Bits and Pieces Part 6: Rethinking Range and Habitat – Implications

If you’ve been following this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) you know it has focused primarily on preconceptions about ivorybill range and habitat types and how the actual record paints a very different picture from what many of us think we know about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As I noted in the most recent installment, if our knowledge of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were based on the archaeological record alone, we’d think of it as an upland species. Further, we might very well assume that it ranged from the hills of Georgia, to the Alleghenies in Virginia, to central Ohio and west-central Illinois.*

While it may border on heretical to say so, I think there’s a plausible argument that the ivorybill’s range prior to around 1800 extended as far north as the mid-Atlantic states (New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the Eastern Seaboard) and as far north as central Ohio west of the Appalachians. I’m inclined to think this is likely based on a number of accounts including: Peter Kalm (a student of Linnaeus who reported the species was present in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 18th-century), Jefferson (1780s) and Nuttall (1840s) who included Virginia in the range, and Gerard Hopkins a Quaker from Maryland traveling to Indiana to meet with the Miami and Potowatami Nations. Hopkins described a female ivorybill at Piqua, Ohio (north of Dayton, elevation 873′) in 1804 (Leese, 2010.)

In addition, there’s the specimen that Wilson reportedly collected near Winchester, Virginia ca. 1810 (Jackson) and the central Kentucky specimen reportedly collected in the 1780s (Jackson, accepted by Tanner in 1989).

November 2021: Edited to add the Wilson record for Winchester, Virginia is apparently erroneous.

As I see it, the tendency to treat these records as suspect is based, at least in part, on post-Civil War or post-Audubon “knowledge” about the ivorybill and its habitat, rather than anything intrinsically implausible about the claims themselves.

At minimum, one of the Ohio archaeological finds dates to the 15th or 16th century, so there’s strong reason to think that the ivorybill’s range extended that far north at the time of contact. North American Native populations began to decline after Columbus’s arrival, and De Soto’s expedition, 1539-1542,  led to the collapse of the Mississippian culture. (De Soto also introduced the hogs that plague the southern forests to this day.) As a consequence, countless acres of formerly agricultural lands throughout the eastern United States were reforested and remained so into the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s little reason to think that the ivorybill’s range would have contracted at a time when the total acreage of potential habitat was increasing.

I’m reminded that tree girdling may have been an important factor. The only counterargument to the foregoing suggestion about the increase in total acreage after De Soto is that Native American agricultural activity declined drastically during that period, so that while habitat acreage increased, habitat quality may not have. Tree girdling and intentional burning likely played an important role in creating good conditions for ivorybills and could conceivably have led to range expansion during the Mississippian period and again temporarily during the first couple of hundred years of European settlement.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker use of girdled trees was noted by several early observers – notably Audubon, Gosse, and Scott (in Florida, later). While researching this aspect, I came across an interesting account from 1840s Central Louisiana, apparently just south of Alexandria (the citizens of that city are described as “chiefly gamblers or cunning speculators, a nest of incarnate devils, who live by cheating the latest comers, and, whenever possible, each other.”) I’m not aware of this account having found its way into ivorybill literature:

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 10.01.03 AMScreen Shot 2018-01-17 at 10.01.19 AM

From Echoes from the Backwoods; or, Scenes of Transatlantic LifeCaptain R.G.A. Levinge (1849).

With this as background, I’d like to propose an alternative explanation (or more accurately an alternative group of explanations) for the ivorybil’s decline. If you think, as I do, that the ivorybill has persisted, this may help explain how the species survived and may even provide some hope for its future, even in this era of mass, anthropogenic extinction.

When it comes to the decline and possible extinction, there has been a tendency to look for one or two causes. The IUCN Species Account gives the following reasons:

Logging and clearance for agriculture are responsible for the dramatic decline in numbers and range. These factors are likely to threaten any remaining population. Hunting has also been implicated in the rapid population decline, and it has been proposed that this was the primary cause of its decline, with habitat destruction playing a secondary role, but this theory is contentious (Snyder 2007, Hill 2008, M. Lammertink in litt. 2012).

Tanner emphasized the importance of logging during the post-Civil War era, although several of his data points seem to suggest that ivorybills were disappearing prior to the most active logging dates. He also stated that the ivorybill’s disappearance “coincided at least roughly with a time of active or rapidly increasing logging.” Elsewhere in the monograph, he focused on food supply, and I suspect that this, rather than logging per se was a more important factor in the ivorybill’s decline.

That’s not to say logging was unimportant; it clearly played a major role. To expand briefly on the point Bill Pulliam raised: by the late 19th century, the more adaptable Pileated Woodpecker, had been extirpated in many parts of its range, and many expected it to ‘go the way of the ivorybill’. That didn’t happen, and PIWOs returned to or became more common in many areas (my own included) as farming gave way to suburban development and forested acreage increased as a result. I’d suggest that for the ivorybill, habitat degradation, rather than habitat loss, was what initiated the decline, with extensive logging and then hunting accelerating an already existing trend.

That is to say, a number of additional anthropogenic factors likely played a role in the ivorybill’s decline and dwindling range, especially outside of Florida, where hunting and collecting likely had much greater impacts than elsewhere. Hasbrouck, writing in the 1890s, contrasted the lack of collecting in Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee with what was transpiring in Florida at the time. And it’s important to remember that Florida, which retained ‘frontier’ characteristics far longer than other parts of the eastern United States, was ground zero for the killing and collecting of birds – for commercial and ostensibly ornithological purposes. Ivorybills appear to have been more common in Florida than elsewhere by the second half of the 19th century, but it also seems probable that they were far more heavily persecuted there than anywhere else.

I’m hypothesizing that the shrinking distribution was correlated with settlement patterns in the northeastern part of that range and that by the middle of the 19th-century, east of the Mississippi, it had dwindled to the now familiar outlines, such as those shown on the IUCN range map. Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 3.42.31 PM

The situation west of the Mississippi is somewhat more ambiguous. A specimen was collected at Forest Park, Missouri (near Saint Louis) in 1886, and there are records from west of the map in Texas dating to the early 20th century. Nevertheless, the general trend toward a shrinking range, which was frequently described in the 19th century literature, is clear.

European settlement brought about numerous changes in the land even before wholesale clearing of forests began.

As mentioned briefly in the discussion of tree girdling, Native Americans used fire for agricultural and wildlife management purposes, something that was likely beneficial for ivorybills. As Native Americans were exterminated, pushed out of their original homelands, or confined to small reservations, and as European settlers tried to control or eliminate fires, a significant factor contributing to tree mortality was likely reduced, dramatically.

Fulton’s invention of a commercially viable steamboat in 1807 revolutionized commerce, drastically accelerating the clearing of log jams from many watersheds in eastern North America. It’s fair to say that “widespread removal of instream wood for steamboat routes, timber rafts, and flood control was equally significant in decreasing floodplain sedimentation and river complexity, and in causing a fundamental, extensive, and intensive change in forested river corridors throughout the United States.” (Wohl, 2014.) As with changes in fire regimes, this clearing of log jams likely led to a decline in the number of stressed and dying trees along the riparian corridors that seem to have been so important for the ivorybill.

Perhaps equally if not more important in my view is the extirpation of the beaver. It is almost impossible to overstate the role of the beaver in shaping ecosystems throughout North America, a subject that’s addressed in engaging detail in Frances Backhouse’s Once They Were Hats. Beavers help create conditions that are good for woodpeckers by stressing and killing trees, through foraging and by changing hydrology. I’ve never tried to quantify it, but many, perhaps most, medium to large sized sweet gums in our search area show signs of beaver damage, and many others have been killed or severely weakened by beaver-caused flooding.

While beavers are not native to peninsular Florida, the ivorybill’s dwindling range elsewhere roughly tracks their decline; with extirpation starting in the northeast, moving West, and then South. (Southern beaver pelts were less valuable.) By 1900, beavers had disappeared from most of the southeastern US, and in Tanner’s day, a very small population persisted in the Florida Parishes of eastern Louisiana. Reintroductions began in the 1950s, and beavers are now considered a pest animal in Louisiana. It’s worth pointing out that the introduced beaver population in Tierra del Fuego appears to be benefitting the native Magellanic Woodpecker (Soto et al. 2012).

The resurgence of the beaver throughout the southeastern US is almost certainly producing substantially improved habitat conditions in many places. While the old growth forests may be virtually gone, it’s not inconceivable that ivorybill food sources are considerably more abundant now than they were in Tanner’s day, and if the species survived, conditions may actually be more favorable than they were in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s also worth pointing out that the southeastern United States is one of the few places in the world where forest cover has increased substantially in the 21st century.

It should be clear to readers of this series that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker inhabited a larger range and was able to exist in more varied habitats than most publications on the species suggest. This has implications for searchers and for what is deemed to be suitable habitat. For example, the trail cam images from the old Project Coyote search area were obtained near the edge of a bean field, and the putative ivorybill roost holes were in willows (more on that in my next post). Since ivorybills in the western part of their range seem to have lived in willow and cottonwood dominated riparian corridors, fast growing, short-lived willows might have played an important role in the species’ survival in other areas too, although willow-dominated habitat would be dismissed as unsuitable under conventional standards of habitat appropriateness.

It seems to me that even a slightly higher degree of adaptability would increase both the chances of survival and the likelihood that surviving populations might be overlooked due to preconceptions about habitat “suitability” ; this was doubtless one of the factors that led officials to dismiss the landowner in our old search area. Now that beavers are again abundant in the southeast, habitat that might otherwise have been deemed “unsuitable” may now be able to support ivorybills, even if the forest itself is not very old. While I don’t envision a recovery along the lines of what’s happened to the Pileated since my youth (when seeing my first one was a thrill as much for its scarcity as its beauty), I think it’s possible that ivorybill numbers have been increasing gradually and modestly over the past few decades. There was, of course, fairly intensive searching from around 2000-2010 (though it’s mostly over now), but it may be that the more numerous sightings from this period and afterwards are due to more than just the increased effort.

*The remains found in Native American middens were unlikely to have been trade goods; ivorybill parts seem to have been a valuable commodity for ceremonial use west of the Mississippi but not east of it, and in several cases, the remains found were tarsometatarsi, which would be consistent with use as food:

There is strong physical evidence of  ritual value for woodpecker scalps and bills from the upper Midwest and Plains . . .  Remains of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker can be found in sacred bundles, on pipe stems, on amulets, and with burials among the Native Americans of the region. The evidence comes from the western Great Lakes and the Plains; no
evidence of a particular use of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers has yet been un-
covered from the eastern area of the Great Lakes (Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan).

(Leese, 2006.) Leese also points out (in several of his publications) that there’s no evidence that ivorybill parts other than scalps and bills had any trade value.

A number of these midden records were accepted by Tanner in his unpublished 1989 update.


Go Read Bill Pulliam’s Blog While You Can

I had been planning to do a post with various ivorybill related tidbits in anticipation of the search season, which begins next month. That will be coming in a week or so, but I want to say a little more about Bill Pulliam first (beyond his Luneau video analyses, which I think should be dispositive). This decision was inspired in part by one of our advisors who pointed similarities between what Bill observed in Tennessee and what we’re seeing in Louisiana. While the physical characteristics of our old search area seem to have more in common with Moss Island, Tennessee than where we’re currently focused, Bill’s perspectives are relevant to both.

Edited to add: Moss Island is a small wildlife management area encompassing 3400 acres. I’m not sure what percentage is mature bottomland hardwood forest, but there are a variety of other habitat types. Compared to our search areas it is relatively isolated and distant from other large tracts of forest.

As an aside, Cyberthrush also has a post honoring Bill with a link to an eBird tribute.

With comments included, Bill’s series of posts on Moss Island runs to nearly 54,000 words. There’s no telling how long this series will remain readily accessible online, and indeed some of the images and sound files are no longer available. The entire series is worth reading and saving if you’re seriously interested in the ivorybill. It starts here.

On re-reading the posts for the first time in eight years, I’m struck by how much Bill influenced me without my recognizing it and/or how much the evolution of my understanding between  2009 and today is congruent with the ideas he expressed just as I was getting more deeply involved in searching.

Like Bill, I suspect that the near extirpation and revival of the beaver may be central to the ivorybill’s decline and survival (more about this in my next post). Like Bill, I think that Tanner’s model failed to account for environmental changes that had taken place in the preceding centuries. Like Bill, I think that if the ivorybill survived, it had to have adapted in ways that are inconsistent with Tanner’s a priori assumption that the species is old-growth dependent.

Bill was tough-minded and opinionated. There were times when I thought he considered me a somewhat annoying amateur. While we hadn’t communicated about it in recent years, he took a dim view of my efforts to make sense of feeding sign in the early days. Most of our correspondence took place in the 2000s, while he was still actively blogging about the ivorybill. After that, I sought his input sparingly.

My last exchange of emails with him pertained to the March recordings. Without quoting him directly, I think it’s fair to say he thought the calls were likely or more than likely Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He also thought it unlikely that birds were resident in our search area, based on the pattern of potential encounters, the paucity of strong sightings, and lack of conclusive evidence. I’m not sure I agree; I wish there had been a chance to explore this topic in more depth and that he’d been able to see our search area for himself. Nonetheless, his perspective has led me to consider that other nearby forested areas deserve more attention than we’ve given them to date.

I’ll conclude with three paragraphs from his final post in the Moss Island series. It’s as true today as it was in November 2009 (though I suspect nesting may take place in fragmented second growth, as in our old search area). I hope it inspires you to read the rest. More from me soon.

How does this relate to Moss Island? By Cornell standards, our habitat is unsuitable. Hence, our encounters are largely dismissed out of hand. By doing so, the Cornell approach has painted themselves into a rather nasty corner. The logic is simple. To all appearances, we have Campephilus-like double knocks that are at least as good as what has been heard in the “core habitat” such as Big Woods and Congaree. If one claims that in “core habitat” these represent evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, but in “marginal” or “unsuitable” habitat they provide no evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, one has committed a logical no-no of the first magnitude. If the same sounds come from places where you have concluded that Ivorybills are not going to be, then you should conclude that these sounds have no relevance to Ivorybills anywhere. Conversely, if you feel these sounds are evidence of the possible presence of Ivorybills in South Carolina or Arkansas, then you must also accept that they would be evidence of the same in Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. You can’t have it both ways.

Anyone who seriously considers that Ivorybills might still persist, and that double knocks and other soft evidence have a relevance to indicating their possible presence, should accept that the evidence in total suggests their habitat requirements might be broader than has been assumed by Cornell et al. I’m not suggesting they will nest in fragmented second growth, or even use it as a full-time habitat; but there are ample indications that if these sort of encounters mean anything anywhere then the birds indeed are using fragmented “marginal” habitats for at least parts of their life history. These habitats are hugely more extensive than the “core” habitats, hence this possibility raises all sorts of further hypothetical possibilities for the natural history, survival, and conservation of the species, all of them positive. In the alternative philosophy to Cornell’s, you search where you have learned of rumors, whispers, or credible declarations that something of interest might have been seen or heard there. This of course requires a lot of judgement, and eventually everyone will draw the line somewhere; I’d not put much stock in reports from western Kansas, for example — although good double knocks in Nebraska or Vermont would settle a lot about what they might mean in Arkansas! But until and unless we actually find some reproducible birds and determine what their 21st Century habitat use patterns really are, minds should be kept open.

You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species. You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species.