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.


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