Preprint Available: Multiple Lines of Evidence indicate the survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana

An announcement from the National Aviary and Project Principalis:

The National Aviary, along with Project Principalis, is delighted to announce that we have made available to the public the results to date of our search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A paper titled, “Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana” co-authored by Steven Latta, Mark Michaels, and eight other Project Principalis members and collaborators, can be viewed here. (Supplementary materials are at the upper right.) People who have been close to the search know that this is the result of many years of effort by Project Coyote, followed by several more years of intensive field work by the National Aviary and Project Principalis.

More details are available on the National Aviary’s Project Principalis pages, and there should be some updates soon.

A personal note: Frank Wiley and I met in 2008 and shared a vision. We were about as different as could be culturally, but we found common ground in the ivorybill. Most of all, we both recognized J.J. Kuhn’s importance in the saga and tried to figure out what Kuhn knew. Frank befriended Edith Kuhn Whitehead and made it possible for me to meet her in person shortly before her death. He cared deeply about nature and was generous in helping kids with an interest. He educated me too. He drove me crazy sometimes, and I’m sure the reverse is true. We loved each other like brothers. I wish he were here for this.

It has been a long, hard struggle to reach this point. and I don’t know how things will develop from here. The preprint is already making an impact. I hope it changes the discourse.

This is not a peer-reviewed publication. The peer review process is protracted, and we deemed it better to make these findings public now. It affords an opportunity to receive constructive, scientific feedback while adding to the record. We hope the process will strengthen the paper. The work is ongoing.

What’s in the Cavity? A Possible Second Bird in a Couple of Old Trail Cam Photos

Regular readers are no doubt familiar with some of the images shown below. The “neck bird”, which was photographed in our old search area in August 2009, has been discussed in a number of posts. I think it likely shows a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, something that became clearer once I satisfied myself that what appeared to be red in the crest (in the wrong place for either Pileated or ivorybill) was likely an artifact and that the crest appears to be all black, as shown in the enhanced image below. The original captures (the first taken a minute before the neck bird appears and the second showing the neck bird) are immediately below that for those who haven’t seen them.

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Processed Detail of Image 1096, August 11, 2009

Years after the capture and probably after the first post about this image in 2014, I noticed that an object suggestive of a light colored bill was visible in both frames, apparently protruding from the lower cavity in the snag to the right of center. While I have shared this information privately with a number of people and did a vague Facebook post about it a couple of years ago, I’ve hesitated to blog about it or discuss it in detail. That changed after I showed it to Jay and Erik before we parted company on my last trip to Louisiana. When Erik suggested that the object might be a vine or some other intervening vegetation, I decided to go back through my files. I discovered that Frank had sent me several additional captures from the same deployment. I examined these frames and found that the apparent bill was absent from all of them.


Below are details from frames 1095 and 1096 showing the apparent bill, which changes position slightly from one frame to the next. The time lapse interval between images was 1 minute. Again, the cavity in question is the lower one (below the fork) in the snag to the right of and behind the one on which the neckbird is seen in 1096. These snags are black willows (Salix nigra), and the neck bird snag (with the large cavity apparently being used by a squirrel) fell between November 2009 and January 2010. I’m also posting the close-ups in tiled mosaic format so they can be viewed side-by-side.

For this round of image processing, I used Let’s Enhance, which enabled me to retain a large format for cropped and zoomed versions.

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Detail from 1095 – Note apparent light colored object (possibly a bill) apparently protruding from an bisecting the lower cavity


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Detail from 1096, captured one minute later. Note slight change in position of the possible bill.

Next are two details from images captured a few days later. The possible bill is nowhere to be seen. The same is true for the other captures from this deployment. Thus intervening vegetation and artifact can be ruled out.


Detail from image 2135, captured August 14, 2009. Note the absence of the apparent bill that appeared in images 1095 and 1096 captured three days earlier.


Detail from Image 2507, captured on August 16, 2009. Again, note the absence of any object in the lower cavity.

To summarize, the following two photos show what appears to be a bill in the cavity:

2009-08-11 7:48 am  (image 1095.jpg)

2009-08-11 7:49 am  (image 1096.jpg – the neck bird photo)

The following photos show a cavity with no apparent bill:

2009-08-14 6:19 am

2009-08-14 6:20 am

2009-08-14 6:21 am

2009-08-14 4:06 pm

2009-08-14 4:07 pm

2009-08-15 6:20 am

If this is a bill, it appears to be large and light colored, consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Both Erik and I noticed that, in frame 1095, a topmost part of the white dorsal stripe also may be visible. When Jay first saw the photos, he was reminded of the Neal Wright photos from Texas. Some images from the Singer Tract also come to mind.


Thus, this apparent bill resembles those of known ivorybills in cavities – in size, shape, orientation, and contrast. It is present only in frames 1095 and 1096 (the latter of which shows another possible ivorybill); it changes position over the course of a minute, from one frame to the next. There is no way to be sure images 1095 and 1096 show an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a roost hole, but these facts, especially taken together, suggest that they may.

When I look back at what transpired in the old search area between August 2009 and November 2010, when the adjoining parcel was logged, it’s extraordinary. I may revisit those events in a future post or two.

For now, I’ll close by tying this into the Bits and Pieces series. The old search area is not one that would be deemed suitable under most habitat models. The images above were captured in a stand of black willows at the edge of a bean field. The other trail cam capture, where I had a sighting, was also within perhaps 30 yards of that field. When I look back at my assessment of the habitat from the time, I think I somewhat naively overstated its quality; however, there was a good deal of dead and dying timber, and it was in close proximity to several much larger habitat patches. If we did indeed capture ivorybills with our trail cams, their presence in this area may point to how the species has been able to adapt to more fragmented habitats.

Thanks to Erik Hendrickson for his input on this post and his help in making it clearer.

Old Singer Tract Images Compared with Two More Recent Ones (from Elsewhere)

1967 slides taken by Neal Wright of a putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Texas are viewable on Vireo (search Ivory-billed Woodpecker), but high resolution scans have not been widely circulated as far as I know. These images were not made public until after the the Arkansas “rediscovery”, more than three decades after they were obtained. Wright’s story is mentioned in Jackson (2004) “Reynard saw the photo and said that it was fuzzy but definitely of a Campephilus woodpecker.” It’s clear from the context that Jackson had not seen the images at the time of writing.

When I first encountered the Wright slides, I was skeptical, but after seeing some lesser-known Singer Tract photographs as well as other images of Campephilus woodpeckers in cavities, my opinion started to shift. After finding additional ivorybill photographs in the Cornell archives and in Tanner’s dissertation, I thought it would be worth posting some of those images along with one of Wright’s slides for the sake of comparison.

Of course, it’s up to readers to draw their own conclusions, but I think a few things are worthy of note. First, the Wright slides were taken long before the internet, at a time when the only readily available image of an ivorybill in a nest cavity was Tanner’s Plate 1, which is quite similar to Fig. 43b (below). The posture of Wright’s bird is much closer to the ones shown in the then virtually unknown and/or unpublished images, especially those from the 1938 nest. The placement of the cavity is also strikingly similar, just below a major fork. It seems highly unlikely that Wright would have been aware of obscure Singer Tract photographs.

While the image quality is too poor to be certain, there appears to be excavation similar to work found on some Singer Tract nest and roost trees to the right of the nest cavity in Wright’s slide. Again, this is a fine detail that would likely have been unknown to Wright and that would have been difficult to fabricate.

These are very poor quality images; the malar stripe seems a little too extensive, although this could easily be a function of angle and lighting. As with the Fielding Lewis photographs, which were taken several years later, I have to wonder why anyone intent on committing a hoax wouldn’t do a better job. And in the case of the Wright pictures, it would make more sense if the template for such a hoax would have been Plate 1 in Tanner, rather than photos that were unknown to all but a handful of people, most of them at a northeastern university.

Finally, I think the fact that the images were turned over to an ornithologist (George Reynard, scroll down for his obituary) but were kept confidential for so long also tends to support the idea that they’re authentic. Neal Wright may have had an agenda – a desire to protect the area where he took the picture – but the images were not used to serve that purpose.

Edited to add: This fascinating article on a recent, non-ivorybill related hoax suggests that it’s not uncommon for hoaxes to be paradoxically uneven in quality, and that hoaxers’ motives can be murky and bizarre. Nonetheless, I think that other factors point to authenticity for both the Wright and Lewis photos.

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© N. Wright/VIREO USA – Nest with adult protruding, slide mount dated 5/70 (apparently the duplication date). Poorly defined bird is apparently peering out of a cavity in the upper left of the trunk, below the fork.

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Ivorybills at Nest, John’s Bayou 1938, female’s head protruding from cavity

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Ivorybills at Nest, John’s Bayou, 1935, male’s head protruding from cavity


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Images from the Singer Tract and James T. Tanner’s Dissertation Courtesy of Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library


Another item I found in Tanner’s dissertation merits comparison with one of Project Coyote’s camera trap photos, since the tree species involved are the same. Plate 7 in Tanner shows ivorybill feeding sign on honey locusts, but the reproduction in the monograph is very dark. The figure from the dissertation is much brighter, making it clearer what Tanner was attempting to show. I think the similarity to the work on our target tree, where I had a sighting a week prior to the capture, is striking.

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Courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Libraries

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Trail cam photo with scaled tree in the foreground and suspected female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in red box, Nov. 2009

To enlarge the trail cam photo, click here.

Scaling Data 2012-2016

To expand on some of the data included toward the end of the March trip report (which is worth reading in in conjunction with this post), I thought it would be informative to provide a season by season and sector by sector breakdown of the scaling I and others involved with Project Coyote have found since the spring of 2012. To do so, I’ve gone through my notes and photographs and have done my best to reconstruct the data collected. While not complete (I’m quite sure a good deal more scaling was found in Sector 3 during 2013-2014, for example), I think this breakdown is a fairly accurate reflection of what we’ve found over the years.

As discussed in previous posts, I think extensive scaling on hickory boles is the most compelling for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Bark on this species is thick, dense, and usually remains very tight for a long time. Extensive scaling on sweet gum boles and oaks (upper boles and large branches) is second among work that I’ve found. Work on small boles, and higher and smaller branches is somewhat less compelling and is more significant for its abundance. Some of the high branch scaling and work on smaller boled sweet gums may well have been done by Pileated Woodpeckers (and possibly by Hairy Woodpeckers), but the abundance, the presence of large bark chips in many cases, the way it appears in clusters, and the fact that Pileateds scale infrequently suggest a different source for much of it.

I have excluded all work where squirrels are suspected but have counted one tree, a hickory found this year, on which the work could well have been that of a Hairy Woodpecker. Hairies do forage for Cerambycid beetles just under the bark, but they’re only capable of removing tight bark in small pieces; their work on hickories is perhaps more accurately described as excavation through the bark.

The trail cam images toward the end of this post are the best we have (out of many thousands of hours of coverage) showing how these species forage on suspected ivorybill feeding trees.

All trees were live or recently dead (twigs and sometimes leaves attached). All scaling was on live or recently dead wood.
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Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styracifula)

Sector 1:         46

Sector 2:         8

Sector 3:         51

                        105         (84.68%)        

~15% had scaling on boles (a few of these were large trees). The majority of work was on crowns, including larger branches. Fallen trees were included when woodpecker involvement was evident and bark was tight.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

Sector 1:            3

Sector 2:            4

Sector 3:            7

                           14         (11.29%)

All trees were standing; scaling was on boles and was very extensive (the tree shown on the homepage is one example) with one exception from this year . Insect tunnels were visible in all examples. An additional hickory with a modest amount of high branch scaling was found in Sector 1 this year but was not counted for this analysis.

Oak (Quercus) spp.

Sector 1:         1

Sector 2:         4

Sector 3:         0

                         5         (4.03%)

All oaks had scaling on large branches; one also had some on the bole. All oaks in Sector 2 were found in a single cluster.

We have some information on forest composition in Sector 3, and it appears that sweet gums make up approximately 19%, oaks upwards of 35%, and hickories somewhere under 10%. Sectors 1 and 2 may differ and be more varied in overall composition.

The overwhelming preference for sweet gums relative to their abundance stands out. The scaled oaks are a mix of species, one Nuttall’s, one willow, the others unidentified.

In Sector 3, I am treating the compact stretch from the location of Frank Wiley’s sighting last spring/downed sweet gum top where we had the camera trap to just south of our current deployment as a cluster. The estimate of 23 trees being found in this area is conservative. I have only found one instance of recent scaling north of the location of the downed limb/Frank’s 2015 sighting. The main cluster has been in the same vicinity this year and last, with additional work scattered around farther south. Two of the hickories are within 30 yards of each other, approximately half a mile from the cluster, and one was on the edge of the concentration.

It also may be significant to note that we found a cluster of old but intriguing cavities in the same vicinity as the Sector 3 concentration in 2013-2014. Most of these seem to have fallen. The difficulty we’re having finding active, suggestive cavities is vexing, and may be the most compelling reason to be skeptical about the presence of ivorybills in the area. At the same time, finding Pileated cavities is difficult, even in defended home ranges.

I’m treating Sector 1 as a single concentration; the vast majority of the work is on a natural levee where sweet gums are abundant. The entire area is considerably larger than the other clusters, but given the abundance and ease with which we’ve found sign there over the last five seasons, I think it constitutes one area of concentration.

In Sector 2, there was a small cluster in the area where I recorded putative kent calls in 2013, with work found in 2012 (spring and fall) and 2013. Because the area is small with open sight lines, I can be confident there has been no recent work there since late in 2013 (I last passed through it with Tom Foti back in March of this year.)

The sweet gum work Tom and I found on that day was perhaps half a mile north of this cluster, within 100 yards of the hickory on the homepage. The other hickories found in the 2013 and 2014 seasons were not far away, no more than 500 yards apart as the crow flies.

There’s obviously some bias here, since there’s a relationship between finding feeding sign in a given area and spending time there. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that the putative ivorybill work tends to be clustered. I also have little doubt about the strong preference for sweet gums, since I’m not looking at tree species when I look for scaling. The degree to which sweet gums are favored has only become clear over the last year or so.

Frank pointed out this data does not reflect most of the scaling that likely exists in relatively close proximity to the Sector 3 cluster but cannot be quantified because it is in an area we have intermittently visited due to  inaccessibility. Only two or three examples are from this area, which has been visited a handful of times.


















Feeding Sign, Foraging Preferences, and Prey Species: Some Observations and Speculation

Frank and a visiting ornithologist spent this past weekend in our search area. I’m eager to read and will be posting Frank’s report before long. For now, suffice it to say they set up three trail cams, one on the snag where we captured the image discussed here and here and one on this downed sweet gum top found in April:Big Limb

It most likely fell on April 19th. When I found it a couple of days later, it had fresh green leaves attached and no sign of insect infestation. Since then it has been partially scaled. This is an important data point, as we know the scaling took place within five and a half months of death, and Tanner documented the IBWO’s preference for freshly dead wood. We hope there will be a return visit soon.

They also placed a camera on an even more recently fallen water oak, something that started me thinking about possible patterns in the feeding sign we’re finding.

I’ve counted the examples of feeding sign from our current search area I’ve posted on the blog (which is by no means all the suggestive work we’ve found but is generally the most impressive), and the results for sweet gums are interesting, especially in light of Tanner’s observations suggesting an IBWO preference for sweet gums. Our results also suggest a preference for hickory. (Hickories were scarce in the Singer Tract, and apparently the species present in our area were not present there.) In both cases, the frequency with which we’re finding scaling seems to exceed the relative abundance of either type of tree, although we have not made formal counts. This sign was found between the spring of 2012 and the Spring of 2015, except for the downed top pictured above, which was scaled a little later.

The tally includes a couple of examples of work that falls short of what we consider to be diagnostic for IBWO. It also includes the small sweet gum snag that looks like it was attacked with a hatchet.

Edited November 2021 to add: We now have reason to think this is likely Pileated Woodpecker work.


While there seemed to be a preference for sweet gums prior to the 2014-2015 season, the preference was considerably more pronounced this year when the abundance of fresh scaling on sweet gums in a relatively small area was astonishing. Here’s the multi-year breakdown:

Sweet gum:                       25

Hickory:                             10

Presumed sweet gum:        6 (One example possibly PIWO)

Oak species:                       3

Willow oak:                          2

Unknown:                            1

Maple:                                  1 (Possibly PIWO)

Ivorybills fed on sweet gums in 42.6% of Tanner’s observations, scaling in 40 instances and digging in 3. Sweet gums made up 20.8% of the forest composition in Tanner’s study area. Next on Tanner’s list of preferred foraging trees were Nuttall’s oaks. By contrast, Pileateds “appeared to have no preference for any species of tree.” Tanner observed PIWOs feeding on sweet gums on fourteen occasions; nine involved digging and five involved scaling. He further noted, “What scaling Pileateds were observed to do was mostly on loose bark and was never as extensive or cleanly done as the work of the Ivory-bills.”

On a more speculative note, I think I’ve been able to identify one species of beetle that’s infesting the sweet gums, including the small one shown above. They’re an invasive, the granulate (formerly Asian) ambrosia beetle Xylosandrus crassiuculus (or another closely related invasive). Ambrosia beetles are tiny, but they are gregarious, with adult females creating chambers and tending broods of larvae in the sapwood. They can kill small trees but also infest larger ones. They have a relatively short life-cycle, and one source suggests they can produce 3 or 4 broods a season in the deep south. It’s worth repeating that I’ve seen signs of ambrosia beetle infestation elsewhere in Louisiana (near our old search area and in upland hardwood forest adjacent to our current one) but did not find work suggestive of ivorybills in either place.

We’ve found known IBWO prey species in our search area, on trees that we suspect were fed on by ivorybills. We also suspect that, contrary to Tanner, they may feed on darkling beetles. Could they also be feeding on an invasive species? We can see no reason to suspect otherwise and will continue our investigations with this in mind. I plan to return to Louisiana Thanksgiving week.

The Pros and Cons of Trail Cams

Frank wrote this up and asked me to post it.

Recently, we’ve received several messages, and another blogger has mentioned the use of game cameras – also referred to as trail cams, or camera traps – as aids in searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We’ve been deploying trail cams since early 2009, and have had some intriguing “hits”. They have been useful in many ways, and we have learned a lot about the feeding habits of other woodpeckers – specifically, Pileated, Hairy, and Red-bellied – that were useful in giving Mark insights into the type of feeding sign that we have come to believe is most likely diagnostic for ivorybills. In dozens of deployments, and hundreds of hours of searching with boots on the ground, and sometimes in the water, we have NEVER observed a woodpecker performing the type of scaling that we have come to suspect is diagnostic.

While trail cams are a valuable tool in our arsenal, they are, by no means infallible. There are many pitfalls involved in their use. Firstly, they are not designed to capture birds – in fact many common species of birds are almost unidentifiable in the images. Birds do not set off the motion triggers that these cameras use, and why should they? The cameras are designed for use along trails and adjacent to food plots used by larger mammals – usually whitetail deer. I have tested the Reconyx “Hyperfire” cameras that we use, and even a large Wild Turkey at fairly close range will not trigger one, even at its most sensitive setting, while a relatively small (terrier size) dog will trigger one from a distance of twenty-five or more yards. The manufacturer has indicated to me that there is “something about the way birds reflect light in the visible and infrared spectrum” that makes the cameras’ triggering units unable to “see” them.

As a result, ivorybill hunters must find a camera that will operate in time lapse mode. For all their disadvantages (3.1 megapixels, low resolution among them) the Reconyx cameras offer the best time lapse mode available at an affordable price. This, in and of itself, though, becomes a handicap, as the card for each camera must be programmed, using a proprietary program provided by Reconyx, on a PC. One programs the card, inserts it into the camera, and hopes for the best – there is no way to check and see if the card/camera combination is functioning properly. This has led to many wasted deployments. Additionally, there is the problem of how often should the camera take a photo vs. storage capacity of the card. The cams are designed for 8 gig cards, sometimes they will function with a 16 gig card, but will universally malfunction with a 32 gig card. 8 gigs is usually enough for a ten-day deployment with the camera time constrained to take a photo every twenty seconds for ten hours a day – you do get to select the hours of operation though. While every twenty seconds would seem to be quite often (and a full 8 gig card will store upwards of thirty thousand images), perform a little test for yourself. Go out to your favorite birdwatching location and see how long a bird – any arboreal non-raptor species – stays in one location for twenty or more seconds. Captures of birds on game cams are a relatively rare event – I have looked at nearly a million Reconyx photographs and have picked up birds of any kind in perhaps a thousand images – identifiable birds in maybe two hundred.

The very first thing that has to be done when using game cams is to select a location where you suspect an ivorybill is likely to show up. This could be a tree with scaled bark and other indications that an ivorybill has visited it, or a cavity with features that seem to match photographs of known ivorybill cavities. Both of these are, at best, iffy propositions. One has to find the tree, geotag it (you do have a good GPS unit, right?) then return to the location – often several miles of hiking through some pretty rough and secluded forest, carrying the camera and its mounting system – which weighs around ten pounds. Then the camera and mount have to be positioned to get the target near the center of the frame, which gets easier with practice, and the camera and mount hidden and intervening vegetation trimmed so as not to interfere with the line-of-sight. Once all this has been done the camera can be turned on, armed, and left to do its thing.

Assuming that everything up to this point has been done perfectly, in ten days or so, it’s time to change cards, or retrieve the cam. Now one is faced with the daunting prospect of going through some thirty-thousand photos looking for anything “interesting”. Often, several days of images will pass without a single “hit” of any kind. It’s often a relief to spot even a small woodpecker or squirrel, to remind one that the target is part of a living ecosystem.

The series shown here is exceptional in terms of quantity of images, quality, and our ability to place the camera. (It may be significant for what it doesn’t show, a Pileated doing the type of scaling we think is diagnostic.) Even so, it was not possible to cover the entire target tree.

As I stated earlier, these cameras, within their limitations, are useful tools, but for my money, nothing really beats the good old MK I MOD I human eyeball. But at this point, that’s just not enough …

In addition to the suggestive photos we’ve already posted, we recently obtained some pictures at the site where last week’s double knock was recorded. Because we find some of these pictures intriguing but inconclusive, we have deployed two cameras in hopes that the double placement will yield an identifiable photograph. The first picture, taken under good lighting conditions, clearly shows a Red-headed Woodpecker (there is a roost at the very top of the snag); the others are ambiguous. We are posting them unedited and leave it to you to speculate about what they may be. We recognize that none of these are of anywhere near good enough quality to be identifiable as ivorybills, but we are doing some further analysis to get a clearer sense of scale. The camera placement is 85’ from the tree; the branches behind the tree are an additional 15” away. My preliminary estimate of the diameter of the tree just above the jug handle on the right is approximately 18”.

I have taken careful measurements using a camera with known lens settings and a rangefinder – when the weather is more congenial, I will make comparison shots at the exact measured ranges. This should give a margin of error of ~1″ or less.


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Rapid Evolution – I Think Not: More on Game Cams and Challenges

Cyberthrush’s blog has been an important resource for people with an interest in the IBWO for nearly a decade. I’ve agreed with him at times and have taken strong issue with him at others. His latest post falls into the latter category and strikes me as being somewhat irresponsible; it’s worthy of submission to The Annals of Armchair Quarterbacking. I responded in the comments but have some additional observations that seem better suited to posting here.

The inspiration for Cyberthrush’s post is an image someone sent him of suspected bark scaling low on a tree. The image is not shown in the post, but I suspect I’ve seen it and, if so, am sure it was the work of a mammal. In any case, he hypothesizes that the IBWO has rapidly evolved to live almost exclusively in the canopy. He uses the specialization of certain species – seabirds, Chimney Swifts, and warblers – to draw parallels, ignoring entirely that none of these species evolved nearly so rapidly. The only basis for this theory is the failure to obtain clear photographs.

He digresses to dismiss virtually all the photographs of feeding sign, cavities, and putative IBWOs and virtually every recording of putative kents or DKs he’s seen over the past 9 years. He writes: “I don’t want to discourage people from sending such things along, but I do want folks to know that the chance of getting a positive response from me is extremely slim . . .”

He goes on:

“I’m in the camp that believes any remaining IBWOs have evolved heightened wariness and caution, and as such DO NOT spend ANY extensive time at ground level, where they would be far more vulnerable. In fact, I believe they are now almost exclusively residents of the upper canopies, other than when flying from point A to point B and requiring a clear pathway. While they might land momentarily lower on a tree, they probably spend most of their daily lives minimally 35+ ft. high up (maybe 50+ ft.) on tree trunks/branches and inside cavities, well above levels frequented by Pileateds and other woodpecker cousins (and generally out of easy sight-line for searchers). It’s not clear to me how many of the remote automatic camera traps were ever set that high (though it’s clear several were not). Like Swifts in the air and Albatrosses at sea, I think Ivory-bills may spend most of their lives solely in the canopies… if you send me a photo of foraging sign or a cavity or a fuzzy bird lower than ~35 ft. high, I probably won’t take it too seriously (even though there are historical records of such cases), unless there are overriding additional details to catch my attention. If Ivory-bills currently lived and foraged below 35 ft. to any significant extent I believe we’d have the definitive evidence we need by now (well before now!); only perhaps as a denizen of the upper reaches might they be able to carry on successfully, while also evading encounters and detection to the degree they have . . .”

I don’t know who else is in his camp. Some have certainly argued that hunting pressure led the IBWO to become hyper-wary, and I can accept that hypothesis to some degree, although I think scarcity and the nature of the habitat have far more to do with the lack of conclusive documentation. The suggestion that the species evolved to exist almost exclusively in the canopy, when it was not infrequently seen feeding near the ground, is nowhere near as plausible, and it’s invented out of whole cloth.

As I wrote in the comments:

Your exclusion of any work below 35′ is arbitrary and wrongheaded, IMO. Forget Allen and Kellogg, Tanner even observed that they’re “not averse” to coming near the ground. Do you really think such a significant behavioral change evolved post-Tanner? An animal seeking food is going to go where the food is, and as it happens, the largest quantity of food is often to be found in the boles. I agree that cavities will be high up and also that work that’s exclusively near the base of the tree is suspect, but when the work goes higher than about 10 feet you can pretty well rule out a mammalian source (unless giraffes are around or there’s some heretofore undiscovered porcupine species in the swamps of Louisiana and Florida). When it’s very extensive, you can be pretty confident that it’s either PIWO or IBWO, and as I’ve argued at length on the Project Coyote blog, I think there is a limited range of work that is identifiable as IBWO.

This really is giraffe foraging sign, photographed in Louisiana . . . Long story.

This really is giraffe foraging sign, photographed in Louisiana . . . Long story.

One avian example of rapid evolution (though not nearly so rapid as Cyberthrush’s IBWO) is the Cahow, but that adaptation involved a change in nesting behavior due to a lack of adequate sites, something that’s far more akin to the kinds of survival strategies discussed in this recent post. There’s simply no reason to think that IBWOs could have suddenly evolved to live almost solely in the canopy. Not when Allen and Kellogg even observed one feeding on the ground; not when Kuhn observed one feeding a foot up; not when one of the clearest photos of bark scaling shows the work going to the base of the tree (the bark chips in this image are worth a close look, and they resemble many that we have found.)

With regard to aiming cameras at the canopy, I discussed the limitations of game cam technology in this post. The challenges increase dramatically when the cameras are aimed even higher, as is illustrated in this photo of a bird about 75’ up in a tree. There’s simply no way to get a conclusive ID. I think it’s suggestive of a female IBWO and that red would be visible in the crest if it were a PIWO, although it’s clearly nowhere near as intriguing as our other two Reconyx photos. Frank disagrees and thinks it could be anything.

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Reconyx image and detail. Old Project Coyote search area, March 2009

Reconyx image and detail. Old Project Coyote search area, March 2010

Either way, aiming these very poor resolution, short focal length cameras high complicates matters exponentially. The likelihood of getting a clear image at such a great distance and with backlighting is infinitesimal. Aiming high is likely to be a wasted effort. One final note about game cameras, Cyberthrush attaches a great deal more significance to the lack of photos than I do. As far as I’m aware game cameras were only extensively deployed in Arkansas, South Florida, and the Choctawhatchee. They’ll only work if they’re deployed at the right time and in the right place, something that’s much easier said than done. As I’ve mentioned previously, virtually all the scaling we’ve found seems to have been done in a very limited number of visits to the tree, perhaps just one, and in the very rare instances where we’ve found evidence of a return of whatever removed the bark, there has been a gap of several months between visits.

The key to all of this is going to be finding a roost or nest site (unless someone gets extremely lucky.) I’m convinced that feeding sign is what can point searchers in that direction; it’s what led Kuhn and the Allen and Kellogg expedition to birds in the 1930s. That’s the reason for my focus on it. Cyberthrush does a disservice to all searchers by suggesting, based on unfounded speculation, that virtually anything found below 35’ feet is not worthy of attention.

Heavily scaled young oak with suspected IBWO work extending from the base to well up on the trunk.

Heavily scaled young sweet gum or oak with suspected IBWO work extending from the base to well up on the trunk. Note the large bark chips at the base.

An Unpublished Image from 2009 and Some Reflections on Remote Cameras

I wanted to respond a recent post from Cyberthrush and thought it would be better to do so here rather than as a comment on his blog, since I will include few photographs.

Cyberthrush wrote:

As a sidenote, there is BTW, one paradox that DOES concern me: it’s one thing for humans to have difficulty encountering IBWOs, it’s another for non-thinking, non-tiring, 24-hour-working cameras to fail to encounter the bird. Despite 1000’s of hours of automatic, remote camera-recording (literally millions of picture frames) from habitat, cavities, and foraging sites that appeared favorable, we have utterly failed, over years, to detect a SINGLE Ivory-billed Woodpecker — even though these birds must, to exist at all, regularly forage, roost, fly about, breed, etc.  This is the single most devastating result of the entire USFWS/Cornell search — having said that, I’ll quickly add that the cameras (which often malfunctioned, BTW) were used in relatively few areas — compared to all the suitable habitat available.  Still, cameras were placed where, following much study, the best chance of capturing an Ivory-bill on tape was anticipated — either Ivory-bills were not there, despite prior alleged evidence that they were, or we humans are bumblingly, mind-blowingly incompetent at ever understanding/predicting this species’ behavior (personally, I’m voting for the gross friggin’ human incompetence option, but I could be wrong, maybe they aren’t there)].

With regard to the failure of remote cameras to detect an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, over the years Project Coyote has gotten several Reconyx images that are suggestive but are not of sufficient quality to be conclusive. We published two images from the old search area on the old website and are reposting the more intriguing of the two below (we disagree about the other.) We’ve never shared a third image publicly, although we agree that it is suggestive. We are doing so now to illustrate just how limited the cameras are. Both pictures were taken at fairly close range, no more than 100 feet from the subject, and we have teased as much detail out of them as we can. In both cases, better camera technology would probably have made it possible to identify the subjects with certainty. These cameras were designed for taking pictures of terrestrial mammals at close range, and their limitations become very evident when birds are the target.


Reconyx image taken August 11th 2009. Possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker is just below the major fork in the center tree. A squirrel can also bee seen near the suspected roost hole, higher on the trunk.

Reconyx image taken August 11th 2009. Original image has been doubled to improve resolution but is otherwise unaltered. Possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker is just below the major fork in the center tree. A squirrel is also discernible near the suspected roost hole, higher on the trunk.


Detail of August 2009 image. It has been suggested that the red in the crest is an artifact, but artifact or not, the quantity of black in the crest appears inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. What may be part of the white saddle is visible on the lower left.

Detail of August 2009 image, enhanced in Photoshop to the best of my ability. It has been suggested that the red in the crest is an artifact, but artifact or not, the quantity of black in the crest appears inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. What may be part of the white saddle is visible on the lower left of the bird, a creamy white which contrasts with the bluish white of the backlighting just below it.

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Reconyx image taken November 30, 2011 and details showing suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker, possibly a female. Red crests are visible on Pileated Woodpeckers in Reconyx images captured under similar conditions and at similar distances. The bird is only present in a single frame. I had a sighting at this spot one week before.


As Cyberthrush observed, the cameras are prone to malfunction, and even when they do operate properly, they can only shoot an image every 20-30 seconds. This means they miss a good deal of avian activity. We have examined many thousand Reconyx images over the years, and the number of sequences showing any woodpecker for more than a single frame is very small. The sequence showing a PIWO and a HAWO (scroll down), captured last spring is unique. Getting good Reconyx images of common species is considerably more difficult than it seems.


There are several additional issues. First, when it comes to the kind of bark scaling we think is associated with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, there are no return visits for several months after the feeding sign has been found. In our search area, a tree scaled in March had additional work done on it in May. In the new area, we have had no clear evidence of return visits to the trees scaled last year, and in one instance – involving higher branch, more Tanner-like scaling – the work appeared to have been done approximately a year apart. Not leaving cameras in place for long enough may have led to missed opportunities.


I disagree with Cyberthrush’s “gross friggin’ human incompetence option”, but the human element is quite likely a factor. I understand that on at least some of the official searches, no effort was made to camouflage the cameras, something we think is very important. In addition, as I pointed out in a recent comment on CT’s blog, J.J. Kuhn (not James T. Tanner) was the last person who knew how to find ivorybills reliably. It’s pretty clear that feeding sign was a key component. The issue here isn’t competence; it’s the lack of sufficient, reliable information.


Some people are convinced there’s no way to distinguish IBWO from PIWO work (and I agree that’s true most of the time.) But I believe more attention could have been paid to the existing images from the Singer Tract and to the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. I’m also not aware of much importance being attached to bark chips, despite the fact that they’re mentioned in the literature. It took me several years of obsessing over this subject to arrive at a working hypothesis. But even if I’m correct, that doesn’t address the need to have a camera in the right place at the right time.


I’ll be making a brief visit to our search area next week and will likely post an update after I return.