Bark: An Exegesis


According to Tanner, scaling bark was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s primary foraging strategy during breeding season in Louisiana. Tanner wrote that the ivorybill is “capable of easily scaling away heavy bark that other woodpeckers could not loosen.” (Tanner 1942). All woodpeckers in genus Campephilus have specific anatomical characteristics that enable them to forage in this specialized way (Bock and Miller 1959). Following Tanner, most post-Singer Tract search efforts have looked for feeding sign as an indicator of presence. Because Tanner’s descriptions are somewhat vague and many of the photographs showing feeding sign are poor, these efforts have tended to focus on decay state and bark adhesion without taking bark characteristics and tree species sufficiently into account. I posit that tree species and bark and wood characteristics are key factors that should be considered. I further posit that extensive bark scaling on live and recently dead hickories (genus Carya) may be beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker.


As all regular readers know, I’ve been somewhat obsessively focused on bark and bark scaling since my earliest years of ivorybill searching. The reason for this interest is simple: it’s how Tanner found ivorybills or inferred their presence when he couldn’t find them (Tanner 1942). Unfortunately, as discussed in a number of posts, Tanner’s descriptions are somewhat opaque, and most of the published images of feeding sign, including those in the monograph, are not very illuminating. Indeed, some of them are consistent with pileated work that we’ve documented. Plate 8, shown below, is a prime example. The caption reads, “Ivory-bill feeding sign on a slender limb”.


Tanner’s Plate 8, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library


Pileated Woodpecker feeding sign on a slender limb

Early on in my study of this subject, I hypothesized that certain kinds of bark scaling on hardwoods might be beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker. I still believe this to be true, a view that is supported by what we’ve documented for pileated and by numerous examples of pileated scaling from online sources. At the same time, the details of what types of work might belong in this category have shifted somewhat, especially as it has become clear that Pileated scaling can look like what’s shown in Plate 8 and that pileateds will scale bark from recently dead sweet gums.

This is not to suggest that ivorybills never scale small and medium-sized branches in a similar manner. According to Tanner they did so frequently; however, I have been focused on what may be diagnostic for ivorybill. It seems likely that there is considerable overlap between ivorybill and pileated work when smaller branches are involved (at least on sweet gums).

The sequences we obtained showing pileateds scaling a sweet gum limb have inspired me to look more deeply at the characteristics of hardwood bark and pursue some research avenues that I hadn’t considered previously. I’ve linked to some of the sources in recent posts, but I’ve had some additional insights that seem important enough to share. Every time I think I’ve run out of things to say on the subject, something new crops up.

Like virtually everyone else, I’ve followed Tanner and focused on two bark characteristics, “tightness” and thickness, but it recently struck me that other features might be important as well. And the literature, mostly from the lumber industry, supports this idea.

Tanner suspected that the Singer Tract ivorybills preferred sweet gums and Nuttall’s Oaks because the bark is thinner, and the thinner barked limbs had “more borers” than thick barked ones. While abundance of food was likely a factor, I suspect that, at least with respect to sweet gums and possibly Nuttall’s oaks, ease of scaling and access to food played a role.

It’s important to point out that in live trees, hardwood bark adhesion varies seasonally, with bark becoming tighter during dormant stages and looser (with considerably less variation from species to species) during the growing season. Bark is often if not always tighter on recently dead trees than on live ones (Stokland et al. 2012).

In addition, “The structural and chemical traits of dead wood, inherited from the traits of living trees, are also major drivers of wood decomposition and these traits vary greatly among tree species.” (Cornellisen et al. 2012). The authors of the linked paper point out that other factors, including size and site, can also contribute to the way that bark loosens post-mortem, but specific traits seem to be paramount, especially since the scaling we deem to be suggestive, whether on standing or downed wood, is on trees that are alive or are recently dead. Because the scaling has a very distinctive appearance, we also deem as suggestive hickory snags and stubs that appear to have been scaled some years ago, even if they are in a considerably later stage of decay overall. Bark attached to hard wood on these longer dead stubs and snags often remains tight for 3 or more years after death.

A 1978 report, entitled Bark and Wood Properties of Pulpwood Species as Related to Separation and Segregation of Chip/Bar Mixtures examined bark morphology and strength properties in 42 different pulpwood species and identified factors that impede the mechanical removal of bark from logs. These include: cellular structure, bark adhesion, bark strength, bark toughness, wood toughness, specific gravity/density, and moisture content. (Institute of Paper Chemistry 1978) One caveat about this report: a subsequent paper gives the sample size for each species, and in many cases (including sweet gums) it was only 2 (Einspahr et al. 1982)

It may be counterintuitive, but the authors found that shagbark hickory was far and away the most difficult bark to remove. (The tightly adhering layer is thin, beneath the dead bark that gives the species its shaggy appearance.) One key finding was that:

“Morphologically, the presence of fibers increases inner bark strength and, when sclereids (a type of cell) are present, bark strength is decreased. Inner bark strength, in turn, has a major influence on hardwood wood/bark adhesion. The multiple regression equation employing wood toughness and inner bark strength accounts for 72% of the wood/bark adhesion variation encountered.”

Sclereids are virtually absent in hickories (Nanko 1980) and a few other species that don’t approach the hickories in bark strength and bark and wood toughness (Eastern cottonwoods, yellow poplars, white ashes, and black willows). These tables are particularly illustrative:


Shagbark hickories are the extreme outlier in this study, in terms of adhesion, as well as in terms of inner and outer bark toughness and strength; there are very few shagbarks in our search area, and we have never found scaling on one. I have been unable to find specific information about bitternut hickory bark strength or toughness, but the industry’s debarking problem applies to all species in the genus Carya due to the near absence of sclereids in conjunction with the other factors. Moreover, the industry does not differentiate among hickory species (Timber Mart South 2016). This 1996 paper is worth quoting at length in this regard (full text is not readily accessible):

The amount of published literature dealing with hickory debarking is very limited. Often it is only mentioned as an example of one of the hardest tree species to debark. One study quantified this by measuring the strength of the bark-to-wood bond of 42 hardwood species, including hickory. According to Einspahr et al., the dormant season bark-to-wood adhesion for hickory is greater than 3000 kPa, which is a tenfold difference from the growing season and nearly three times as great as the dormant season wood/bark adhesion for quaking aspen (Populous tremuloides, L.), a species considered to be extremely difficult to debark in the northern United States.

Einspahr et al. also microscopically examined the failure zone in an attempt to correlate morphological differences with bark-to-wood adhesion. For hardwoods in general, they found that during the growing season, failure occurred in the cambium or in the xylem just inside the cambial zone. Conversely, dormant-season failure occurred in the inner bark. They also found that fibers in the bark increased the inner bark strength while sclereids decreased inner bark strength. Hickory bark can contain between 15 to 20 percent fiber and contains less than 0.05 percent sclereids.

While these studies have confirmed that hickory is difficult to debark, they have not addressed possible solutions to the problem. As a result, hickory is often left behind during harvesting, reducing the total usable fiber from a given stand and, over time, increasing the percentage of the species in the hardwood resource, compounding the problem of future harvests.

When a tree dies, the bark eventually loosens and detaches naturally as the cambium decays. After felling, the cambium remains alive until it has consumed all available food or dries out. Moisture loss, while causing cambial death, initially greatly increases the strength of bark attachment because additional bonding between fibers occurs as the secondary valence bonds with water are broken (Belli 1996).

Thus, even though hickory bark adheres less tightly than sweet gum bark during the growing season, it seems likely that it’s harder to scale year round, given its much greater wood and bark strength and toughness. It is also clear from my observations that sweet gum bark loosens far more rapidly than hickory bark post mortem. Note that we have found fresh scaling on both live and recently dead hickories.

Based on specific gravity of the bark – averaging 0.72 for shagbark and 0.60 for bitternut – and bark moisture content – averaging 34% of dry weight for shagbark, and 60% for bitternut – it seems likely that bitternuts are somewhat easier to debark than shagbarks but considerably harder to debark than virtually any other tree species in our search area.

Comparing bitternut hickories to other species, most oaks have a considerably higher average moisture content in their bark (Chestnut and Southern red, including Nuttall’s oaks, are exceptions) and similar specific gravities. Sweet gum bark has an average specific gravity of 0.37 and an average moisture content of 91% of oven dry weight. (Schlaegel and Willson 1983, Miles and Smith 2009). But oaks and sweet gums have sclereids, and sweet gums and all tested oak species score far lower on bark toughness and strength than shagbark and, by inference, bitternut hickories. Sweet gums and the tested oak species are fairly similar in these regards, but I suspect that the higher density and lower moisture content in oak bark makes it harder to scale and may mean that oak bark adheres more tightly than sweet gum bark for a longer period after death.

I posit that when it comes to woodpecker scaling, dormant season bark adhesion, inner and outer bark strength, and inner and outer bark toughness are all relevant factors. We know that Pileated Woodpeckers remove sweet gum bark with some difficulty and that even on medium-sized limbs, they are not consistently able to remove bark cleanly down to the sapwood. It’s also clear that bitternut hickory bark is very difficult to remove, second only to shagbark hickory in our search area. This further reinforces my view that the work on hickories is not the work of Pileated Woodpeckers.

Click here and here for examples of the hickories that are scaled in a manner we hypothesize is diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Also be sure to watch this YouTube video of a Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus) foraging. (Thanks to Phil Vanbergen for finding the clip and the scaled hickory at the second link.) I’m reposting the link to the video here because I think it very clearly illustrates many of the characteristics we associate with Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on hickories, although the species of tree being fed on is unknown. Note the striking similarity in appearance and also that the work of the substantially smaller billed Crimson-crested is not as clean around the edges as the work we’re ascribing to ivorybills.

There were no bitternut hickories in the Singer Tract, but there were congeners – pecans and water hickories. Tanner observed ivorybills scaling on these species twice and digging once. For pileateds, there were 4 instances of digging and none of scaling, as opposed to 5 scaling and 9 digging on sweet gums. The relative abundance of water hickory and pecan at Singer was 2.7%; approximately 10% of the trees in our search area are hickories, and hickories are second only to sweet gums in terms of the number of scaled trees we’ve found. While Tanner’s is obviously a minuscule data set, it may support the hypothesis that live and recently dead Carya bark is too tough for pileateds to scale extensively, if at all.

There are a number of hardwood species found in potential ivorybill habitat that are somewhere between sweet gums and hickories in terms of how easily scaled they may be and how soon after death bark decay and loosening set in – eastern cottonwoods, black willows, water tupelos, some oak species, red maples, green ashes, honey locusts, persimmons, and elms – in these species, it seems likely that close examination of the scaling and bark chips can provide some clues.


Previous Ivory-billed Woodpecker searches have focused on bark adhesion and state of decay when considering scaling as possible foraging sign. Bark morphology, dormant season adhesion, inner and bark outer strength, and inner and outer bark toughness, and wood toughness are all relevant to the ease with which bark can be scaled from live and recently dead hardwoods. Specific gravity and moisture content are also factors. Bark from trees in the genus Carya is difficult to remove industrially, and members of this genus are likely the most difficult trees to scale throughout the historic range of the ivorybill. Since Pileated Woodpeckers scale sweet gum branches with some difficulty and do not consistently remove bark down to the sapwood, it may be beyond the physical capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers to scale hickories extensively and cleanly, while leaving large pieces of bark behind. Extensive work on hickories that has a distinctive appearance may be diagnostic for ivorybills; this distinctive appearance of this scaling may also be the key to recognizing Ivory-billed Woodpecker foraging sign on other species.


This may be no more than an aside, but it may be a relevant data point. I recently observed a Pileated scaling briefly on a live 14″ DBH Norway maple in my yard near New York City. The photos show that the sap is flowing. The appearance of the scaling is exactly what I’d expect for Pileated, with strips about half an inch across. Norway maple may be a decent stand-in for sweet gum; while its bark has a higher specific gravity, 53 as opposed to 37, the moisture content of the bark is almost identical, 91% as opposed to 90%.

References Cited:

Bock, Walter J. and Waldron Dewitt Miller, The Scansorial Foot of the Woodpeckers, with Comments on the Evolution of Perching and Climbing Feet in Birds, American Museum Novitates, #1931, 1959

Belli, Monique L., Wet storage of hickory pulpwood in the southern United States and its impact on bark removal efficiency, Forest Products Journal. Madison 46.3 (Mar 1996): 75.

Cornelissen, Johannes H.C., Ute Sass-Klaassen, Lourens Poorter, Koert van Geffen, Richard S. P. van Logtestijn,Jurgen van Hal, Leo Goudzwaard, Frank J. Sterck, René K. W. M. Klaassen, Grégoire T. Freschet, Annemieke van der Wal, Henk Eshuis, Juan Zuo, Wietse de Boer, Teun Lamers, Monique Weemstra, Vincent Cretin, Rozan Martin, Jan den Ouden, Matty P. Berg, Rien Aerts, Godefridus M. J. Mohren, and Mariet M. Hefting, Controls on Coarse Wood Decay in Temperate Tree Species: Birth of the LOGLIFE Experiment, Ambio. 2012 Jul; 41(Suppl 3): 231–245.

Einspahr, D.W, R.H VanEperen, M.L. Harder et al. Morphological and bark strength characteristics important to wood/bark adhesion in hardwoodsThe Institute of Paper Chemistry, 1982: 339-348.

Institute of Paper Chemistry, Project 3212, Bark and wood properties of pulpwood species as related to separation and segregation of chip/bark mixtures, Report 11, 1978.

Miles, Patrick D. and W. Brad Smith, Specific Gravity and Other Properties of Wood and Bark for 156 Tree Species Found in North America, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Northern Research Station, Research Note NRS-38, 2009.

Nanko, Hiroki, Bark Structure of Hardwoods Grown on Southern Pine Sites (Renewable Materials Institute series), Syracuse University Press, 1980.

Schlaegel, Bryce E. S and Regan B. Willson, Nuttall Oak Volume and Weight Tables, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Southern Research Station, Research Paper SO-l 86, 1983

Siry, Jacek, ed., Species Detail Report, Timber Mart-South, 2016

Stokland, Jogeir N., Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson, Biodiversity in Dead Wood, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Tanner, J.T. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker,National Audubon Society, 1942.

Thanks to Fredrik Bryntesson, Steve Pagans, Chris Carlisle, and Bob Ford for their help with this post.


Insights, Ants, and Old Growth: a Nuanced View of the Ivorybill’s Decline and Possible Survival

I’ve just finished reading Tanner’s dissertation and have gained some new insights into topics that have been discussed in a number of earlier posts.

Conventional wisdom, following Tanner, holds that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s decline and possible extinction were caused by habitat loss, specifically the logging of old growth forests during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Birdlife International’s fact sheet on the species suggests “that large contiguous tracts of mature woodland would be required to support a viable population”, referencing Jackson 2002. Snyder et al. have proposed an alternative hypothesis that “human depredation was the primary factor.”  (p.9).

Tanner’s model depends on the idea that food supply was the limiting factor on ivorybill populations, because the species is highly specialized, and that old growth conditions were optimal or essential. While Tanner was aware that ivorybills bred successfully in an area that was predominantly second growth, at Mack’s Bayou, he glossed over this fact in the monograph, and became more dogmatic about old growth as a requirement in later years.

Snyder and some others have contended that the ivorybill is a generalist. According to Snyder, “the data available on diet and foraging methods simply do not provide compelling evidence for strong feeding specialization.” Snyder goes on to suggest that “[i]ts apparent skill in exploiting recently dead timber, coupled with its ability to feed in a variety of other ways, may even have given it some significant foraging advantages over the pileated woodpecker, a species apparently much less capable of bark stripping. Indeed, the pileated woodpecker, like other Dryocopus woodpeckers, may well be more of a food specialist than any of the Campephilus woodpeckers.” (p. 37).

As I see it, there are elements of truth in both models, but neither is complete. In addition, I think that each model relies on at least one flawed premise.

The old growth/virgin forest component of Tanner’s model fails to account for the facts that the Singer Tract population was dwindling even before logging began in earnest and that birds appear to have remained in the Tract until well after it had been extensively logged. Tanner suggested another possibility, “perhaps the greatest factor reducing the rate of ivorybill reproduction is the failure of some birds to nest. One reason for their not breeding is immaturity, for it is probable that ivorybills do not nest until they are two years old. Another possibility is that the quantity of food available to the woodpeckers may determine whether they will nest or not.” (p. 83).

Tanner struggled to account for the fact that the ivorybill population at Singer was dwindling by the mid-1930s, even though overall habitat quality had, if anything, improved relative to what it had been a few decades earlier. He attributed the higher relative abundance in previous years to tree mortality due to fires that took place in 1917 and 1924. Tanner also recognized the probable importance of fire in the pre-contact era, although he seems to have been unaware of the ways pre-contact Native Americans used fire, both for agriculture and habitat management. (The impacts of Native American fire use were almost surely different from what occurred in the 20th century Singer Tract).

Neither Tanner (whose study predates the emergence of the discipline) nor Snyder, take environmental history sufficiently into account. There had been major ‘changes in the land’ long before large scale logging began in the southeast and before the reports of local abundance on which Snyder relies. These changes include: the post-contact collapse of Native American civilizations, the introduction of European plant and animal species, the clearing of log jams on major and secondary North American rivers, habitat fragmentation due to the plantation economy, and the near extirpation of the beaver.

All of these elements likely contributed to a major decline in ivorybill populations. Ivory-billed woodpeckers likely concentrated locally in response to major disturbances, regardless of whether forests were old-growth or advanced second-growth, and this type of specialization caused birds to congregate, making it easier for collectors to kill them in large numbers in short periods of time. Snyder likely misinterpreted this collection of large numbers of Ivory-bills in short periods of time as reflecting a greater regional abundance. In contrast, and more consistent with Tanner, this ecological response to disturbed areas led, in some places, to the collectors extirpating regional populations.

In the latter part of the 19th century, hunting probably sped the collapse of the remaining population, but Snyder’s claim that available data on diet and foraging methods do not provide compelling evidence of specialization fails to account for the anatomical and other evidence that suggests otherwise. It also fails to account for the Pileated Woodpecker’s far more extensive range and ability to thrive in a wider variety of habitats, including badly fragmented and degraded ones. I made some of the case for specialization in a series of recent posts, but there’s more to add, especially with regard to ants.

In one of those posts, I hypothesized that the inability to exploit ants as a food resource was a key component, perhaps the primary component, in explaining the decline of the ivorybill. A commenter asked whether there’s evidence to support the idea that ivorybills and other Campephilus woodpeckers don’t feed on ants and also whether there’s evidence to support the idea that Campephilus woodpeckers don’t regurgitate.

Adult Campephilus woodpeckers rarely feed on ants but do not feed them to their young. They make frequent trips to the nest with food items stored in the bill or at the back of the bill. (M. Lammertink, pers. comm.) Dryocopus woodpeckers and those in closely related genera (the “tribe” Malarpicini) feed their young by regurgitating, while other woodpeckers do not. (Manegold and Topfer, 2012). I think the capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers to consume ants in large quantities and to feed them to their young is a significant distinguishing factor and that Tanner was correct in suggesting that food supply was a major limiting factor on Ivory-billed Woodpecker populations.

Ants comprise up to 33% of the world’s terrestrial animal biomass. In Finland, they comprise as much as 10%. In tropical forests, the percentage is much higher, exceeding vertebrate biomass by 400%. Tanner’s comparative analysis of available ivorybill and pileated food did not include ants, so Tanner’s comparative estimate of available insect prey – suggesting that pileateds in the Singer Tract had access to approximately four times what ivorybills did – was in fact extremely low.

Tanner’s dissertation concludes with a discussion of Audubon’s ivorybill dissection, something that was omitted from the monograph. While I had a passing familiarity with the Audubon material, I had not looked at it carefully. Nor had I compared his ivorybill and pileated dissections.

Tanner wrote: “The proventriculus is both muscular and glandular. Audubon’s drawings and text indicate that the proventriculus of a Pileated is much larger in proportion to the stomach than is the case in the Ivory-bill.” Audubon described the ivorybill proventriculus as being only minimally wider than the esophagus. By contrast, the pileated proventriculus as “an immense sac, resembling a crop, 2 1/4 inches in length and 1 and 5 twelfths in width,” or nearly three times as wide as the esophagus.

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Audubon’s drawing of Ivory-billed Woodpecker digestive tract showing slightly widened proventriculus.

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Audubon’s drawing of Pileated Woodpecker digestive tract showing large, sac-like proventriculus.

The proventriculus and stomach of one of Audubon’s specimens contained “a vast mass of ants and other insects”. According to Bent, Beal found one pileated stomach that contained 2,600 ants. (Others contained fewer, 153 and 469, according to Sutton.) Thus, it’s clear that even if ivorybills sometimes ate ants, they lacked the capacity to consume them in large quantities, let alone feed them to their young.

This supports Tanner’s view that specialization was a limiting factor on ivorybill populations. I’ve previously suggested that this might apply only to breeding season, but it seems reasonable to infer that it’s a factor year-round, based on the differences in proventricular structure.

All of that said, I’d argue that this specialization should not necessarily be read to include dependence on large tracts of mature, contiguous forest. The data from the Singer Tract suggest that even under these ‘optimal’ conditions, breeding was limited. And the fact that the Mack’s Bayou birds bred successfully in an area of second growth suggests that birds could thrive under ‘suboptimal’ conditions. The extent to which survival might be possible in fragmented habitat is less clear, but Snyder (citing Jackson) refers to the Mississippi population of six pairs in a 19.2 square mile forest that Tanner missed; the tract is less than 1/6 the area of the Singer Tract and is smaller than many contemporary wildlife management areas.

The tract, known as Allen Gray Estate, was west of Skene, Mississippi in Bolivar County; some or all of it is now part of Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge; the US Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat Management Plan for the refuge (2013) states that the forested portion of the refuge comprises 8100 acres and provides this historical information, “Dahomey NWR is located on the grounds of the old Dahomey Plantation founded in 1833 by F.G. Ellis and named after the homeland of his slaves. Much of the land west of the refuge was probably cleared for cultivation around this time. The land went through several owners and was purchased by Allen Gray in 1936. The portion that became the refuge was known as the “Allen Gray Woods”. This was the only significant portion of the plantation still forested.”  This 8100 acre figure is 25% lower than the figure reported by Jackson and Snyder.

While I have been unable to find a detailed logging history of Bolivar County, it is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which was known for its plantations. Between 1900 and 1940, Bolivar County was more densely populated than Madison Parish: 39.1 people per square mile as opposed to 18.9 in Madison Parish in 1900, 78.92 as opposed to 22.78 in 1930, and 74.57 as opposed to 28.33 in 1940. Based on population density and the number of towns, it seems self-evident that the habitat in Bolivar County was considerably more fragmented than was the Singer Tract.

Thus, there is good reason to question Tanner’s old growth model as well as the idea that large contiguous tracts of mature forest are required. Similarly, there’s good reason to question Snyder’s argument that hunting rather than specialization was the primary cause of the ivorybill’s collapse.

Efforts to reintroduce the beaver in the southeast began in the 1930s, and the population has been growing ever since. Beavers injure trees by partially or fully girdling them and by altering hydrology, which weakens or kills trees at the edges of the ponds they create. Beaver damage renders trees more vulnerable to infestation by ivorybill prey species, something we’ve observed repeatedly in our search area. In Tanner’s day and in the late 19th century, the beaver was barely a part of the southeastern ecosystem, but by the 1950s, beavers again were playing a role in altering southern forests, whether mature or successional.

If the ivorybill was able to survive the logging of the last large tracts of old growth forest, as I think it was, the reintroduction of the beaver may have been central to its persistence. If this hypothesis is valid, there is considerably more potential habitat today than there was in Tanner’s era; much of this potential habitat has been overlooked or dismissed in organized search efforts; and the dismissals of post-Tanner reports based on his habitat model rely, at least in part, on a false premise.




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.

Old Material, New Light: More from the Archives Part 2

In late December 2014, I wrote what I’ve described as a speculative post titled, “Is There a Way to Recognize Ivory-billed Woodpecker Excavation? In that post, I relied on Tanner’s Plate 11,


Tanner’s Plate 11, “Dead hackberry, fed upon frequently by Ivory-bills”. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

a brief description from the monograph: “When Ivory-bills dig, they chisel into the sap and heartwood for borers like other woodpeckers, digging slightly conical holes that are usually circular in cross section (Plate 11)”, and online imagery showing the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. Material found during my recent visits to Kroch library at Cornell lends some support to the ideas contained in that post, and so does T. Gilbert Pearson’s photograph of a tree that had been fed on by ivorybills. Holt:Pearson Tree

The archival material includes additional images of ivorybill excavation and a considerably more detailed description by Tanner in a document prepared for the Cuban search in the 1980s. The passage includes somewhat more detail on bark scaling than is found elsewhere, but more importantly it describes ivorybill excavations as “hard to distinguish from similar digging by the Red-bellied Woodpecker”.


Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

This description may seem counterintuitive to some. Despite my own writing to the effect that ivorybill morphology may lead the species to dig less efficiently than pileateds and my references to targeted digging, I still had an underlying assumption that the size of the bird would correlate with the size of the dig and that ivorybill excavation would often resemble the familiar large furrows dug by PIWOs. While a couple of the holes in Plate 11 and in Pearson’s photograph may well involve the merging of more than one dig, it appears that ivorybill excavations are usually more targeted and that large furrows are not typical.

Also of interest for multiple reasons, including the observation of birds scaling very small limbs and of one feeding 5′ from the ground, are Tanner’s field notes from April 3rd, 1937.



Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

I’ll let the remaining images of known and suspected ivorybill excavations speak for themselves and will conclude with a few from our search area that seem consistent with known ivorybill work. While I’m nowhere near as confident about this material as I am about scaling, I suspect that finding excavations that are consistent with what ivorybills are known to have done in conjunction with scaling is suggestive.

I hope this material will be useful for other searchers. All images from the Singer Tract below are courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Most of these images were published in Tanner’s dissertation but have not been widely disseminated.


OakNest copy

Ash Roost

'35 Nest Tree copy

1935 Nest Tree, Red Maple




1935 Nest Tree and Detail from a Different Perspective

And now some examples from our search area that resemble the existing images of known ivorybill excavation. This is not something I’ve focused on, so I’ve probably missed other examples.




Image at bottom is a detail of the sweet gum snag above. I suspect that more than one species of woodpecker is involved.

There will be one or two more installments in this series, but the next post is likely to be a trip report, probably the last for this season.

Old Material, New Light: More from the Archives Part 1

I’m planning to do a few more posts drawing on material I’ve found in Kroch Library’s Rare and Manuscript Collection at Cornell. There may be an intervening post or two on  other topics.

While Tanner’s monograph is well-known, the reports he wrote for the Audubon Society at the end of each season are not publicly available, except in the archives. The contents of these reports call some conventional wisdom about the species into question.

First and perhaps least important, it seems to be commonly believed that the John’s Bayou birds were the only remaining ivorybills in the Singer Tract when Tanner visited in December 1941. They were indeed the only birds he saw, as noted in his report (the first document below); however, he found feeding sign in the Mack’s Bayou area and suggested that at least two more birds remained, one at Mack’s Bayou and another in Greenlea Bend. As I read the report, Tanner referenced Bick’s observation in August ’41 (discussed here), and the context suggests that he related it to the John’s Bayou family. Other interpretations are possible, including that this was another family group that was passing through the area, which would mean that the remaining 1941 population was even larger.

In Ghost Birds, Steven Lyn Bales provides a full accounting of Tanner’s population estimates, but earlier books by Hoose and Jackson gloss over the likely presence of the other birds. Hoose (p. 120) wrote that James and Nancy Tanner “maybe heard a third” at Mack’s Bayou. (The source of this information is not identified.) Jackson (p. 132) has Nancy Tanner seeing a male and a female in December 1941. Both Bales and Hoose are clear that she saw the pair in 1940; per Bales, the actual date was December 21.

While there’s no way of knowing whether the birds Bick saw were the John’s Bayou family, I suspect that they were. I also think it’s reasonable to infer, as Tanner did, that this group bred successfully in 1941 (possibly an important point given the disturbance to the habitat). If Bick’s birds were the ones from John’s Bayou, it seems the male disappeared sometime between mid-August and December. Given the consistent presence of this family group in the vicinity for nearly a decade, there’s perhaps a hint of wishful thinking in Tanner’s suggestion that the male “might have moved away” due to the logging.

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The next interesting tidbits come from a 1938 interim report that Tanner sent to the Audubon Society, under the terms of his fellowship (the document below and accompanying map). The report includes a reference to a non-breeding pair in the Mack’s Bayou area. This pair does not show up in Tanner’s published counts, either in the monograph or in his dissertation. It seems possible that Tanner concluded the pair that was seen around Mack’s Bayou and the pair with two young that Kuhn found later were one and the same, erring on the side of caution in his final population estimates.

What stands out in both of these documents is the difficulty Tanner and Kuhn faced when trying to find ivorybills other than the John’s Bayou family. This is a topic I’ve touched on in several other posts because of the common belief, fostered by Tanner in later years and advanced by many 21st-century “skeptics”, that ivorybills should be easy to find.

During his brief, two week visit in 1941, Tanner couldn’t get to Greenlea Bend at all and didn’t find the Mack’s Bayou bird, although he found evidence that it was still there. The 1938 report illustrates how hard it was to find ivorybills even more explicitly. Kuhn and Tanner were unable to locate a pair that had been seen by others in a fairly circumscribed area, although it’s possible that Kuhn happened on this pair and the young of the year on June 15th.

Beyond that, it took Tanner and Kuhn “two or three weeks” to find an ivorybill in an area where there was “an abundance of feeding sign”, and Kuhn only found the bird in question by following it to the feeding sign from a known roost. It seems that, while ivorybills may sometimes have been “noisy and conspicuous”, they were for the most part quite the opposite.

Materials are courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

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Two More Rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker Images

These two photographs, taken by Tanner in 1938 and published in his dissertation, have not been otherwise widely disseminated or (to the best of my knowledge) reprinted elsewhere. Each is interesting in its own right, and not just because they add to the small body of indisputable ivorybill imagery; the first shows the behavior of a near-fledgling (Sonny Boy) in the nest and the second for the position of the male’s crest, which is more recurved than in most or all other stills. Another series of rare images is here. Images are Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 1.39.32 PMScreen Shot 2016-05-03 at 1.40.39 PM

Rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker Images



My visits to Cornell’s Kroch Library, where the Rare and Manuscript Collections are housed, have been very productive. In addition to the last letter to Tanner pertaining to the Singer Tract ivorybills quoted at length here, I’ve come across several little known ivorybill images, some better quality reproductions of the plates in Tanner, and some additional hints about ivorybill foraging excavations that I’ll discuss in a future post. I suspect that all of the images below are actually stills from the 1935 film footage that has been lost save for a few minutes. To see it, go here and start at 14:00. To the best of my knowledge, these images have not previously been published as stills, and a couple of the frames may never have been publicly available.

The first image is similar to the one that appears on Page 82 0f  The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.  This is a sequence (that apparently has been lost) in which the birds are changing places on the nest. A third image that follows the first two appears on p. 120 of The Race . . . A colorized version, at once gorgeous and crude and sadly somewhat damaged, is also included here; it’s reproduced in black and white in Jackson (p. 27).

I think the bird in the remaining frames is the male. In the second frame, he may be engaging in the motion described by Tanner, “. . . jerking as though working food from the back of its mouth.” the next frame shows the him peering into the cavity. These two images are clips from the surviving footage. The final shot may have come from a lost piece of film, since a remaining clip, filmed from a similar angle doesn’t include it.

In addition to the images posted below, two figures in Tanner’s dissertation include unpublished photos from 1938 – one of a male at the nest cavity and the other of a juvenile peering out of it. Those images may also be included in a future post. All four pictures below were taken with my iPhone. I have a high resolution scan of the fourth on order, since it is one of the best representations of presumed ivorybill excavation available. Images are Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.



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