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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 1.47.01 PM

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 1.47.28 PM

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.




Trip Report: February 5-11, 2016 and More on the Singer Tract

I flew into Houston on February 4 and arrived at the search area on the morning of the 5th. Frank’s work schedule had precluded him from returning to the search area during my absence, and he was unable to get time off to join me this trip.

Tommy Michot visited on the February 5th; we went to the northern sector, and passed the downed sweet gum top (actually a limb) found in April of last year. Project Coyote had a camera trained on it for some time but took it down due to equipment failure. The main stem, which reaches from the ground to about 20 feet up, had been scaled extensively, down to the base, over the course of the last month. Some of the work had been done no more than a few days prior to my arrival based on the condition of bark chips found at the base.


We have a camera back on this top but have low expectations, since so much bark has been removed that it makes a much easier target for other species of woodpecker. While I don’t believe in the “curse of the ivorybill”, individuals and small groups of self-funded searchers face enormous obstacles and are dependent on equipment that’s often unreliable.

Tommy and I measured a number of the largest trees in the area, and the biggest oaks and sweet gums are around 4’ DBH, with many more in the 3’ range. Here are some of the highlights: two Nuttall oaks: 137 cm/53.94”, 119 cm/46.85″; swamp chestnut oak 110 cm/43.31” four sweet gums: 124 cm/48.82”, 123 cm/48.43”, 110 cm/43.31″, 109 cm/42.91”.

While ours was not a random sample, this table from a 1986 paper by Tanner (on data collected in the Singer Tract in 1938), is interesting for the sake of comparison.Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 7.37.40 AM

In his 1944 report on the Singer Tract, Richard Pough described sweet gums in the 5’-6’ DBH range as being characteristic of old growth conditions, and such trees were not uncommon in the 19th century. Impressionistically, at least, most of the ~4’ DBH sweet gums in our area are moribund and are likely to have lost their tops. I know of only one gum that appears to be in the 5′ DBH category. As of 2009, the national champion sweet gum had a DBH of 5’4.6″. The tree below could be close to that.


Frank Wiley with massive sweet gum

Many, perhaps most, gums have at least some beaver damage. This may be contributing to the earlier mortality, both by stressing the trees directly and by creating the opportunity for beetles to infest them. I have long suspected that the decline of the beaver could have contributed to the IBWO’s disappearance, since beavers directly damage trees by gnawing and also stress or kill them by altering hydrology.


124 cm dbh sweet gum with beaver damage at the base, measured this week. The photo was taken in 2013, and the top of the tree has fallen in the interim.


Beavers were extirpated from much of Louisiana by the early 19th century. As of 1931, populations were restricted to the Amite and Comite rivers in the southeastern corner of the state; they were reintroduced in other areas in 1938 and had established themselves in 21 parishes as of 1951. (Wylie Barrow, pers. comm.) Range expansion continued into the 1990s and after. They’re now considered a pest animal and appear to be found in all parishes.  A recent paper suggests that the introduction of beavers into Magellanic Woodpecker habitat may have benefitted that species.

I was on my own on February 6th, and I went and staked out the downed top for the better part of the morning. Nothing landed on it except for a Red-bellied Woodpecker that pecked and gleaned but did not scale bark or do any excavating. At approximately 9:30, I did a very aggressive series of ADKs. I heard a couple of loud single knocks that seemed to come from no more than a couple of hundred yards away and also a possible double knock. These came during a period when I was standing, moving around, and doing the ADKs, so I did not hear them very well. In addition, there were a few distant gunshots within about 15 minutes after the series, so I’m not very confident about what I heard. (These were the only shots heard all day.) I found some scaling the next day a couple of hundred yards away (discussed below). This gives me some reason to think the SKs were a reaction, not shots. Still I’d place these in the weak possible category.

One highlight of the day was watching a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks in the act of mating.

I returned to the same area on the 7th, with two cameras to deploy. One is aimed at a large sweet gum stub, about 20’ tall and well over 3’ DBH that I found last trip. The top had broken off shortly before my arrival. While it’s not discussed in Tanner, T. Gilbert Pearson, who was the first modern ornithologist to observe the Singer Tract IBWOs, described this type of “stump” as one of the species’ preferred feeding sites. This is a tree on which I found high branch scaling last year, before the top broke off. I expect this to be a long-term deployment.


I also redeployed a camera on the downed top, although we’re not very hopeful about that location, since the scaling is so extensive and the bark has been loosened in many of the remaining unscaled areas.

I walked south for a couple of hundred yards and found very fresh, large bark chips at the foot of a live sweet gum (there were two large gums ~3’ dbh about 10’ apart). There was extensive scaling on live or recently dead high branches of one or both of these trees. Because there had been a major rainstorm and accompanying minor flooding a week before and the chips were mud free, I can be sure the scaling took place after the rain, and since Tommy and I had spent considerable time in the area examining some other nearby scaling two days before, I strongly suspect this work was done on the 6th. I can’t help but wonder whether the possible single knocks came from whatever was doing the scaling; that would be consistent with my immediate impression when I heard them, both in terms of distance and direction. Nonetheless, my confidence level about the SKs is low given the gunfire.



I don’t think the scaling and bark chips are consistent with squirrel; the chips are large and thick and do not show signs of having been chewed off; the ones collected weighed over five pounds.


There was a little excavation and exit tunnel expansion (visible in the first image above) associated with the scaling; and it has the generally clean edges and lack of layered, flaked off appearance around the edges or on the chips. The leaves and gumballs are attached on most of the limbs, indicating that they’re alive or very, very recently dead, so the bark is almost certainly tight. This is about as good as it gets when up-close examination is not an option

I met Tom Foti, who came in from Arkansas, on the morning of the 8th. Winds were high, with gusts approaching 50 mph. We decided it would be unsafe to venture into the woods, so we drove around the edges of the search area looking at the surrounding upland forest, much of which is impressive and mature. Tom is very enthusiastic about the area, ivorybills or not, and we’re hopeful that steps will be taken to protect and manage it appropriately. The car ride was a running lesson on southern forest ecosystems, and as I told Tom, I’ll count myself lucky if I retain 10% of what I learned.

The next morning, the winds had dropped enough to make it safe to head for the swamps, and Tom and I visited the southern sector, an area where we haven’t spent much time lately. As mentioned in some previous posts, there has been a significant uptick in four-wheeler activity in the area, and it’s heartbreaking to see the destruction these callous individuals are causing. Fortunately, the damage is almost entirely limited to the periphery, and the deeper parts of the bottom are unscathed. The habitat types here are somewhat different, and the logging date is more recent, but it remains very impressive. We walked a long way and went to places I had never been, including a lower-lying flat with tree species I haven’t noticed elsewhere – shagbark hickory, bitter pecan, and overcup oak.


We saw no recent feeding sign in any of these areas, except for some older work on a small sweet gum that I described as being about a grade B-.

We then looped back along a different track, passing the spot where I recorded calls in March of 2013 and where we’d had a concentration of feeding sign in 2012 and 2013. We found nothing until we reached a location farther north that is within 100-200 yards of the tree shown on the homepage. Tom spotted a group of trees with bark scaling, some on boles and some on branches. Once again, this was not “grade A” work, but the concentration makes it more interesting than if it were one isolated example. We did not find any chips at the base of the snag that had been scaled on the bole, and the high branch work is not as extensive some.




It’s worth pointing out that on many days, I’ll walk for hours and see nothing and then find either a dramatic example of scaling or a small cluster of it. Tom and I had probably walked 3.5 miles or more before finding this little cluster.

I was on my own again on the 9th, and I opted to go on a death march to retrieve a trail cam from a tree deep in the swamp and proceed north from there. The tree is a large blown down sweetgum discussed and shown here. There was some fresh scaling on it that I suspect was done by a Pileated Woodpecker. There are nearly six weeks of images to go through, so it will take some time before we find out if there were any captures.

As on the previous day, I walked for a couple of hours without seeing or hearing anything suggestive until I got to a part of the area we haven’t visited since last year, perhaps a quarter mile south of the southernmost point Tommy and I had reached earlier in the week. I found old sign, some of which was fresh last winter and some of which was older. I then found some fresh work on two trees in close proximity to one another. Some of the scaling was on a downed tree but was clearly done by a woodpecker, with chips and other characteristics that I consider to be suggestive. Since the chips were caked with mud, the  scaling was a little over a week old. The other work was on one high branch, but conditions made it impossible to look for chips.



Bark chips found beneath downed sweet gum. iPhone shown for scale is 5″x2.5″


On the return hike, I found what I’m quite sure is Pileated Woodpecker work on a recently dead or dying hickory. Since we’ve found a number of hickories that we suspect have been scaled by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, this was an unusual opportunity to do a direct comparison. In my view the work on hickories is the most compelling for ivorybill due to the density and tightness of the bark and the hardness of the wood. There are pronounced differences in the presumed Pileated and suspected ivorybill work on this species.

The work on the homepage is suspected ivorybill. It is extensive, with huge contiguous areas, perhaps 20% of the entire surface, completely stripped, with evidence of bill strikes targeted at exit tunnels. The Pileated work is spotty by comparison. The bark chunks scaled from the tree on the homepage were large, dense, and thick, and there were no pieces of sapwood among them. By contrast, the suspected Pileated work involves very small pieces of bark that appear to have been removed by digging rather than scaling; there were also a few pieces of punky wood among the chips.


Presumed Pileated Woodpecker work on recently dead or dying hickory


Detail of presumed Pileated Woodpecker work on hickory


Small chips at base of hickory



Different view of scaled dying hickory that appears on the homepage. Work is suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker


Bark chips from base of hickory shown immediately above

The next morning, I drove to the Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center (formerly the National Wetlands Research Center) in Lafayette and met with Wylie Barrow, Heather Baldwin, Tommy Michot, and Philip and Eric Vanbergen. (Two young enthusiasts who will be helping us out.) Frank joined us briefly, and then Wylie, Tommy, the Vanbergens, and I went out to lunch. It was an exciting and thought-provoking day, and the Research Center is an incredible facility. Wylie and Heather shared their comprehensive and in-depth analysis of conditions in the Singer Tract in Tanner’s day. They’ve amassed an array of materials encompassing land records, Civil War era maps, and stereographic aerial photographs. Their research far surpasses my own speculative effort. It covers the finest details – roads, improved and unimproved, snag densities, tree mortality, conditions around roost and nest sites, as well as conditions in other locations where ivorybills were seen. Tom Foti has done complementary research on hydrology, soils, and vegetation.

Their presentation convinced me that I’ve been too hard on Tanner in some respects. There was a little more old growth in the Singer Tract than I had inferred from the Pough report and some of the historical documents. Nonetheless, the characterization of the Tract as a whole as “virgin” forest is somewhat misleading, since over a quarter of it was second growth, and some of it fairly young. Heather and Wylie have graciously given me permission to summarize some of their findings.

When Tanner began his study, 72% of the Singer Tract was old growth. (Tanner estimated it at over 80%.) Logging in 1938 reduced that percentage to 67%. The ridges, which Tanner deemed to be the best ivorybill habitat, were actually the least likely areas to be old growth. (Tom Foti’s analysis also points to a preference for higher, drier locations.) The regrowth percentages for each landform in Tanner’s day are as follows:

Ridge (43%)

Low ridge (23%)

Total on ridges (32%)

Flat (9%)

Low flat (4%)

Cypress brake (4.5%)

For the most part, the second growth forests were not particularly old, as has been suggested in previous posts. According to Heather, most of these areas only started to regrow in the 1880s and 1890s, “due to consecutive depressions and low cotton prices”. Thus, parts of the Singer Tract were relatively young second growth, and this included one of the ivorybill home ranges and one that Tanner deemed to be “best” – Mack’s Bayou.

The nature of the habitat in the Mack’s Bayou area is immediately apparent from the 1938 aerial photos, which suggest forest conditions that are present in many parts of Louisiana today. Nevertheless, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers nested there in 1934 and 1935, at minimum, and did so successfully at least once. This fact alone refutes the idea that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are old growth dependent. Heather informs me that there was an abundance of dead and dying trees on the eastern side of the Mack’s Bayou range, due to a fire caused by logging activities. In any event, the home range Tanner delineated in this primarily second growth area is no larger than the home range he delineated around John’s Bayou, which had more mature forest. In fact, the area he designated as “best” for ivorybills around Mack’s Bayou was slightly smaller than its older equivalent near John’s Bayou.

Tanner knew that a significant portion of the Mack’s Bayou home range was not old growth, since his 1941 map shows “old fields” in the heart of it. He seems to have been unaware of the resurgence of cotton growing during the 1870s and 1880s, so he may have overestimated the age of the forest on that basis. I can’t help but wonder if he glossed over the conditions in the Mack’s Bayou range in part for the sake of protecting the Singer Tract and (as Heather suggested) in part based on what he deemed to be best for the birds from a conservation standpoint, an approach that later ossified into a categorical set of beliefs about old-growth dependence.

As I and others have been arguing for years, extensive forest cover, sufficient dead and dying wood, and enough large trees for roosting and nesting are probably the main requirements, even if old growth or near-old growth conditions are optimal.

I plan to return to the search area in late March and have another post or two in mind in the interim.




Not So ‘Virgin’ Forest: The Singer Tract Myth Debunked

Update: This post includes hard data about the extent of old growth in the Singer Tract (scroll down past all photographs) and in ivorybill home ranges. The general points made below remain valid, although some of the wording is perhaps too strong; Tanner overestimated the amount of old growth in the Tract ( at “over 80%” v. 72% in fact), and the Mack’s Bayou home range was predominantly second growth.

This post is a companion to the previous one and to others discussing habitat conditions in the Singer Tract. Those posts reference Richard Pough’s 1944 report to the Audubon Society. Pough, whose study was never published, noted that much of the Singer Tract had actually been under cultivation prior to the Civil War. But it’s worth taking a closer look at just how much.

Tanner characterized the Singer Tract as “the largest tract of virgin timber in the Mississippi Delta,” contending that it contained “120 square miles of virgin forest in 1934”. He also wrote that the largest plantation “had about 3000 acres under cultivation,” while suggesting that “some of the early settlers along the Tensas River cleared land along the river banks for cotton fields.” Thus, the myth of the Singer Tract as virgin forest was born.

It’s not clear where Tanner got his information, but some of his characterizations are not supported by the historical record; the language about “early settlers” almost seems disingenuous when one looks at the history of Madison Parish. (Rootsweb has many pages devoted to this subject, and I’ve drawn heavily on them for this analysis.) As should become evident, there was a great deal of human activity in and around the Singer Tract, especially prior to the Civil War. I will suggest that most, perhaps virtually all, of the arable land in the parish, had been cleared for agricultural purposes and that the Singer Tract was a mix of second growth and remnant old growth, most of which was in the lower-lying, wetter areas that Tanner deemed to be less suitable for ivorybills.

A 1937 Masters thesis in economics by Robert L. Moncrief, “The Economic Development of the Tallulah Territory”, provides a great deal of information about the parish and its history. In the post-Columbian era, the area was very sparsely settled until the 1830s. Madison Parish was established in 1839, and in 1840, steamboats began plying the Tensas River. A major population influx began in 1836, and the population kept growing until the Civil War, going from 5,142 in 1840 to 14,133 in 1860. The war led to a dramatic decline to a mere 8,600 in 1870. Over the next couple of decades, the numbers grew again to 14,135 in 1890. Changing economic conditions and the boll weevil outbreak caused another decline that was only reversed between 1920 and 1940, when the number of residents reached 14,826. By 2010, it had fallen to 12,093.

Cotton and the quality of the soil drove this influx. By 1850, there were 27 landowners in the parish who owned more than $20,000 (over $590,000 in 2015 dollars) worth of real estate. The largest holding was valued at $140,000 (well over $4,000,000 in today’s dollars).

According to Moncrief, “the newcomers cleared away the heavy forests and planted the new ground in the favored crop then, as now –– cotton. They cleared all the lands fronting water courses (which are the highest and most desirable lands for cultivation in this region) to form a continuous line of plantations along the streams.” Streams in this context refers not just to the Tensas but also to the smaller non-navigable bayous. Cotton raised along the smaller streams was brought down to the Tensas in flat-bottomed boats.

Moncrief’s thesis also includes figures for cotton and corn production in Madison Parish. Cotton production peaked at over 46,000 bales in 1858. (Pough was apparently incorrect in stating it was over 100,000 bales; he may have combined the total with that of an adjoining parish.) It had fallen to 1,830 by the end of the war. Production recovered between 1870 and 1875 and reached a postwar/pre-boll weevil peak of 25,981 bales in 1890, about the same level of production as in 1936. Corn production peaked at 618,620 bushels in 1859, falling dramatically after the war, peaking at 836,000 bushels in 1909, and then falling to 320,000 by 1936. My crude, back of the envelope estimate based on  yields of 5 bales per acre for cotton and 15 bushels per acre for corn, suggests that between a quarter and a third of the total acreage in the Parish was under commercial cultivation prior to the war.

While Moncrief’s paper evokes Tanner by describing the Singer Tract as 81,102 acres (126 square miles) of virgin timber, it also notes, “The tract includes several abandoned and grown up plantations, which after the Civil War, reverted to the state and were later sold to the present owners.” The ruins of one plantation house are still standing, deep within the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge.

While it was adjacent to and not strictly part of the Singer Tract, the story of the Frisby Plantation is illustrative. The plantation was established in the early 1850s with land acquisitions taking place over the next decade. Norman Frisby, the founder, was murdered by his nephew by marriage in an 1863 in a dispute over property. When Frisby’s widow was forced to sell the plantation in 1870, it totaled 19,479 acres, and its crops generated over $77,000 in revenue (the equivalent of $1.36 million in 2015). Tanner visited the site of the plantation and photographed one of its old fields. I haven’t been able to pinpoint the location of the old house; one 19th century survey survey seems to place it in Tensas Parish, near Fool’s River. Another account (from the history of the Sharkey Plantation discussed below) says it borders Disharoon (or Dishroom) Bend, much closer to the core of the Singer Tract. As shown on this overlay of 1875 land ownership on a modern map, the Frisby holdings included parcels adjacent to Mack’s Bayou and on Dishroom Bend.

The maps help flesh out the story. An earlier and incomplete parish-wide map of patentees shows that many parcels in the Singer Tract were purchased well before Frisby started acquiring land in the 1850s. Lands purchased in the 1840s include parcels along John’s and Mack’s Bayous, which makes sense since frontlands along streams were most desirable. This history of the Sharkey Plantation reveals that land sales began in the heart of Tanner’s search area during the 1840s. The author explains that the Sharkey plantation and others like it were more like communities, with a cluster of families (and presumably their slaves) living in close proximity, near a watercourse.  The 1875 map shows that much of the Singer Tract remained in private hands even after many parcels were abandoned during the Civil War.

Perhaps even more telling is this hand drawn map of Madison and Carroll Parishes from 1862. It shows the locations of towns, roads, ferry crossings, and plantations in the Singer Tract area. While it is incomplete and John’s Bayou is not shown, Sharkey Road is there, cutting in a southwesterly direction from the Richmond-Carthage road, crossing Alligator Bayou, and the Swearingen parcel. Another road crosses the heart of the Mack’s Bayou home range and the Tensas itself. The map delineates abandoned plantations and appears to show that, except for those abandoned areas, some cotton was being grown in every division of the Singer Tract. However limited the agricultural activity may have been in these sectors, the area was hardly a primeval wilderness; habitat had been fragmented; and old growth conditions were likely restricted for the most part to areas unsuitable for farming.

This passage from an 1885 article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune sheds some additional light on conditions in the area both before and after the Civil War. “But little has been said about Tensas River and Joe’s Bayou as, but little interest is there as compared with former years. Before the war there was a continuous planting interest all along those two streams but overflows and the war left them to grow up into weeds and bushes. In 1870 Mason, and later Loyd bought cattle from other parts of the country and carried them to those bayou places for pasturage, wherein a few years they made large sums of money. This was in the neighborhood of Quebec, which before the war was a flourishing little city, shipping 7090 bales of cotton. It was at the junction of the Tensas River and the railroad. It is now a waste place and to pass there on the railroad you would never know that a town had been there.” (In The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, p.76 Hoose plays into the virgin forest myth by claiming that railroads “finally reached the Tensas River sometime around 1900.”) Quebec was just a few miles outside the tract, near Bayou Despair, where Tanner listed a pair from 1934-1936.

The Rootsweb pages provide a couple of additional and important pieces of information.

Theodore Roosevelt visited Madison Parish in 1907.  Roosevelt’s descriptions provide added detail about conditions in and around the Singer Tract several decades after the Civil War. According to Roosevelt:

“Beyond the end of cultivation towers the great forest. Wherever the water stands in pools, and by the edges of the lakes and bayous, the giant cypress loom aloft, rivalled in size by some of the red gums and white oaks. In stature, in towering majesty, they are unsurpassed by any trees of our eastern forests; lordlier kings of the green-leaved world are not to be found until we reach the sequoias and redwoods of the Sierras. Among them grow many other trees–hackberry, thorn, honeylocust, tupelo, pecan, and ash. In the cypress sloughs the singular knees of the trees stand two or three feet above the black ooze. Palmettos grow thickly in places. The canebrakes stretch along the slight rises of ground, often extending for miles, forming one of the most striking and interesting features of the country. They choke out other growths, the feathery, graceful canes standing in ranks, tall, slender, serried, each but a few inches from his brother, and springing to a height of fifteen or twenty feet. They look like bamboos; they are well-nigh impenetrable to a man on horseback; even on foot they make difficult walking unless free use is made of the heavy bush-knife. It is impossible to see through them for more than fifteen or twenty paces, and often for not half that distance. Bears make their lairs in them, and they are the refuge for hunted things. Outside of them, in the swamp, bushes of many kinds grow thick among the tall trees, and vines and creepers climb the trunks and hang in trailing festoons from the branches. Here, likewise, the bush-knife is in constant play, as the skilled horsemen thread their way, often at a gallop, in and out among the great tree trunks, and through the dense, tangled, thorny undergrowth.”

The most salient point here is that Roosevelt’s “great forest” applied to low-lying areas in which there was standing water (something that Hoose glosses over). Roosevelt also saw three Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:

“The most notable birds and those which most interested me were the great ivory-billed woodpeckers. Of these I saw three, all of them in groves of giant cypress; their brilliant white bills contrasted finely with the black of their general plumage. They were noisy but wary, and they seemed to me to set off the wildness of the swamp as much as any of the beasts of the chase.”


A photograph from the hunt is here. Tanner seems to have been unaware of the Roosevelt encounter. Roosevelt’s visit came just 17 years into cotton farming’s second decline and 52 years after the end of the Civil War. Habitat conditions are likely to have been poorer in general than when Tanner was there 3 decades later. The relative ease with which Roosevelt saw three ivorybills (despite their wariness) suggests they were not uncommon in 1907 and calls Tanner’s assumptions (pp. 48-50) about fire, tree death, and population influxes between 1911 and 1930 into question.

There’s another gem in the Rootsweb pages. It’s not directly on topic, but it relates to Tanner’s later dogmatism. In arguing for extinction and dismissing post-Singer Tract reports, many of which involved birds being flushed from tree stumps or other locations near the ground, Tanner characterized this behavior as being characteristic of pileateds not ivorybills.

Rootsweb has a newspaper account of  T. Gilbert Pearson‘s  visit to the Singer Tract in 1932. Pearson (who was President of the Audubon Society at the time) was the first ornithologist to confirm the presence of ivorybills in the Tract. He saw, “The birds . . . feeding on stumps of rotting trees, the tops of which had been broken off. A favorite place for feeding is also on dead limbs at or near the tops of the very tall sweet gum trees found abundantly in this region.”

The evidence that relates directly to Tanner’s study area and its immediate environs suggests that claims about “virgin forest” and IBWO dependency on old-growth are based on flawed premises. The Singer Tract was no doubt a remarkable place, a huge area of contiguous and relatively undisturbed forest, but it’s clear that much of it was not old growth or “virgin”.

It’s more useful to think about what the Singer Tract is likely to have offered Ivory-billed Woodpeckers – some measure of seclusion, enough big trees for roosting and nesting, and an abundance of standing and fallen deadwood. The myth that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker required vast tracts of “virgin” forest may be emotionally compelling, but it’s not based on evidence; it’s time to put it to rest.

I’m looking forward to spending a week in the field starting just after Christmas.

Tanner and Population Density

I recently gave a talk to the Rockland County Audubon Society, and a member raised what I think is the strongest question about our evidence and about the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in general. “How could the species have survived in such low numbers and at such low densities?”

In other posts, we’ve pointed to evidence that Tanner missed a population in Mississippi and was somewhat cavalier in his approach to evaluating potential habitat, disregarding advice Herbert Stoddard gave him in 1936, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.”

A recent study on Magellanic Woodpeckers points to another factor that raises even more doubt about Tanner’s estimated population of 22 in 1939.  The study was conducted in an old growth Lenga forest in Patagonia. According to this study: “Our results show that Magellanic Woodpecker family groups require a minimum of 100 ha in old-growth forest habitat; thus, forest patches in less favourable forest conditions (e.g., younger, managed, fragmented, mixed forests) should probably be much larger to support a resident pair or family.”

The specific criteria that Tanner used for estimating the 1939 population at approximately 22 are unclear, but he assumed a maximum carrying capacity of six square miles per pair. The Wikipedia entry on the IBWO is even worse and is generally rife with bad information; the editors there expand Tanner’s six square miles to “9.7“.  Elsewhere, Tanner suggested a minimum home range of two and a half to three square miles. These numbers are somewhere between six and 16 times the minimum for a large southern congener that, like the ivorybill, lives in more temperate habitat than others in the genus.

Thus, there is a strong possibility that Tanner severely underestimated ivorybill populations in Florida. If he was so badly wrong about home range, he’s more likely to have missed populations in areas that he rejected for being suboptimal and not expansive enough.

Double the minimum acreage required by the magellanic in optimal habitat and apply that number to the ivorybill, and Sherburne, a large Louisiana WMA, could theoretically be home to just under 90 family groups. (We don’t think this is the case.) Even at 450 hectares per family group, the carrying capacity in Sherburne would be nearly 40. Such numbers are improbable in the extreme, but 9 or 10 family groups in an area that size would be very hard to detect.

With significantly smaller home range requirements, a substantially larger population in 1939, and a recognition that Singer Tract-like conditions are not a requirement (as Tanner himself made clear), various survival scenarios become considerably more plausible, assumptions about low densities become more questionable, and the quantity of potential habitat is far greater than anyone has imagined.

Edited to add: Although the study referenced above is more recent, Noel Snyder made the same basic argument about magellanics and other congeners in The Travails of Two Woodpeckers (2009). Snyder posits that hunting pressure, not habitat loss, was the primary cause of the ivorybill’s decline.

Snyder (who to the best of my knowledge has little hope for the ivorybill) does not fully address how Tanner’s assumptions might have affected his population estimates and habitat evaluations. He also doesn’t consider how taking Tanner at face value has influenced both search protocols and the “credibility” of post-Singer Tract reports. Nevertheless, he does hint at what I suspect is the key to the species’ survival: “With food supplies degraded, not eliminated, a reasonable possibility appears to exist that many ivory-bill populations in logged regions might still have found enough food to persist and might have endured at modest densities, had they been free of shooting pressure. The long persistence of the ivory-bill in one quite thoroughly logged region in Cuba supports this possibility . . .”

In my view, Snyder goes a little too far in downplaying specialization as a factor, even if Tanner overplayed it. It’s pretty clear – from range, habitat, and morphology – that ivorybills are more specialized than pileateds. But if the IBWO did persist after World War II and Snyder is right that hunting was a major factor in the species’  decline (even in the Singer Tract), there may be even more room for optimism, since hunting practices changed considerably in the post-war era.



Some Thoughts on The Ivorybill’s Decline And A Change of Plans

Jamie Hill, who has worked with the Cornell and Auburn teams, recently posted a Facebook link to a very interesting article from the September 2014 issue of Smithsonian. Ivory-billed Woodpecker aside, the piece is well worth reading, but for the purposes of this blog, the article got me thinking about reasons for the ivorybill’s decline and the possible role of the longleaf pine. These ideas are not entirely new or original with me; Lester Short went even further, suggesting that pine might have been the ivorybill’s primary habitat; Jerome Jackson devoted several pages of In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to pines, and Fangsheath of the ivorybill researchers forum has hinted at this too.

I was struck by just how congruent the historic range of the ivorybill is with the range of the longleaf pine (Pinus pilastrus). The overlap is not exact, and the pre-Columbian range of the ivorybill extended as far north as Ohio. Nonetheless, conditions in the Singer Tract were objectively quite different from what they were in many other parts of the historic range.

A recent blog post on the Tallahassee Democrat site reiterates the conventional wisdom about the species and the reasons for its decline. Author Budd Titlow writes: “Before the Civil War, when much of the southeastern U.S. was covered with vast tracts of primeval hardwood swampland, ivory-billed woodpeckers ranged from North Carolina south to Florida, west to Arkansas and Texas, and north into Oklahoma and Missouri. Then, after the Civil War, extensive logging of these old-growth swamps wiped out most of the ivory-billed’s habitat in one fell swoop.”

While there’s some truth to this history, it’s also a stereotype that’s based in large part on an imperfect reading of Tanner’s monograph and even more on Tanner’s dedication to protecting the Tract as the last remaining extensive old-growth stand in the southeast (although the Tract contained considerably less old growth than Tanner believed). Tanner’s efforts were admirable; the loss of countless acres of magnificent old-growth swamp forest was devastating environmentally and is unquestionably something to be mourned, but it seems unlikely that the destruction of these forests was the primary cause for the ivorybill’s decline.

The species was known to be disappearing by 1890 or even earlier, and Chester Reed’s 1906 Bird Guide to Land Birds East of the Rockies stated that the birds were restricted to isolated parts of Florida and possibly to “Indian Country” (Oklahoma). In The Travails of Two Woodpeckers, Noel Snyder, who attributes the decline primarily to hunting, points out that intensive logging of bottomland hardwoods began between 1890 and 1900. Logging of pine forests began considerably earlier, and these forests were severely fragmented, even before the Civil War. Snyder reads the early record (I think selectively) as indicating that ivorybills strongly preferred bottomland hardwoods and seldom used pines, in contrast to the Cuban ivorybill and the Imperial.

Jackson takes a different view, citing multiple references to the use of pines for feeding and nesting. Where Snyder reads Alexander Wilson’s early account as reflecting a preference for “swamps and bottomlands”, Jackson reads him as describing the preferred Carolina habitat as “a mosaic of baldcypress swamp and pine uplands, similar to the habitat in Florida”. Jackson goes on to suggest that, “It appears . . . that ivory-billed woodpeckers will inhabit both hardwood forests of river bottoms and pine forests of higher elevations, particularly old growth forests supporting healthy populations of beetles. They seemed to do best at the interface of these forest types, taking advantage of the resources of each.” (Emphasis added).

This meshes well with what Allen and Kellogg observed in Florida in 1924; the birds nested and roosted in cypress and were observed and photographed foraging in open pine forest. The Lambs’ limited observations in Cuba suggest something similar, a preference for roosting in pines but an equal division between pines and hardwoods for foraging.

Thus, it seems possible that the Singer Tract was actually suboptimal habitat for the ivorybill, since it contained no pine and little cypress. I’m also led to suspect that habitat fragmentation, rather than habitat loss may have been central to the decline of the ivorybill, with hunting as one of several other contributing factors. This fragmentation actually began well before the Civil War, but it accelerated with the post-war destruction of the longleaf pine forests, followed by the logging of the bottomlands. I’m personally convinced that the species beat the odds and survived, using one or both of the strategies discussed in this post. I wonder whether some of the modern search efforts have focused excessively on the bottomland hardwood model and not enough on areas where there’s an interface between forest types.

On a different note, I had planned to make my final trip to our search area for the season during this week and next. Water levels are very high right now, so I’ve decided to postpone until late July. Better to endure the heat and humidity than to be unable to move around in the woods.

George and Nancy Lamb’s 1957 Cuban Ivorybill Study

I have been re-reading George Lamb’s 1957 report on the Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A number of items struck me as potentially significant for North American searchers, some for how they diverge from Tanner and others for their level of detail. Since this report is likely unfamiliar to many, I thought I’d do a quick post listing some of the more interesting observations

Lamb references a number of local sightings of “groups” of ivorybills, with one report to John Dennis that involved six birds. Notwithstanding, Lamb estimated the population density in Cuba to be much thinner than in the Singer Tract, at one pair per 12-25 square miles. He also pointed out that “ . . . the Cuban Ivory-bills are living for the most part in a cut-over pine forest where only small and deformed trees remain.”

The Cuban ivorybills fed on pines and hardwoods more or less equally, although most of the feeding sign was found on pines, due to the difficulty of searching for sign in the denser hardwood habitat. Roosts and nests were found exclusively in pines (one unused cavity was found in a hardwood), which is interesting in light of the fact that hardwoods were also available. Cavities were found at heights ranging from under 20 feet to nearly 60 feet. Cavities were higher in mature forest; Lamb suggested but did not conclude that the preference was for higher cavities and that the lower ones reflected an adaptation to cut-over conditions.

Lamb describes a female scaling bark: “At this point she was only about 25 feet away while she was feeding around the base of a small pine. She began ‘barking’ this tree about 30 inches from the ground and slowly worked up to the top.” Dennis too had observed birds scaling small pines. They found more scaling than excavation.

This apparent preference for pines, including small ones, may be significant, particularly since the hardwood areas were “relatively untouched”.

An estimated 17 birds were killed by humans over a ten year period, a huge number for such a small population. And it seems an open question whether the thinner population density noted by the Lambs was due to habitat quality, hunting pressure, or a combination of the two.

Regarding flight style: “. . .the flight of the Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker was always level and purposeful. They are strong fliers, capable of covering considerable distance in little time, as indeed they must to live successfully in cut-over woodlands. Although the Ivory-bill did not seem to undulate in its flight, the wing beats were not steady, having an almost imperceptible 2-3-2-3 rhythm.”

There’s no mention of double knocks, but calls are discussed. Lamb describes the sound as like the “note of a penny tin trumpet . . . short and usually repeated in a series of single-double-single beats, or it may begin with a double call: that is a high nasal “pent, pent-pent, pent”, or just “pent-pent”. On several occasions the female Ivory-bill most frequently observed made a few long and very loud calls, soon after leaving here roost tree in the early morning. The notes were of greater duration than normal and were repeated in a series of sixteen to twenty-two kients.”

Food for thought . . .

Trip Report – November 27-30, 2014

Frank Wiley and I have spent the past four days in our search area, beginning on Thanksgiving morning. Before getting into the details, it merits noting that this weekend is the probably the peak of deer season in Louisiana. On Thanksgiving, there were perhaps fifteen or twenty people hunting on the edges of the habitat corridor. We encountered a single person in a tree stand that day, at the edge of the potential habitat. The number of hunters dwindled over the weekend, and on Sunday morning, we heard only one or two distant gunshots and saw a lone pickup truck parked along the parish road, nowhere near the bottomlands where we’re focused. On Thursday, we visited the southern sector, where we’ve spent the most time and have had the most encounters, calling it a day in late morning for Thanksgiving. At dinner, a long-time acquaintance of Frank’s described seeing IBWOs at a location about 10 miles from our search area from which we’ve had another credible-seeming report. We spent Friday through Sunday in the northern sector, which contains some extraordinary habitat, much of it old growth or nearly so. In this sector, sweet gums and oaks of 3-4’ diameter at breast height are not uncommon, and larger trees, like the one pictured, can be found from time to time.

Frank w:Chestnut Oak

Frank Wiley with Chestnut Oak. His arm is 32″ from armpit to fingertip. We estimate the DBH to be 5′.

Travel in the northern sector is extremely challenging due to blowdowns and deeply incised sloughs. On Saturday, it took almost the entire day to cover a total of three miles. One impressive feature of the area is the presence of large patches of cane that reaches as much as 15’ in some places. In some parts of the forest, cane is the main component of the understory.

Frank Wiley in Cane Brake

Frank Wiley in Canebrake

Cane understory in second growth pine flat

Cane understory in second growth pine flat

It appears that some places within the northern sector have not been visited by people for several decades. In one apparent old growth area, the only litter we found was a Schlitz beer can and a 16 ounce glass soda bottle, both of which date to the 1980s. There were no shotgun shells or other signs of human presence to be found. Approximately 1/4 mile south we did find a hunter’s flagging that was several years old. This is difficult and seldom visited territory.

At 8:40 on Thursday morning, we heard some distant, intriguing kent-like calls. There were, however, several Blue Jays calling much closer to our location. We then visited the tree shown on the Project Coyote homepage that we found in May 2013. The decay is progressing, and there are many new insect exit tunnels through the remaining bark. It seems significant and mysterious to us that there is no sign of further woodpecker foraging of any kind on the tree. This tree is in within a known Pileated Woodpecker home range, and we believe that if the work were that of a Pileated there would have been multiple return visits by now.

Old feeding sign that has the appearance of the work we believe to be diagnostic is abundant in the northern sector, but we did not find anything that appeared to be fresh. We suspect this may be at least in part a seasonal factor and that scaling of bark is a more central feeding strategy during mating season and until young have fledged. Nonetheless, we were impressed by the abundance of feeding sign. These are several examples. We found the excavation in the last image to be somewhat different from typical Pileated Woodpecker work and therefore somewhat intriguing, although we suspect it was done after the bark had been removed. The wood showed no signs of rot. Oldscaling Old Scaling HiRes Oldscaling2HiRes

Two examples of old scaling found in the northern sector

Examples of old scaling found in the northern sector.

Unusual excavation in a scaled snag

Unusual excavation in a scaled snag

We did not hear anything intriguing on Friday, but at 1 pm on Saturday, deep into the remote, untraveled area, we heard two ambient double knocks. The first of these was perhaps the closest to recorded Campephilus DKs I’ve ever heard in the field. Frank heard an additional DK or two that I missed. We then got two or three single knocks in response to a series of ADKs (anthropogenic double knocks). These knocks appeared to come from two sources, moving from slightly northwest of our location toward the south. On our way out of the area, we found an old snag with an intriguing cavity, as well as one being used by a sub-adult Red-headed Woodpecker. We returned on Sunday morning to place a game camera on the tree. At approximately 8:15 am, prior to setting up the camera, we did an ADK series (this within 200-300 yards of where we heard the DKs the afternoon before). We had several knocks, both single and double, in apparent response.

Red-headed Woodpecker peering out of cavity

Red-headed Woodpecker peering out of cavity at top of target snag


Cavity in the northern sector found November 29, 2014. Camera trap placed November 30.

As peak search season approaches, we’re encouraged to have three distinct but connected areas where we’ve found suggestive feeding sign and have had putative encounters. While there have been no sightings in the northern sector, the contact rate is extraordinary, as is the abundance of feeding sign. To be continued . . .