A New and Important Post From David Martin AKA Fangsheath: Just How Much Potential Habitat Is There?

I’m personally indebted to David Martin (AKA Fangsheath). Not only was Dave a mentor during my early years as a searcher, Project Principalis would not exist without him. He was familiar with our study site and directed Frank Wiley to it as a promising place to search. Frank had a sighting soon thereafter. That sighting led to our first meeting and eventually to the formation of Project Coyote.

Now Dave has posted a major contribution to contemporary ivorybill literature. The title, The Decline of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Habitat Destruction or Human Predation?, reflects only one facet of what was a massive research project. For me, the most exciting aspect of this magnum opus is its in-depth examination of forest conditions in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. His research covers late 19th-early 20th-century and present-day conditions. It dovetails with some of what I’ve written in the past and points to the incompleteness of range-wide search efforts. It is illuminating and encouraging. There’s a vast quantity of decent or better habitat that still exists in the southeast, considerably more than I imagined.

I’d love to see the piece expanded to include West Tennessee, southern Missouri (the bootheel at least), and Oklahoma. (Edited to add: looking at aerials for the bootheel, there doesn’t seem to be much forest left, but given the 19th-century records from the lower reaches of the Ozark, some of Mark Twain National Forest might merit consideration, as well as whatever remnants are closer to the Mississippi.)

I need to read it a few more times, but I have some hesitation about the main thesis. I’m uncomfortable with the title’s dichotomy. I think both factors were in play – along with others, including the clearing of log jams and the extirpation of the beaver. And abundant folklore expressed a belief that the ivorybill, like indigenous people, would disappear as “civilization” advanced, vanishing behind the axe and the plough, though, of course, Native people were not simply “disappearing”, they were being driven out and killed in large numbers. The same could apply to ivorybills, but the evidence for it is not strong.

The folklore, which has 18th-century roots, is overwhelmingly of retreat from and avoidance of settled areas with no reference to hunting. It led late 19th-century Arkansans to refer to the earliest settlers in that state, as “ivorybills”, a species that vanished as settlement took hold. Market hunting and wholesale killing of ivorybills were undoubtedly factors. It’s clear that in some places, at some times, market hunting, wholesale shooting of birds, and collecting had devastating impacts on ivorybill populations, but the rangewide evidence suggests a more complex and nuanced picture.

At the same time, Tanner’s insistence on “virgin forest” and the notion of old growth obligacy are unsupported. Indeed, some of the habitat Tanner considered “best” for ivorybills included old growth, regrowth, and possibly “logged” (though not clear cut) areas. I’ve discussed this at length in prior posts, especially this one. Other research supports this view.

My colleague, Tommy Michot, includes a map on his website that reveals how varied conditions were in the 1930s ivorybill home ranges. Mack’s Bayou, in particular, departs from the old growth model; the 1935 nest found there was in an old field. So does Hunter’s Bend, which was partly logged in 1938 and from which Tanner had ivorybills disappearing after the logging. (Michot, Thomas C., Wylie C. Barrow, Heather Q. Baldwin and Christopher J.Wells. 2017. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana: Local Research Connects Habitats and Histories. Science on the Bayou Lecture Series, Lafayette, Louisiana.  March 28, 2017.) I am unsure whether the map’s logged areas at Mack’s Bayou and Hunter’s Bend were cut in 1938 or earlier. Tanner doesn’t mention logging at Mack’s Bayou, so that may predate his time at Singer.

For what it’s worth, Hunter’s Bend is one of the more promising 21st-century ivorybill areas on Tensas Refuge, and there’s reason to believe that ivorybills are present there today.

Dave’s article is something to study and contemplate while we await the USFWS decision on delisting . . .