Bits and Pieces Part 4: Rethinking Range and “Suitable Habitat”

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Bottom line upfront: In pre-contact and early colonial times and into the 19th century, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers inhabited a more varied and expansive range than most people realize. The range probably reached from the southern tip of Florida to central Ohio, with the 40th parallel as the approximate northern limit, westward to St. Louis and perhaps along the Missouri River. As discussed in the previous post, the western limit of the range appears to have been somewhere around the 96 or 97th Meridian, in the southwest, and probably somewhat farther east at the northwestern edge, if unproven historic reports from the Kansas City area are valid. Outside of coastal areas, distribution appears to have followed riparian corridors to its outer limits, and there are no records from elevations of over ~1000′.

A couple of maps may be useful for additional information about forest, bioregion, and habitat types and may help with visualization along with my map of records from unexpected habitats.

This is a new avenue of exploration for me, and I’m not personally familiar with many of the areas involved. I need to do additional research on areas within Tanner’s range map, along the coasts and in Florida, to be sure my characterizations are accurate. I’m leaving some of these locations on the master map for now (but removing them from the graphic below which includes extralimital and edge of range records). The master map is thus subject to change, so view it with the caveat that the notations may be incomplete or inaccurate. This post will address locations that are outside the confines of Tanner’s 1942 range map, although he accepted some of these records in 1989.


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As in the previous post, my analysis relies on records accompanied by reported physical evidence (even if that evidence has been lost) and to Native American sites where remains found are deemed unlikely to have been trade items. I relied on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, Appendix E, Tanner, Jackson, and a few additional sources.

Before undertaking a whirlwind tour of the locations involved, I thought I should return to the mythology discussed in the previous post. I chose my words poorly in describing that mythology: “To a large extent these beliefs treat the Singer Tract as a model – a vast tract of “virgin” bottomland forest dominated by oaks and sweetgums, with abundant, moss-draped cypress for atmosphere (although ivorybills seem to have avoided cypress in the Tract).”

In fairness to Tanner, he didn’t characterize cypress as being abundant in the Tract. (It was not.) And his overall view was that cypress-tupelo swamps were not good ivorybill habitat. Audubon, with his romantic, indeed gothic, language is the father of the cypress myth.

I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind’s eye the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the intruder during the meridian heat of our dogdays, in those gloomy and horrible swamps! But the attempt to picture these scenes would be vain. Nothing short of ocular demonstration can impress any adequate idea of them. 

Hasbrouck (1891) perpetuated the emphasis on cypress and very low-lying locations:

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Hasbrouck’s explanation of the Missouri extralimital records is odd. The locations given are well outside bald cypress range.

That aside, the myth discussed in the previous post is a composite. The emphasis on cypress originates with Audubon and Hasbrouck, and the emphasis on large tracts, old growth, oaks, sweetgums, and tree size is largely drawn from Tanner.

Here are the extralimital records:

Reedy River, South Carolina: Nest with eggs reportedly collected in 1896 and later lost. The location is in the Piedmont, south of Greenville, at an elevation of approximately 900′. The Reedy flows into the Salad, which flows into the Congaree. This report is listed in the Recovery Plan because it was accepted by Sprunt as “definitive” but is considered highly questionable.

Etowah Mounds, Georgia: Pre-contact site, elevation approximately 700′. Presumably not trade goods “but requires further discussion” per the Recovery Plan. The Etowah River is at the northern end of the Alabama River watershed.

Between Martinsburg, West Virginia and Winchester, Virginia: Specimen reportedly collected by Wilson ca. 1810. Elevation at Winchester is 725′ and at Martinsburg is 453′. This would appear to be in the Potomac watershed.

Moundsville, West Virginia: Two lower mandibles found in a pre-contact (early Common Era, 0-200) midden. Potentially trade goods. Elevation 696′. The location is on the Ohio River.

Philo, Ohio: Near the Muskingum River. Tarsometatarsus found in pre-contact midden, dates from ca. 1100-1500. Elevation 735′.

Sciotto County, Ohio: Same as above. Elevation of the site is 1050′, but the nearby Sciotto River is lower. The site is about 10 miles from the Ohio, and the elevation at the confluence is 533′.

Ross County, Ohio: Same as above. Also on the Sciotto River but farther upstream. Elevation 863′

Near Troy, Ohio: Near the Miami River, March 1804 sight record by Gerard Hopkins, a Quaker envoy to the Miami and Pottwatomi. The report includes a description, “. . . resembling the red headed woodcock of Maryland, except that its head is black and its bill ivory. ” (Leese 2001). Omitted from the map because it doesn’t involve a specimen, but included here because it adds weight to the archaeological records.

Franklin County, Indiana: Report of a specimen, 1869, now lost. Elevation at least 490′. Probably along the Whitewater River, an Ohio tributary. There are a number of early reports from Indiana, but no other reported specimens and no archaeological records. In light of Audubon’s collection at Henderson, KY (just across the Ohio River) as well as the Ohio records, it seems likely that ivorybills were present in parts of Indiana into the 19th century.

Henderson, Kentucky: Female specimen collected by Audubon in July 1810 and used as a model for his first painting of the species. Elevation 400′. This record does not appear in the Recovery Plan or Jackson, and it seems to have been overlooked by researchers. Audubon’s own notation describes the location as “Red Banks”, on the Ohio River at the northernmost limit of the cypress-tupelo association, well upstream from the confluence with the Mississippi. Article by R. Haven Wiley in Kentucky Warbler, May 1970.

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Stanford, Kentucky: Pair reported, with one specimen collected by a Colonel Fleming, 1790. Record accepted by Tanner in 1989. Elevation 942′. The Dix River, which flows into the Kentucky and thence the Ohio, is nearby.

Cahokia Mounds, Illinois: East of the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, 1500s or earlier, tarsometatarsus. Elevation 490′.

Forest Park, Missouri or Vicinity: West of the confluence of  the Mississippi and Missouri. Specimen collected 1896 and in the collection of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. Elevation approximately 500′.

I find it interesting that Ohio is the state with the most pre-contact records involving likely food items – 3 out of a total of 4-6.

With regard to Missouri and the Missouri River watershed, Hasbrouck accepted reports from Fayette and Kansas City, and given the overall picture, this does not seem implausible. In addition, there were persistent reports from the vicinity of Lake of the Ozarks, in the Missouri River watershed, until the end of the 1940s; Tanner received information about Missouri reports from local Audubon society officers but apparently disregarded it. There’s no way to assess the validity of these old, anecdotal claims and no evidence to support them, but given this perspective on the historic range, they may be somewhat less far-fetched than it seems at first glance.

I’m heading for Louisiana soon. More after I return – a trip report and probably two additional installments.


Bits and Pieces Part 3: Internalized Beliefs, How They Got That Way, and What the Record Really Shows

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. It looks like this series will end up being a five-parter. Part 4 should follow later this week and Part 5 sometime thereafter.

Most of us with an interest in the ivorybill have internalized a set of beliefs about what constitutes “suitable” habitat. To a large extent these beliefs treat the Singer Tract as a model – a vast tract of “virgin” bottomland forest dominated by oaks and sweetgums, with abundant, moss-draped cypress for atmosphere (although ivorybills seem to have avoided cypress in the Tract). The habitat description in Stephen A. Shunk’s excellent Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America clearly expresses some of these beliefs, which have influenced the overwhelming majority of modern search efforts and which are embedded in the minds of most searchers (myself included) to the point of being a default:

Virgin bottomland forest almost always below 100 ft. (30 m) elevation. May also have occurred in uplands but by 1900 restricted to areas downstream of pine-bald cypress interface. Requires large tracts of contiguous forest with very large-diameter trees and adequate dead and dying trees to provide forage and nest sites.

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The Guide, which draws on an 1891 article by Hasbrouck for the 100 foot elevation, goes on to list three different habitat types described by Tanner – sweet gum-oak dominated forests in the southeast (with species of oak varying depending on location) outside of Florida; river swamps in Florida dominated by cypress, black gum, and green ash; and creek swamps in Florida characterized by cypress, red maple, laurel oak, black gum and cabbage palmetto, with feeding in adjacent pine woods.

This is not to criticize the Guide or its author – I recommend the book highly and the overall treatment of the ivorybill is thorough and evenhanded. The quote is intended to point out the pervasiveness of these ideas about habitat requirements, ideas that Tanner reinforced, especially in later years. They’re so pervasive in part because the myth of the “virgin forest” has shaped ivorybill lore since well before Hasbrouck and has influenced almost all habitat assessments since Tanner.

The virgin forest myth is a topic for another day; the central point is that ivorybills have been found in more diverse habitat types than most have believed. It’s worth bearing in mind that Tanner himself asserted that ” . . . at present the only suitable habitat for ivorybills is in tracts or areas of virgin timber”, a narrow, almost lawyerly, and largely conjectural conclusion – one not entirely supported by fact. Ivorybills bred in at least one Singer Tract area (Mack’s Bayou) that was predominantly regrowth, and as has been discussed in previous posts, Tanner became more dogmatic and blinkered about habitat requirements in later years, dismissing the John Dennis Texas recording because a Pine Warbler was captured on the tape.

As should become clear, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were found in a variety of different habitats and did not always require extensive tracts of contiguous forest. Large diameter trees, their importance, and what Tanner meant by “large” are discussed in another post, but even if one accepts that large trees were preferred in the Singer Tract, much of the feeding sign Allen and Kellogg documented in Florida was on small, fire-killed pines.

My plan for this post was to focus on Ivory-billed Woodpecker records from outside the historic range as delineated by Tanner in his oft-reprinted 1942 map and adaptations thereof.

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US Fish and Wildlife Service range map based on Tanner, including locations of selected post- Singer Tract reports

The purpose behind this original plan was in part to show that the historic range of the ivorybill was considerably more extensive than is commonly believed, but more importantly to show that ivorybills inhabited more varied habitats than is commonly believed. As time went on, my focus has shifted even more toward the question of habitat diversity, though the fact remains that the historic range was considerably more extensive than the Tanner map, or the one drawn by Hasbrouck in the 1890s, might lead one to expect.

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Hasbrouck’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Range Map (1890)

In recent Facebook comments, several ornithologists have suggested that without physical evidence, no record should be accepted. As I see it, this standard is, to some extent, a kind of ahistorical overkill, since it has never been applied in the past. Post-1939 Singer Tract observations don’t meet it, so the last record date is pushed back by several years, which can impact statistical analyses. At the same time, the parsimonious approach is not entirely meritless, since it eliminates false positives. The problem is that there’s no purely objective standard for evaluation of historic (and pre-contact) records, even when it comes to specimens. In many cases, location information for specimens is non-existent or ambiguous; for example, one specimen in Cornell’s collection (1896) is listed as coming from the “Florida Keys”; “Key” in this context more likely refers to an island of forest surrounded by the Everglades than to the islands offshore.

Thus, in this post and the next, I’ll be looking at many reports from within the recognized historic range, as well as some from beyond those boundaries. I will be focusing on reports accompanied by physical evidence or published accounts stating that physical evidence was obtained but will include or mention a few additional ones that seem particularly credible based on the source or amount of detail.

The more surprising of these reports are unsupported by physical evidence. These come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Swedesboro, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Most date to the 18th-century, a time when ivorybills were reported to have fed on trees girdled for clearing. The most interesting of these come from Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist and student of Linnaeus. They have been discussed in several articles by Benjamin Leese, who has also written about early records from Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky (for which the case is stronger). Most of these papers do not seem to be available online.

Just under 200 of the 418 specimens (including Cuban ivorybills) listed by Hahn provide no location information or merely identify the state, or country in the case of Cuba, where the collection took place. There are multiple cases in which specimens were reportedly collected but have not been found, and in several cases, there’s no way to correlate the claim of collection with an actual specimen. In one instance, not catalogued by Hahn, a pair of ivorybill specimens was mislabeled as Pileated Woodpecker until the error was corrected in the 1960s.

When it comes to pre-Columbian sites, there’s no way to be certain whether material collected from graves and middens involves trade goods or locally killed animals, although tarsometatarsi are likely local, especially east of the Mississippi, where there’s little evidence to suggest that woodpeckers had ceremonial value. Leese addresses this subject in a paper on Native American uses of ivorybill parts. I have included records involving tarsometatarsi and one from a West Virginia midden that involves parts of two lower mandibles.

I’ve created a google map showing the locations of the records from habitat types that don’t fit the ‘large tracts of contiguous bottomland forest’ paradigm. I’ve provided some details for each location. The map draws on Appendix E or the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, Tanner, and Jackson. I’ll discuss the records from coastal areas, south Florida, the upper Mississippi and locations east of the river in the next post. I’ll conclude this one with a look at the records from the western edge of the range, since they relate to the Nebraska report and why I thought it might be credible; the Nebraska location is actually somewhat east of the records from the southern plains.

One record that I find compelling does not include a specimen; it’s from the 1820 Long Expedition, the first scientific exploration of the American West. Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 8.08.14 AM

The ivorybill’s call is described, and Pileated Woodpecker is distinguished and described as common in the area. These facts lend credibility to the report, as does the fact that Thomas Say was the expedition’s naturalist. While Say is best known as an entomologist, the expedition produced the first descriptions of a number of bird species, and an entire genus of flycatchers was named in his honor.

The location of this record is approximately south of Tulsa on the Canadian River, near the 96th Meridian. This is farther west than the location of the erroneous southeastern Nebraska report and well into the eastern Great Plains. It is also well beyond the range of the bald cypress. The relatively narrow floodplain would have been dominated by cottonwoods and willows, as it is to this day. This image, from ca. 1920s shows “Standing Rock” a geological feature now flooded that was discovered by the expedition a day after the ivorybill encounter. It should add a visceral sense of the area’s appearance to supplement the description above.

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Even if one opts to reject this record for lack of physical evidence, there are several others from approximately the same longitude that do involve specimens, and some are from the 20th century.

The Recovery Plan suggests that there are two records from west of Tulsa, a specimen was “probably” collected by Woodhouse along the Cimarron River, Pawnee County in 1849. Per Jackson, the specimen was sent to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, which has four specimens without location information in its collection. The second is from House Creek in Pawnee County, also Woodhouse 1849, and also reportedly sent to the Philadelphia Academy but not found there.

There are several Plains records from Texas. A specimen currently in the Dallas Museum was collected on Bois d’Arc Island, just southeast of Dallas, elevation 400′, in 1900. There were multiple reports from the area through 1910, and an additional bird may have been collected in 1918. A bird was reportedly “caught in a trap” in nearby Kaufman County in 1927 and examined by an R.E. Huck but not preserved. An additional Texas record, from farther south but west of the 96th Meridian, comes from New Braunfels County, south of Austin and east of San Antonio. There were multiple reports ca. 1900, with a collection reported but no specimen preserved.

Although only one record from the eastern Plains can be attached with certainty to a currently existing museum specimen, there’s proof that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were found in this region as recently as 1900 and considerable circumstantial evidence for their presence along riparian corridors on the plains of Texas, and possibly Oklahoma,  into the 20th-century. The habitat involved is markedly different from what so many have believed ivorybills require. I’m not suggesting that ivorybills persist at the western edges of their historic range, but as will be discussed in the final installment of this series, I think their ability to exploit these relatively narrow, willow and cottonwood dominated floodplains can help explain how the species could have persisted into the 21st century.

Stay tuned for Part 4.