Oklahoma: One of My Comments on the Delisting and an Additional Recent Report

In light of a recent post on Facebook related to a sighting in Oklahoma and additional information provided to me privately, it seemed timely to post this on the blog. Further research may lead to some revisions and additional commentary. I’m grateful to Scott Roberson for his contributions to this piece. A related and in depth discussion of historic range and habitat culminated in this post, which includes links to the rest of the series.

I am submitting additional comments to add newly discovered information and to respond to issues raised during the re-opened comment period. The issues relate to misunderstandings about habitat requirements and the adequacy of search efforts. These comments are to supplement, not to supersede, my prior submissions. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should reject the proposed delisting. Newly discovered historical information suggests that much of the ivorybill’s historic range west of the Mississippi has been overlooked, further weakening the rationale for the proposed delisting.

These issues are:

  1. There are assumptions about range and habitat requirements that evolved in the 19th-century. Tanner was influenced by these ideas and repeated and reshaped them. These incomplete understandings have informed the discourse around the ivorybill ever since and have influenced search strategies, despite caveats from Tanner himself both in the monograph (Tanner 1942) and in an unpublished 1989 revision ​found in his archives at Cornell University and used by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (W.C. Hunter, pers. comm.). 
  2. There is newly discovered evidence suggesting that ivorybills may have bred at multiple locations in Oklahoma into the 20th-century (S. Roberson, pers. comm.). There are records along the Missouri River as far west as Kansas City as late as 1885 (Hasbrouck: 1891) and later rumors, claims, and folklore from various parts of southern Missouri (for example, Neff: 1923).
  3. While there have been 21st-century reports from both western and central Arkansas and Oklahoma, and there have been a few informal searches of a few locations, there are millions of unsearched acres of potential habitat – approximately between 92 and 96 degrees West – in these regions. 

In 1989, when the Fish and Wildlife Service previously was considering delisting the ivorybill, James Tanner updated his monograph to correct erroneous entries and to add new information that had emerged in the decades since his study. 

He accepted an 1886 collection record from Forest Park, Missouri, near the mouth of the Missouri River, well to the north of records from the bootheel he had previously recognized. This collection occurred at a time when the species was believed to have retreated into the low-lying swamps of the deep south. 

Contrary to popular notions, the ivorybill was not limited to Singer Tract-type bottomland forests, let alone the cypress-dominated swamps that Audubon evoked so poetically. Tanner did relay the reports of Allen and Kellogg of their Ivory-billed Woodpecker observations of birds using open pine habitats for foraging while nesting in forested hammocks and swamps. In fact, Tanner wrote, “. . . Ivory-bills in Florida frequently fed in the pine woods bordering the swamps, something that has never been recorded in the region of the Mississippi Delta and only rarely elsewhere.”  

The “only rarely elsewhere” reference may have included observations by Alexander Wilson in the Carolinas in 1810, P.H. Gosse in Alabama during the 1830s, and the collection of two ivorybills by Vernon Bailey from the tops of pine trees in east Texas in 1904.  In addition, investigations (during the writing of the 2010 Recovery Plan) on the origins of several late 1800s specimens from southwest Florida revealed that they had come from mangrove dominated forests, something at the time Tanner was unaware of while accepting reports into the 1930s from these same areas (W.C. Hunter, pers. comm., USFWS 2010). 

If we had only the archaeological record to rely on, we might have a very different set of beliefs about the ivorybill’s range and ecology. Tanner would later learn about and accept midden records from areas he previously considered extralimital –Scioto County, Ohio, Kahokia Mounds, Illinois – in 1989. There are additional midden reports from other locations that Tanner otherwise considered extralimital.  

These finds would seem to extend the pre-contact range to the low elevation reaches of the Appalachians, mostly near major valleys such as the Etowah Mounds along the Coosa River drainage in northwest Georgia, the Marshall County mounds along Ohio River of West Virginia, and Daugherty’s Cave near the Clinch River in Virginia (Parmalee 1967, Leese and Michaels, 2020) and to just southwest of Muscatine, Iowa at the Gast Farm Site, adjacent to the Mississippi River and well north of the Tanner accepted reports from Missouri and Illinois. 

The item found at the last location there was a sternum, suggesting it was killed locally for food and was not something obtained in trade. The Gast Farm find does not seem to have been previously known in ornithological literature.

In his monograph, Tanner largely followed and accepted Hasbrouck’s assertion that ivorybills were gradually retreating into the deep south. For reasons that remain unclear, Tanner characterized published records for the Missouri River that Hasbrouck had accepted as “accidental”, “mistaken”, or “unproven” identifications.  

In contrast, Tanner’s 1989 acceptance of the range to the mouth of the Missouri makes the 19th-century records from farther upstream considerably more plausible, though he did not change his treatment of the Fayette and Kansas City County reports along the Missouri. Similarly, he dismissed reports from near Fort Macon, North Carolina, and along the Texas Coast as far south as the Guadalupe River drainage, when there was more substantive information available to support the veracity of these reports than had been recognized in 1942.

Tanner was also apparently unaware that, in 1835, the early traveler George Featherstonhaugh had seen ivorybills in Ripley County, Missouri, in the Ozark foothills. It was the first place that Featherstonhaugh encountered ivorybills en route to Arkansas from St. Louis. In the 1970s, an archaeological dig reportedly found an ivorybill bone in kitchen scraps at the “Widow Harris” site where Featherstonhaugh stayed. Further research is needed to track down the source of the identification and the whereabouts of the bone, but there is no doubt about the location.

The Widow Harris site is barely outside the Mississippi Valley and Tanner’s limits of range; it shows that ivorybills were being found in more upland habitats well into the 19th-century. 

Tanner mislocated Featherstonhaugh’s other record, which was from Arkansas, just outside the limits of original distribution shown on his 1942 range map, at the junction of the Ouachita and Saline Rivers. This 1942 map has been reproduced in birding publications, without correction, many times over. The actual location was just below the mouth of the Caddo River, in Hot Springs County, just north of Arkadelphia. Featherstonhaugh described the location as a “favored resort” of ivorybills and Carolina Parakeets. 

In Oklahoma, Tanner included several records but not always accurately. His information about Woodhouse’s journals from expeditions during 1849 and 1850 appears to have been incomplete. Woodhouse reported that:

Ten miles from the mouth of this river (the Cimmaron) I saw the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis, Linn.) also the Verdigris and Arkansas, but in no place was it abundant, whilst the pileated (Drycopus pileatus, Linn.) was abundant…

Tanner had relied on secondary sources and lacked access to Woodhouse’s original report (Tomer: 1974).

It may be significant that for four major watersheds west of the Mississippi – the Red, Arkansas, Missouri, and Ouachita Rivers –there are no reports of ivorybills for long stretches, with many of the historic records coming from smaller tributary streams on the outer margins of the range. The distance from the presumed core range, the apparent frequency with which ivorybills were encountered even if they were not “abundant”, and the lack of records from closer to the Mississippi mainstem raises questions about many deeply held assumptions.

This might only be of historical interest but for the fact that reports from these seemingly peripheral or “out of range” locations have continued into the 21st-century (USFWS 2010, Appendix E). When such claims are made by citizens they are routinely dismissed, if not mocked. There is no way to ascertain how many potentially credible reports from this region have been ignored over decades.

Perhaps most salient to this discussion are 20th-century claims from Oklahoma that appeared in newspapers starting in 1911. The first of these was made by Graham Burnham and was repeated in a 1912 Oklahoma Annual Report of the State Game and Fish Warden as part of a bird list for the state prepared by F.S. Barde, a respected ornithologist at the time. The entry asserts that a pair had been collected and sent to the Smithsonian and that ivorybills were breeding at several locations in the eastern part of the state.

Burnham, a well-regarded outdoorsman, journalist, civil engineer, and surveyor, reported collecting two ivorybills in Oklahoma. Here is Barde’s treatment of Burnham’s reports:

The reported specimens were not catalogued at the Smithsonian and are unaccounted for, pending further research. To all appearances, Burnham, who moved to Arkansas in around 1912 and died in 1936, was known as an expert on game (later serving as a game warden in Arkansas for a time), and well-respected locally, if perhaps a bit of a character. His story made national news in 1911 and included an apparently incorrect (or invented) claim about his having Native American ancestry.

There is nothing obvious in the available record to raise doubts about the report, but it clearly would have been familiar in Oklahoma ornithological circles. Regardless, M. M. Nice’s Birds of Oklahoma(1931) on which Tanner and other ornithologists (such as G.M. Sutton) relied, simply had a footnote that read, “Barde’s account of these woodpeckers being taken in Oklahoma in 1911 and sent to the Smithsonian Institute proves to be an error for there are no specimens of this species from this state in the National Museum.”  No further mention is made of any of Burnham’s 1911 reports for this species. Why Burnham’s reports went from being a source of pride to being disregarded remains a mystery. But on its face, this material is just as credible as and more detailed than many other records Tanner accepted.

Crabb’s The Woodpecker’s of Oklahoma (1930) includes a discussion of ivorybills in the state and Crabb’s experiences collecting in the eastern part of the state from 1913-1915. The Burnham/Barde account is not referenced, but Crabb’s treatment, which was written with Oberholser’s participation, suggests there may have been controversy in Oklahoma about it:

Several residents of the eastern and northeastern counties who had reported the occurrence of ivory-bills in that part of the State admitted that they had mistaken the pileated woodpecker for the ivory-bill when shown specimens of the two species.

Crabb, however, goes on to note a credible report from Dr. D.W. O’Hern in McIntosh County in 1915. This is another claim that appears to have eluded researchers. This is near the outermost edge of Tanner’s original range. O’Hern was a Johns Hopkins-trained geologist and had been hired as chair of the Geology Department at Oklahoma State University in 1911. 

Tanner references Crabb, so he must have been aware of the O’Hern claim, if not the Burnham/Barde reports. It is odd that he did not deem them worthy of mention, as he did follow up on seemingly less-well supported and less persistent claims. This is probably due, in part, to the fact that many details of the Woodhouse expedition were unknown at the time. It seems likely that various other biases were in play, including the influence of the ornithological elite. 

There is, in addition, a weaker record from the Verdigris River near Coffeyville, Kansas, upstream from where Woodhouse had reported the species in Oklahoma, that also seems to have eluded Tanner’s notice (as well as that of ornithologists working in Kansas to the present day). Though there are no other known ivorybill records for Kansas, the location is plausible. The reported size of the bird was consistent with Pileated, and the identification was questioned by N.S. Goss, the state ornithologist at the time. The newspaper that published the account stood by its story, but the specimen was not preserved. 

Unlike published claims from places like Minnesota and Pennsylvania, this was from a plausible location, and there was some additional support for the claim. 

There continued to be local rumors about ivorybills in Oklahoma when Tanner was working in Louisiana. The wire services carried one story:

Jackson covered some of the Oklahoma material, including a 1939 letter to the Audubon Society’s John Baker describing an ivorybill specimen in the personal possession of the Superintendent of the State Game Farm in El Reno. The letter also mentions ivorybills in the vicinity of Broken Bow (Jackson: 2004). But the full details of the Burnham story seem to have eluded him as well.

Tanner was one man in a Model-T Ford. He never set foot in central or Western Arkansas and never visited Missouri and Oklahoma during his dissertation work. The closest he got was the Sulphur River bottoms in Cass County, TX where he deemed the habitat to be cutover and of “a very poor type” for ivorybills. 

An element of subjectivity creeps into any assessment of incomplete, old records. It would have been impossible for Tanner to investigate every report. His selections were inevitably a product of his time, culture, and personal biases. But from a scientific standpoint, it makes no sense to treat his solo study as gospel, and these issues from west of the Mississippi raise even more questions about the validity of assumptions shaped by frontier mythology and cultural constructs like “virgin” forests. 

We have limited information about the ivorybill. Even the historic record has not been fully explored. The science is incomplete and encumbered with cultural baggage, bias, and stereotype. We simply don’t know enough about this species to declare it extinct.

Because reports continue in significant numbers, including from western parts of the range that have been at best minimally searched, it is facially arbitrary to declare the ivorybill extinct. Abundant anecdotal and some physical evidence suggests otherwise. 

It is even worse that the Service seems to be improvising and inventing procedures and rules as it goes along. This further suggests the delisting is being forced through without regard to the Endangered Species Act’s legal requirements.

This proposed delisting is a “bureaucratic decision” that “doesn’t mean it (the ivorybill) really is (extinct).” This astute observation was made by Jerome Jackson, now a leading ivorybill “skeptic” and critic of the 2005 reports, in the pages of Audubon.

Searches have been incomplete in areas within what has been believed to be the core range. Much of the historic range west of the Mississippi has been disregarded for more than a century. Procedural flaws and agendas behind this proposal aside.

This proposed delisting is about politics, not science, as even Jerome Jackson, a leading ivorybill  skeptic has publicly observed. Maintaining the status quo is the conservative, prudent, and scientific approach. 


Barde, F. S. (1912). Field Forest and Stream in Oklahoma, 1912. Annual Report of the State Game and Fish Warden, Guthrie, Okla.

Crabb, E.D., (1930). The woodpeckers of Oklahoma. Publications of the Oklahoma Biological Survey, 2(3).

Hasbrouck, E. M. (1891). The present status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). The Auk, 8(2): 174-186.

Jackson, J.A. (2004). In search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Leese, B., M. A. Michaels. (2020). Historical status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Virginia. The Raven 91:4-9.

Neff, J. A. (1923). Some birds of the Ozark region. The Wilson Bulletin, 35(4): 202-215.

Neverett, M. S. (2001). A zooarchaeological analysis of the Middle to Late Woodland transition at the Gast Farm Site (13LA12) in Southeastern Iowa. The University of Iowa.

Nice, M. M. (1931). The Birds of Oklahoma. Revised Edition: Publications of the Oklahoma Biological Survey, 3(1).

Parmalee, P. W. (1967). Additional noteworthy records of birds from archaeological sites. The Wilson Bulletin: 155-162.

Tanner, J.T. 1942. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Research report no. 1. National Audubon Society, New York, NY.

Tomer, J. S. (1974). Ornithological work of SW Woodhouse in Indian Territory. Bulletin of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society:17-55.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2010. Recovery plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta, GA. fws.gov/ivorybill/pdf/ibwrecoveryplan2010.pdf