Alberta, the scene of the early labors of David Douglas and Thomas Drummond, by being allowed to spend the winter in Washington, and saving up for the summer’s work. Loring left the service in 1897, but was reemployed for special duties on several occasions, notably in 1920, when he spent the summer on the great waterfowl breeding grounds in central Canada.

In April of the same year Russell J. Thompson and George A. Coleman received appointments to do field work, and after a few weeks training (along with Loring) under Vernon Bailey were assigned separate itineraries. Thompson worked in Georgia, Mississippi,ouisiana, and Tennessee during that summer and fall. Coleman began work in Mississippi, and later collected in Louisiana, Kentucky and Nebraska. Neither remained in the service later than 1893.

Coleman’s field book (along with Thompson’s) is housed at the Smithsonian, but it has not been digitized. Thompson’s has, and it reveals that the two spent a brief period together, collecting in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Given the awareness of the ivorybill’s declining numbers, given the interest in the species that existed in the 1890s, and given the fact that Coleman was collecting in states where ivorybills were extant, it seems likely that Coleman would have been schooled in the differences between Ivory-billed and Pileated Woodpeckers in the course of his training, if he wasn’t already aware of them. I think this lends some additional credibility to his report and places it on or near a par with quite a few other records that have been accepted by Tanner and others. Of course, it lacks a detailed description, and without a specimen, it will always be open to question.


A couple of final thoughts on the habitat: most of the county was unforested in 1856, as would be expected on the eastern Plains. It has been described as “hilly”, encompassing densely wooded hills and bluffs, broken by numerous valleys and ravines. The dominant species included willows, cottonwoods, lindens, box elders, and sycamores in the lower areas and various oaks, hickories, walnuts, elms, ashes, and cherries in the uplands. Forest cover only decreased by 11% between 1856 and 1955, and in 1856, it comprised less than 5.5% of the county’s total area, under 10,000 hectares/38.6 square miles, mostly along narrow riparian corridors or in isolated patches surrounded by prairie.


Similar characteristics probably existed in other locations at the western edges of the ivorybill’s historic range. If this and other reports indeed pertain to ivorybills, they were using habitat (even as vagrants) that differs markedly from the southern swamp forests that figure so heavily in popular lore.


To be continued.

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