Repost with Addendum: Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sightings and Evidence 1944-2003: The Partially Hidden History

I’m reposting an entry from February 2015 with some new commentary as prologue.

I recently received a Google alert about a new paper on statistical approaches to extinction relying on sight records. According to the paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed:

We have shown that the rate of sightings is the strongest indicator to infer extinction, and too much information about the quality of the sighting can actually be detrimental. Ideally a sighting record would be a list of certain and uncertain sightings only.

I’m curious as to how this model might treat the ivorybill, using the sighting data compiled and analyzed by William C. Hunter in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, a document with which many extinction modelers seem to be unfamiliar.

I’m not trained in statistics, and the literature on this subject is often over my head, but I’m familiar with the concept: “garbage in, garbage out”. Unfortunately, when it comes to the ivorybill, information that is repeated in the statistical papers is often inaccurate:

“For example in 2005, based on a brief sighting and a pixelated image, the ivory-billed woodpecker was declared to have been rediscovered (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005), resulting in the mobilisation of resources for management strategies and recovery plans (Gotelli et al., 2012). However, based on the evidence its rediscovery was brought into question (Sibley et al., 2006), and subsequent extensive searches have failed to result in further sightings (Gotelli et al., 2012).” Roberts DL, Jarić I. (2016) Inferring extinction in North American and Hawaiian birds in the presence of sighting uncertainty. PeerJ 4:e2426c 

An example of a species with a high false detectability is the ivory-billed woodpecker. After 2006, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service offered $10,000 for information leading to an ivory-billed woodpecker’s nest, it was ‘observed’ 14 times and audio recorded 300 times. Nonetheless, the reward remained uncollected (Newton 2009). Lee, T. E. (2014), A simple numerical tool to infer whether a species is extinct. Methods Ecol Evol, 5: 791–796.

Neither of these papers applied the models described to the ivorybill, and I’m not commenting on the validity of the models themselves. I’m pointing to how peer-reviewed literature can sometimes function as an echo chamber in which inaccurate information gets repeated as fact.

While it’s true that extensive searches have failed to obtain indisputable proof, the Luneau video, however controversial, cannot be characterized as a “pixelated image”. There were many more sightings in Arkansas and elsewhere, and in Arkansas, numerous kent-like calls and double knocks were heard and recorded over several seasons.

The book by Newton cited in Lee is Hidden Animals: A Field Guide to Batsquatch, Chupacabra, and Other Elusive Creatures, clearly not a serious scientific treatment of the ivorybill and apparently not a very well-researched one. There were in fact 15 Arkansas sightings between 2004 and 2005 and 14 in 2005-2006. The reward, which was for $50,000, applied to Arkansas only and was offered by the Nature Conservancy, not the USFWS, in June 2006. The source of the claim that audio was “recorded 300 times” is not clear, nor is the meaning. Inaccuracies aside, it’s an enormous logical leap to base an assertion about high false detectability on the inability of an unknown number of bounty hunters to locate a nest in ~500,000 acres of forest.

It may well be true that the ivorybill is more prone to false detectability than some other species; its iconic status makes this seem likely. It’s also true that there have been a number of organized searches for the ivorybill and that the number of sightings has increased as a result of publicity and search activity, at least during the first decade of this century. Nevertheless, many of the records between 1944 and 2003 listed in the USFWS Recovery Plan were unrelated to publicity or organized searches and were incidental to other activities, including bird surveys. In addition, the Recovery Plan tally included some qualitative analysis of the sightings, and an unspecified number of reports were excluded as probable false detections.

I find it odd that Appendix E of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan is seldom if ever referenced in the recent literature, including Birdlife International’s species account (which I’m honored to say does reference the post below). It’s an official government report and is the most extensively researched document of its kind. I suspect that many readers will be unfamiliar with it and think it merits quoting at length; I’ve bolded some important passages.  I encourage people to click on the link above and read the rest.

Here, a potential encounter is defined as a report not easily explained as something other than an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the basis of description of the bird, the type of habitat in which it was encountered, and distribution. After the Arkansas announcement was made, post-1944 reports were compiled prior to the 2005 announcement of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker being sighted in Arkansas. A map was produced of these potential encounters in Service brochures. These potential encounters were based on those discussed by Jackson (2004) or otherwise in Service files as “probably reliable,” defined here as not obviously another species. A review of other published literature and files maintained by some State working groups included other potential encounters that are cited and used in this treatment (both before and after 1950). Excluded from further consideration were reports that likely described other species (especially Pileated, but also Red-headed and sometimes other woodpecker species), as well as those reports outside the historical range of the species (as depicted in Tanner 1942) and in unlikely habitats such as golf courses and backyards. The reports between 1945 and 2005 considered further vary in detail, with some accepted based solely on the credibility and reputation of the observer. Reports since April 2005 (i.e., the Arkansas announcement) are similarly treated, but at least one diagnostic field mark had to be observed (most often the white trailing edges on a flying or perched large woodpecker).

It is important to understand the type and level of documentation accepted for this species’ persistence at the time when most collecting of specimens began to trail off (i.e., after 1900) compared with those reports which were accepted without question previously. While most previous treatments break down reports by State, here it is believed that important insights can be made by comparing reports, type and level of documentation, by decade starting with the 1800 and ending with the present. References for those reports besides those of Tanner himself prior to 1940 are provided in Tanner (1942, with cross-reference to location on his maps, his figures 3-10) and are so noted here.

Results and Discussion

The number of locations with Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports peaked between 1880 and 1910, the same period when most specimens were collected (Figures 1, 2). The number of locations with potential reports after 1940 generally dropped below the number of locations with all reports between 1900 and 1940. However, when including only potential encounters between 1900 and 1939, the range in number of locations among decades was roughly similar to the number of locations with potential encounters in the decades between 1940 and 2009, only dropping below 10 locations during the 1990s. The number of locations within each decade with multiple reports among years never exceeded 10 per decade prior to the extensive efforts underway after 2005 to search for this species.

Prior to 1940, only a small percentage of locations from decade to decade provided the source of reports from multiple years within any one decade, ranging from 12 to 28 percent of all locations with birds reported within each decade (Figures 3, 4). After 1940, there was a slight increase in the percentage of locations with multi-year reports in the later decades, ranging from 9 to 51 percent of all locations with birds reported within each decade. Despite this increase in locations with reports from multiple years there was no definitive documentation of persistence at any of these locations. Similarly, a very low percentage of locations with reports spanning more than one decade is documented in the historical record, but again with a slight increase during the latter decades (Figures 5, 6). Reports continue to come from most of Tanner’s regions into the present day with an obvious shift from those regions that included Florida to regions elsewhere (Figure 7).

In summary, there is no evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was ever widely or consistently relocated in the same areas from year to year or from decade to decade prior to 1940, despite the impression one may have about birds at the Singer Tract during the 1930s. Actually, during Tanner’s study the chore in locating birds often took days or weeks even where pairs or family groups were known to occur from previous years (and actually only one nesting pair at John’s Bayou was consistently relocated during his entire study). Whether the birds were truly more nomadic than previously thought, or whether the low percentage of repeated locations historically has been due to the search patterns of ornithologists and collectors is unclear. What is clear is that the present pattern of reports that do not effectively document occurrence of the species has been repeated from decade to decade for more than a century and that the number of locations with potential encounters within the same decade has varied little since the 1870s.

Whether or not many or all post-1944 reports pertain to actual Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will continue to be debated in some circles, and it also is possible that some of the reports dismissed for purposes of this treatment perhaps should not have been discounted so lightly. However, the pattern of credible-sounding reports accepted for this treatment from locations without firm documentation was from decade to decade slightly lower between 1940 and 2009 than the pattern recorded between 1890 and 1939. Most interestingly, the exceptional increase in locations with potential encounters during the present decade is on the surface similar to what was recorded during the 1930s, given both of these decades experienced a notable increase in amount of effort to firmly document the persistence of this species (with similar results despite substantially fewer observers involved in the 1930s than in the present decade).


One caveat about this material: the specific information in Appendix E is potentially subject to change in the future, but the overall patterns are likely to stay similar or the same.

Here’s the February 2015 entry.

This post is inspired in large part by an exchange of emails with Chris Sharpe, an ornithologist who is working on an IBWO literature review. Our correspondence revolved around the IUCN’s species account, which describes the ivorybill as “possibly extinct” and cites recent statistical analyses that suggest extinction is likely, as well as one that indicates survival is possible and another that concludes “very large search efforts are needed to detect small populations.”

Chris pointed out that there are many other species on the Red List that fall into a similar category with many unverified reports but in more remote habitats and nowhere near the search effort that has been expended on the ivorybill. While there’s some validity to this assertion, I think the reality is considerably more complex and that the ivorybill is in fact sui generis.

Many of the specifics of ivorybill history are little-known, and the statistical studies seem badly flawed. One focuses on collection rates but may not adequately address changing attitudes toward conservation in the early 20th century among other factors. Another is perhaps even more problematic for a number of reasons – most importantly its focus on “verified sightings”, which is a particularly complicated issue when it comes to the ivorybill. It omits numerous controversial sightings and does not include post-Singer Tract instances in which physical evidence was obtained, although the authenticity of that evidence has been contested. “Sidewinder” posted the abstract and a good summary of the findings on a few years ago:

Roberts, D. L., C. S. Elphick, and J. M. Reed. 2010. Identifying anomalous reports of putatively extinct species and why it matters. Conservation Biology 24:189–196.

As species become very rare and approach extinction, purported sightings can stir controversy, especially when scarce management resources are at stake. We used quantitative methods to identify reports that do not fit prior sighting patterns. We also examined the effects of including records that meet different evidentiary standards on quantitative extinction assessments for four charismatic bird species that might be extinct: Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Nukupu`u (Hemignathus lucidus), and O`ahu `Alauahio (Paroreomyza maculata). For all four species the probability of there being a valid sighting today, given the past pattern of verified sightings, was estimated to be very low. The estimates of extinction dates and the chance of new sightings, however, differed considerably depending on the criteria used for data inclusion. When a historical sighting record lacked long periods without sightings, the likelihood of new sightings declined quickly with time since the last confirmed sighting. For species with this type of historical record, therefore, new reports should meet an especially high burden of proof to be acceptable. Such quantitative models could be incorporated into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List criteria to set evidentiary standards required for unconfirmed sightings of “possibly extinct” species and to standardize extinction assessments across species.

Here are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting data they used:

Physical evidence: 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1917, 1924, 1925, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1939

Independent expert opinion added: 1911, 1916, 1920, 1921, 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944

Controversial sightings: 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006

Data were from Tanner (1942), Hahn (1963), Jackson (2002, 2004), Fitzpatrick et al. (2005), Hill (2006), and Floyd (2007).

Some conclusions: For the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the prior sighting record suggests that even by the time of the first controversial sighting, the species was relatively unlikely to remain extant (ca. 21% chance), regardless of the level of evidence (physical or independent expert opinion) used…the effect on the predicted extinction date will depend on the details of the sighting record. Including controversial sightings will, by definition, move expected extinction dates forward in time. An ever-increasing burden of proof should be required with increasing time since the last verified sighting. The burden of proof also should be greater when there is a pattern of frequent sightings prior to the last accepted record and lower when long periods between sightings are common in the historical record.

A second paper published in 2012 reached the same conclusion using 39 sightings “classified as certain and 29 classified as uncertain”.

The insistence on verification is problematic because it’s founded on an appeal to authority, and for much of the time frame in question, the primary if not sole authority was James T. Tanner. Tanner had a strong predisposition to dismiss every post-Singer tract report he received and was somewhat cavalier about reports he investigated in the late ’30s as well. (In fairness, Tanner did accept a number of post-Singer Tract sightings in an unpublished, late 1980s update to the records section of monograph.)

Tanner likely underestimated the population IBWO population in the late 1930s. At minimum, he missed six pairs in Mississippi, according to Jackson ( In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pp. 60-62.  These details reinforce the point made by “Fangsheath” of that, for the ivorybill at least, demanding verification leads to “a rather vicious circularity”. In a recent email, Fangsheath also pointed out that “the Roberts et al. scheme fits tidily into the narrative created by Tanner, that the Singer Tract was the last hope of the ivory-bill, and that when that: wilderness was lost the bird essentially became extinct . . . Tanner searched across several states for the bird and found none elsewhere, yet he himself believed that the bird survived in a number of areas. And so we have a curious contradiction – on the one hand an appeal to authority is being used to exclude many sightings, and on the other hand that same authority is saying the bird exists in areas where sightings are excluded. The mythos that the bird had very specific habitat requirements clouded every search effort and every sighting evaluation, before and after 1944.”

Fangsheath’s observation about the impact of Tanner’s narrative on future search efforts is profoundly important. Tanner’s ideas about habitat, which were in large part a product of his cultural background and the “myth of the frontier”, hardened over time. In later years, he ignored some of the caveats he set forth in his own monograph. But even his approach to reports from the 1930s reflected a set of beliefs about habitat requirements that had no scientific basis. Many people, myself included, are prone to reflexively accepting these assumptions about “habitat quality” because the conventional wisdom is so deeply engrained.

Fangsheath also reminded me that in the years before Tanner, the species was being written off and had been for decades. Florida was believed to be the last stronghold; the Singer Tract and Atchafalaya basin were not considered, nor were the large tracts of overcup oak/water hickory forest (where Beyer found ivorybills in 1898), many of which were untouched until the 1940s. Unlike the Singer Tract, these areas were often roadless and very difficult to penetrate; the Tract was bisected by a road, had few deep bayous, and was largely free of undergrowth, making it much easier to search. I’ve already discussed Tanner’s difficulty in finding ivorybills anywhere besides John’s Bayou. In this context, it’s worth noting that Bick’s 1941 sighting (from his car on Sharkey Road) involved two birds feeding in a lower lying “ash flat” in which overcup oak predominated.

In addition to these conceptual flaws, the papers grossly underestimate the number of post-Singer Tract encounters within the historic range. While it is impossible to quantify the controversial reports, it’s clear that the 26 or 29 referenced in the studies are the tip of the iceberg. There are well over four times that many on record for the 1944-2003 time period. And no doubt, numerous encounters never made it into the literature.

I initially posted a brief comment about this on Facebook and, with a link to Jerome Jackson’s 2002 Birdwatching Daily article listing 20 pre-Arkansas and post-Singer Tract encounters (some just auditory and one from Cuba) and a reference to Michael Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird catalogue of 85 sightings during the same time frame. A commenter wrote, “Yes but no confirming photos”. That also led me to think it would be worthwhile to explore this subject in a somewhat more depth, since there is physical evidence, albeit contested, related to several post-Singer Tract and pre-Arkansas reports.

Before turning to the physical evidence, it’s worth reiterating that the 1944 date for the last “verified sighting” is fundamentally flawed and arbitrary. The 1944 date is for the “Say Goodnight” encounter that involved artist Don Eckelberry and two local boys, Billy and Bobby Fought, and the purported last lone female IBWO in the Singer Tract. This poignant story was retold in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, and it has become central to the popular lore about the species. There’s no doubt that the encounter took place, and Eckelberry no doubt believed that the bird was the last of her kind. Roger Tory Peterson apparently received and accepted a report that a single bird, presumably the same one, was still present in 1946. Tanner was likely aware of this and had an additional reason to think that birds persisted in the Tract well after 1944. His papers include a letter stating that Singer Tract game warden Gus Willett saw a pair in November 1948 at North Lake #1 (I have been unable to identify this lake). According to the letter, the “[b]irds are moving over a much larger area than formerly.” The letter mentions that there had been several other sightings during this time period. There’s no reply from Tanner in the archives and no further correspondence about the Singer  Tract birds. It appears that this is the letter from Tanner’s former student, Arthur MacMurray, that is referenced in Jackson, but Jackson’s account does not mention Willett, who would have been familiar with ivorybills. The strong possibility that a pair of birds remained in the Tract for more than four years after it was cut should itself raise questions about Tanner’s narrative.

Jackson’s list of 19 US reports between 1944 and 2003 was undoubtedly not intended to be comprehensive (and his book includes many others). Instead, it focuses on sightings by professional ornithologists and/or people who were familiar with the species. These include: Allan Cruickshank, John Terres, Herbert Stoddard, John Dennis, Davis Crompton (Dennis and Crompton studied ivorybills in Cuba), Whitney Eastman, and William Rhein. Jackson doesn’t mention it, and was perhaps unaware when he wrote the article, but Rhein had filmed the Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico several years prior to his 1959 Florida ivorybill sighting. It strains credulity to think that every one of these experienced observers, most or all of whom were familiar with the species and all of whom knew pileateds well, would be mistaken. Jackson points out that Terres kept his sighting to himself for more than 30 years out of “fear of being scorned.” Such was the climate surrounding ivorybill claims, even in 1955.

Steinberg lists 85 sightings between 1944 and 2003. His list includes most, if not all, of Jackson’s reports, breaking them down into individual incidents. Jackson treated repeat encounters in the aggregate. Nonetheless, most of Steinberg’s reports do not appear on Jackson’s list. Many of them are from less illustrious sources and quite a few are anonymous, but some of them are from game wardens, field biologists, and graduate students in ornithology.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan, prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and completed in 2010, includes an even more detailed compilation of records, some of which are of course also included in Jackson and Steinberg. It lists approximately 100 reports of varying quality between 1944 and 2003. Some of these are aggregates, involving multiple observations. The number of observations is sometimes enumerated and sometimes characterized as “numerous”, “multiple”, or “several”, so it’s impossible to arrive at an accurate tally, but the total almost certainly exceeds 150.

Although the Steinberg and the Recovery Plan compilations are more extensive, they are undoubtedly far from comprehensive. For starters, the climate of intimidation around reporting ivorybills was strong enough to deter John Terres in 1955, and that climate of intimidation only grew more toxic over time, as the Big Thicket and Fielding Lewis incidents, not to mention the battle over the Arkansas reports, make clear. In addition, there’s good reason to believe that countless reports from local people, hunters, and amateur birders have been discounted, dismissed, or ignored by authorities, at least prior to the “rediscovery”. Steinberg writes of his first visit to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Baton Rouge office in 2003,“ . . . few people took the book, or more important the larger issue very seriously. The typical response from many in the office, other than Nancy Higginbotham, seemed to be, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’” (Higginbotham claimed two sightings, one of male in 1986 and one of a female in 1987, both in the Pearl River area.) We’re personally familiar with several instances in which reports were dismissed or ignored. One involved the landowner in our old search area, who came forward after the Kulivan sighting and was deeply offended by the way he was treated. As far as I’m aware, no one has done a comprehensive review of records committee submittals within the historic range of the ivorybill; I know of one such submittal from Texas in 2002 that came from unsuitable habitat, outside the historic range, but there may well be others that are more robust.

I’d like to turn to three examples of physical evidence obtained in the post-1944 era. Some of this is fairly well known – the Agey and Heinzmann feather and the Fielding Lewis photographs. The other is somewhat more obscure, but no less interesting for being so.

The Agey and Heinzmann observations took place between 1967 and 1969, in Polk County Florida. They obtained two recordings that Tanner dismissed. There was evidently some very poor communication about it that was compounded by an obvious error on Agey and Heinzmann’s part. They mistakenly thought that calls on their first clip were consistent with some ivorybill sounds from the Singer Tract; they clearly are not. The second clip, which is dominated by a Red-shouldered Hawk, recorded March 3 1968, does have some faint kent-like sounds, but the quality is extremely poor. They are most easily heard on the amplified version that begins at 3:14. The RSHA calls were not what interested Agey and Heinzmann, but they failed to make this sufficiently clear.

I believe Tanner wrote the notes that accompany the recording:

“Well, I’m not sure what to say here. As far as I can determine, there are only four original sound clips here. The recordings at 0:04-0:32 and 0:49-0:57 are certainly flicker-like, especially the continuous series at 0:04-0:21 and 0:26-0:32, but I am less certain about the latter part of the first series (0:21-0:23), which appears to have been recopied twice at 0:41-0:48. A similar vocalization is included at 0:49-0:57 (recopied at 0:59-1:06). Given the very different quality of these sounds relative to those in LNS #6784, combined with the close similarity of the calls to those of Colatpes auratus, leads me to doubt that any of these sounds were given by C. principalis. The recordings from 3 March 1968 (2:45-3:07) represent the calls of Buteo lineatus. Quality unchanged (2;3 – the signal is not bad for the first part, but terrible for the rest, most of which seems to represent copies of various recordings)”

Agey and Heinzmann found several feathers near a cavity, and one was identified as the innermost secondary of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Oddly, Jackson wrote that “ . . . some shadow of doubt is cast over these records because Agey and Heinzmann also tape-recorded what they said were Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and personnel at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology identified the birds on those tapes as pileated woodpeckers.” Given that one of the recordings does include kent-like calls, this criticism is not entirely warranted, and the misidentification seems irrelevant in light of the physical evidence (and ironically Tanner seems to have failed to correctly identify the calls on the first clip). Jackson also alludes indirectly to rumors that the feathers were taken from a specimen. These have circulated for years but are unsubstantiated. Agey and Heinzmann published their findings:

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971a. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker found in central Florida. Fla. Nat. 44 (3):46–47, 64.

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971b. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida. Birding 3:43.

To the best of my knowledge neither publication is available online at this time.

The next event, chronologically, started with a series of encounters in east Texas in the late 1960s. John Dennis obtained a recording that Tanner initially dismissed, in part for the patently absurd reason that a Pine Warbler is also heard on the clip, but later described as “a real mystery” when confronted with the sonograms and analysis that were suggestive of ivorybill. That recording is now catalogued as IBWO.

Additional slides, taken in 1970 in east Texas by a man named Neal Wright, were turned over to the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia which also houses the Fielding Lewis photographs. These were made public after the rediscovery, and since writing this in 2015, I obtained permission to post them on the blog. They show what appears to be a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a nest cavity. When I first viewed the Wright photographs, I was quite skeptical, but later, I was struck by the resemblance to this image from the Singer Tract.

Wright was apparently quite a local character, and I remain somewhat suspicious, as he may have had ulterior motives; however, the similarity to one of the unpublished images from the Singer Tract is strong, and in the pre-internet era, it seems unlikely that a Texas woodsman would be familiar with any of the ivorybill images that did not appear in Tanner’s monograph.

The Fielding Lewis photographs, taken in South Louisiana in 1971, are far better known, although Lewis wished to remain anonymous. His identity was not revealed until more than three decades later, and he was identified at the time only as “the Chief” (Jackson was unaware of his identity in 2004, though it was made public soon thereafter.) George Lowery presented these images at the American Ornithologists’ Union annual meeting and was attacked by many of his colleagues who deemed them to be a hoax. It’s worth pointing out that there have been hoaxes in recent years (these were swiftly and easily debunked), so there’s legitimate reason for skepticism about any claim. In the case of the ivorybill, however, skepticism has frequently been replaced by a virtually irrebuttable presumption of fraud (or error).

In a letter to Tanner, Lowery (who, unlike most of his detractors, had actual field knowledge of ivorybills) wrote: “I know the man in question very well and I am sure he would not pull something like that. In the first place, where would he have gotten the mounted specimen? Why would he have two photographs of the birds way up on two separate trees? Both of considerable diameter and not subject to being shinnied. Also, assuming he might have had a mounted bird to photograph, why didn’t he get a better picture while he was at it?”

The most common reasons given for believing that Lewis hoaxed the photos are that the bird is similarly positioned in both images (similarly but not identically, a neat trick with a specimen) and that the bill and feet are not visible. Bear in mind that these pictures were taken with a Brownie or Instamatic camera, and the quality is very poor. Nonetheless, I believe a foot is very faintly visible in both photos, positioned in a manner that would be expected of a live Campephilus woodpecker. I worked from scans of the originals and made some modest enhancements in Photoshop. Note also that in the first picture, both a cavity and bark scaling can be seen on the tree.

fieldle1-enlarg-scan copylewisphotoarrow

Regardless of whether my analysis is correct, the foundation for claiming that these photographs were faked is shaky indeed – not only for the reasons Lowery gave but also because of Lewis’s reticence about revealing his identity, insistence on keeping the location secret, and lack of any discernible motive.

The recovery plan mentions two other pieces of physical evidence. One is a feather that was purportedly found in a nest or roost cavity in 1985, and the other is a photograph supposedly taken in Georgia in 1975 (correction, 1965).

It’s not my intention to fault the IUCN or to quarrel with the “possibly extinct” designation, although I think Bill Pulliam’s analysis of the Luneau video in light of Rhein’s Imperial Woodpecker film should be dispositive. My main purpose is to call attention to the fact that there’s considerably more evidence for survival than is popularly recognized or than appears in the scientific literature. There are multiple instances of people, often outstanding birders, hesitating to come forward with reports and hard evidence – for decades. Terres waited 30 years; in the cases involving physical evidence, only Agey and Heinzmann went fully public and identified themselves in making their claims; in Stalking the Ghost Bird, Steinberg includes detailed 2005 field notes written by a Louisiana “birder for more than forty years” who “has also worked as a contract ornithologist conducting bird surveys on rice and crawfish farms for more than ten years.” This individual too requested anonymity. To a significant extent, the shortcomings in the literature are directly related to the controversy that has surrounded this species for nearly a century (remember Mason Spencer who went so far as to obtain a permit and kill an ivorybill to prove the species persisted) and the accompanying climate of unhealthy skepticism that has, if anything, grown even more unhealthy since the rediscovery. This sets the ivorybill apart from other possibly extinct species.

I’ll be heading for Louisiana at the end of the week and will post a trip report when I return.

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.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker w16-1-001 copy

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

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

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


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


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

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Courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Libraries

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

To enlarge the trail cam photo, click here.

Scaling Data 2012-2016

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

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

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

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

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

Sector 1:         46

Sector 2:         8

Sector 3:         51

                        105         (84.68%)        

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

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

Sector 1:            3

Sector 2:            4

Sector 3:            7

                           14         (11.29%)

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

Oak (Quercus) spp.

Sector 1:         1

Sector 2:         4

Sector 3:         0

                         5         (4.03%)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


















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

Strips, Flakes, Chips, Chunks, and Slabs: Squirrels, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Ivorybills, Part 4

Careful examination of bark chips found in conjunction with extensive scaling is one of the key elements in our diagnostic gestalt, but “chips”, a term I’ve been using for years, is both inaccurate and too vague for what we believe is being left behind by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and for differentiating it from the leavings of other animals. Tanner used “pieces” of bark, ranging “from the size of a “silver dollar to the size of “a man’s hand.” A caption from the National Geographic article on the 1935 Allen and Kellogg expedition that refers to “large chunks of bark”.  The existing images of these pieces of bark suggest that chunks is the better term.

It’s important to reiterate that this discussion applies only to live and freshly dead hardwoods. Pines slough bark quickly after death. The process is slower in hardwoods, but as decay progresses, the bark loosens considerably, with the rate of loosening depending on species and environmental conditions. Once the bark has loosened sufficiently, PIWOs can and do scale bark extensively, sometimes leaving behind large chips. In the images that follow (from Allen and Kellogg and Tanner), the bark chips ascribed to ivorybills appear to come from considerably longer dead trees than some of the examples we’ve found, but the images are informative.

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

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

The small tree shown above, identified as a “dead gum” by the 1935 expedition, appears to be a hackberry or sugarberry not a gum, and a fairly long dead one; the pieces of bark at the base resemble ones we found beneath hackberries or sugarberries in our old search area, some of which were considerably larger (the one below is the largest).


This colorized slide reveals more about the bark at the base of these pines than the black and white print in Tanner (Plate 9).

There’s also this example, (Plate 10 in Tanner), which appears to be in a considerably more advanced state of decay, and presumably looser, than much of the work we find most interesting. I suspect most of the grubs were placed on the chip for illustrative purposes; the caption “Beetle larvae from beneath bark of Nuttall’s oak” is ambiguous as to where the larvae, which appear to be small Cerambycidae, were actually found.

What I think is most salient in Tanner’s description of bark chips is shape not size. In this regard, it seems important to come up with a more specific set of terms to replace the commonly used “chips”. I’d suggest using chunks and slabs for suspected ivorybill work (although smaller pieces of bark may also be present). Pileated bark removal can involve chips, strips, or flakes, the last when they’re doing the layered scaling discussed here and here. I suspect that squirrels remove hardwood bark primarily or exclusively in strips, and of course, their bark removal on cypresses leaves shredded bark hanging from the trees.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences among pieces of bark we have reason to believe were left by squirrels, those we have reason to believe were left behind by Pileated Woodpeckers, and those we suspect were left behind by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

I collected a number of bark chips from the tree we know to have been scaled by a squirrel, and while these were removed before our camera trap revealed the source, there’s strong reason to think they too were left behind by squirrels.


Note the uniformly elongated shape and the ragged appearance at the tops and bottoms of these strips of bark. This is not typical of bark that we infer or know to have been removed by woodpeckers, and it’s consistent with chewing, not scaling. The presumed squirrel strips I collected had the following dimensions:






The downed sweet gum from which they had been removed was a fairly young tree, and the bark is much thinner than on more mature ones. These strips were approximately 1/8″ thick. While this is a very small sample, we suspect (along with Houston from that approximately 3″ is the upper limit for width when a squirrel is doing the bark removal.

Our research and observations suggest that Pileated Woodpeckers have two strategies for removing tight bark; one involves pecking around the edges until they can gradually pry off small pieces, and the other involves scaling away strips, sometimes in layers. Their physical structure precludes them from doing the extensive, clean scaling of tight bark that Tanner associated with ivorybills.

We suspect that this collection of chips, from a honey locust near a known Pileated nest, reflects the range of what the species is capable of doing on a tight-barked hardwood (and honey locust bark is relatively thin). The upper limit appears to be hand size, with many-quarter sized or smaller.


The following are measurements of some fairly typical suspected Pileated strips from a sweet gum:





The strips shown below, suspected Pileated Woodpecker leavings from a high branch, are on the large end of the spectrum for this category of work. The Peterson Guide is 9.5″ x 6.5″. I can’t rule squirrel out completely for these.


Flakes resemble strips, but they are removed in layers, so that reaching the sapwood is a gradual process. Pileated scaling frequently has this appearance, something that seems frequently to be the case with congeners, including the larger-billed Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius).



The chunks and slabs we suspect to be ivorybill work are significantly larger and thicker than strips, flakes and chips, although strips and chips may be present in the mix at the base of suspected feeding trees. Chunks are usually more irregular and varied in size and shape, and both chunks and slabs sometimes have what appear to be strike marks from a broad bill.

I kept one of the chunks scaled from the hickory tree on the homepage, a fairly typical example. It is 8.5″x3.5″ and .375″ thick. (It has undoubtedly lost some of its thickness after drying for over two years.)


The sweet gum chunk with the apparent bill mark Frank is holding is 7.5″x3″ and .25″ thick. On mature, thicker barked trees most or all suspected ivorybill chunks, chips, and slabs will have been removed cleanly, all the way down to the sapwood.

Frank adds:

This particular bark “chunk” is intriguing on several levels. We have found that markings many describe as “bill marks” are really truncated galleries between the bark and sapwood. Marks made by woodpecker bills are distinctive, but somewhat subtle, and easily overlooked. This chunk actually has two interesting markings – markings that were left by the animal that removed the bark. The first is near the end of my left thumb – my right index finger is pointing toward it. It is about a quarter inch wide, a bit over a half inch long, and three sixteenths of an inch or so thick. The other is a “V” shaped “notch” at the end of the chunk, near the center of the photo. These places look as if they’ve been struck with a chisel – hard enough to rip the bark away from the sapwood/cambium. This suggests that, even though this bark was very tight, very few strikes were required to loosen and remove it. Granted that these marks are bill strikes, this suggests that the bird removing bark is indeed a powerful animal for its size. Back to Mark.

DSC00031The two preceding examples are on the smaller side for suspected ivorybill work; in the first, the density, tightness, and grain of hickory bark seem to be a limiting factor on size. Some of the larger examples are shown in the Bark Chip Gallery (as are several of the images shown above). A couple of additional examples of larger slabs are below. In the first, the oak was approximately 8 months dead (leaves attached), and the bark was still tight. (The fractured slab was damaged in transit.)




Scaling and Squirrels, Part 3, A Closer Look at Surfaces and Edges

The first two installments in this series, which was inspired by the discovery that squirrels are doing some of the bark scaling in our search area, are here and here. This installment will consider the appearance of the scaling itself, and the next will focus on pieces of bark; “chips” no longer feels sufficient to describe the spectrum of what we’ve found, and using more specific terminology may shed more light on what we think is diagnostic and why.

I’ll begin with the work we are now presuming to have been done by squirrels. In retrospect, it’s easy for me to understand why I was fooled by this bark stripping. I was not seriously considering mammals as a source due in part to the extent of some of the work involved; I never saw incisor marks on the wood, something that’s often described as being an important indicator; similarly, I have been unable to find these marks in the photographs I’ve taken of stripping that we now presume to have been done by squirrels.


Tanner’s Plate 8, “Ivory-bill feeding sign on slender limb. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

In addition, I was somewhat misled by Plate 8 and the description of what Kuhn thought was diagnostic that his daughter shared with us. (Scroll down in this post to see where my thinking went astray.) It’s my current view that Plate 8 could conceivably be squirrel work. Tanner doesn’t state that he actually observed an ivorybill doing the scaling.

Between 1937 and 1939, Tanner observed actual scaling a total of 73 times, but it’s not clear how many instances he might have photographed. In hindsight, the scaling in Plate 8 is not particularly impressive; the scaled patch is relatively small; the bark is thin and the hanging pieces may be an indication of removal by gnawing rather than bill strikes. Adhering bits of shredded bark and cambium are evident in some of the work we believe to be squirrel, including on the tree where we captured a squirrel stripping bark (albeit much smaller ones in that case).


Small bits of bark and cambium adhering to downed sweet gum limb after presumed scaling by squirrels.

In fact, I think one of the keys to recognizing that squirrels are likely responsible for removing bark is a ragged, shredded, or chewed up appearance to the bark and cambium, as in the examples below.




The information we got from Mrs. Edith notwithstanding, I am going to examine the edges of scaled areas more carefully and be sure they are for the most part cleanly incised. This is one of the main criteria for ascribing the work to ivorybills (although by no means all Campephilus scaling falls into this category, and some can have ragged edges). As I’ll be discussing in the next post, I think that bark chip characteristics provide an even better diagnostic.

Now let’s turn to targeted digging and the similarities between what we’re finding and the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. In some of my previous posts on bark scaling I’ve mentioned “little or no damage to the underlying wood”. “Little” is the operative word here. In most if not all of the examples of scaling associated with large Cerambycid exit tunnels that we’ve been able to examine up close, there are also indications of targeted digging, and we have seen similar targeted digging on some of the higher branch work we’ve found. Targeted digging involves the expansion of individual exit tunnels in varying degrees. This can range from what appears to be little more than probing with the bill to deeper and wider excavations, but this excavation is incidental to the scaling, whereas in Pileated Woodpeckers, scaling on tight barked-trees is typically incidental to excavation.

A magnificent series of photographs by Luiz Vassoler posted to the Flickr Campephilus group, showing a Crimson-crested Woodpecker scaling and doing targeted digging, is illustrative (scroll through to your right for the whole series). This is not to suggest that other woodpeckers can’t or don’t dig for larvae in a targeted way, only it’s more suggestive evidence for the presence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in our search area, given the context and what’s known about the foraging behavior of  its congeners.

I’ll keep commentary to a minimum and post some examples from our area (the seven photos immediately below) and then links to work done by other Campephilus woodpeckers.







Pale-billed (on palm):There’s no scaling here, but the exit tunnels have been expanded vertically, and the expansions resemble some of the rectangular ones above.

Pale-billed (at nest): Very targeted digging and slight expansion of some exit tunnels.

Pale-billed: On a scaled surface, some tunnels expanded.

Robust: I’m including this almost as much for how well it shows Campephilus foot structure and the rotation of the fourth toe and hallux.

Cream-backed: Somewhat more aggressive expansion of tunnels on longer dead wood.

Red-necked: Targeted digging to the right of the bird.

Crimson-crested: Elongated dig into exit tunnel.

Crimson-crested: another great shot of the Campephilus foot. Targeted dig at bottom of scaled area.

Crimson-crested: Video showing targeted digging on an unscaled area.

Magellanic: are the most Dryocopus-like in the genus in terms of foraging behavior. Note their smaller bills and relatively shorter necks. They seem to spend a lot more time feeding near the ground and excavating large foraging pits than the other species, but they too do a considerable amount of targeted digging.

Magellanic: The appearance of the scaling here is strikingly similar to what we think is diagnostic for ivorybill. The tunnel at bottom right has been expanded, likely with the tip of the bill. It looks as though there is more targeted digging above and to the left.

The two images below, showing targeted excavations on small limbs, associated with extensive scaling on young, freshly ambrosia beetle-killed sweet gums, bear a striking similarity to work by Crimson-crested  (the long furrows in particular) and Magellanic Woodpeckers.





One final and more speculative observation that might be of interest to other searchers. I had dismissed this work on a live maple as likely pileated because it is generalized digging, not scaling. After going through so many images of Campephilus foraging sign, I’m a little more intrigued by it, as I see similarities to sign like this and this. Like some of the work on ambrosia beetle-killed sweet gums, this almost looks like a hatchet had been taken to the tree; the wood was not at all punky; and red maple at 950 on the Janka hardness scale, while not nearly as hard as bitternut hickory (1500), is harder than sweet gum (850). While I’m not proposing this as a diagnostic, it may be more interesting than I initially thought.

Maple 1

Unusual excavation on live maple


Scaling and Squirrels: Part 2, Digging Deeper

Part 1 of this series is here, and the event that led to my writing it is discussed here.  I now expect to write 2-3 additional posts on this topic and may create a new page that summarizes the whole series. I’ve hidden the Bark Scaling Gallery page to be reworked later or incorporated into the summary.

This post will reiterate, revise, and expand upon earlier ones dealing with bark scaling and woodpecker anatomy. The next one will focus on certain characteristics of the scaling we think is being done by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, on finer details that characterize it (based in part on comparison with work done by congeners), and on how to differentiate it from bark removal done by squirrels. The following entry will deal with bark chips in more depth, and from a slightly different angle than previous posts on that subject.

I had originally intended to address the next post’s planned content in this one, but as I started writing, I realized the long but necessary introduction would bury the lede. It soon became clear that I’d have to divide the post in two with this one for background.

The first important point is that woodpecker taxonomy is in a state of dramatic change, so much so that the American Ornithological Union is being advised to place Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers in separate genera and that their current genus, Picoides, should be divided into four. Notwithstanding the taxonomic upheaval, there’s no question that Campephilus woodpeckers and Dryocopus woodpeckers are only distantly related, that their similarities are the product of convergent evolution, and that these similarities are far more superficial – involving size and coloration – than structural or behavioral. Formerly, some incorrect taxonomic assumptions led to the lumping of Campephilus and Dryocopus into the “tribe” Camphelini, an idea that’s discussed and dismissed in the first paper linked to above. This has been one factor in perpetuating some fairly common and persistent misconceptions – that the two species are closely related, that they occupy or occupied the same ecological niche and might be competitors, and that hybridization might be possible (something I hear surprisingly often).

The following differences are relevant to this discussion:

  1. Bill size and shape. These are dramatically divergent as any comparison shot of specimens makes clear. It’s also worth noting that the three North American Campephili are closely related to each other. DNA analysis suggests the three are distinct species and the Cuban ivorybill may be more closely related to the Imperial Woodpecker than the mainland US species. This study suggested that divergence among the three took place between .08 and 1.6 million years ago. The southern members of the genus are more remote cousins, having diverged approximately 3.9 million years ago. At one time, the southern species were considered a distinct genus, and they have smaller bills, both objectively and relative to body size. Magellanic Woodpeckers have the smallest bills relative to body size in the genus, and their foraging behavior is more Dryocopus-like than their congeners’. DSC00866
  2. Neck length. The much longer neck of the ivorybill allows for a broader range of motion.
  3. Foot and leg structure. Campephilus woodpeckers have a unique variation on what have been called pamprodactylous feet. (Wikipedia and David Sibley both miss the vast difference between Campephilus foot structure and that of most other woodpeckers.) In this genus, the hallux (first) and fourth toe (the rear toes) are both on the outer edge of the foot; the toes can be rolled forward for climbing and backward for perching in a manner that looks more zygodactylous. (The preceding links to images of Sonny Boy, the juvenile ivorybill, and Kuhn are great illustrations.) The fourth toe is highly elongated, the longest toe on the foot, and the hallux, (in the ivorybill, the outermost toe) is relatively longer than in any climbing woodpecker species. The second and third (innermost toes) are angled inward. This is shown quite clearly in a number of the images from the Singer Tract, including Plate 13 in Tanner.

    Enlargement of image used for Tanner's Plate 13 showing foot structure. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

    Detail of Tanner’s Plate 13 showing foot structure. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

  4. Dryocopus woodpecker feet are closer to being truly zygodactylous – two in front, two behind, with limited mobility and the hallux as the inner rear toe, although the fourth toe can be rolled outward to some extent; this provides less stability when making lateral blows.

    Pileated Woodpecker foot showing zygodactylous structure and slight outward rotation of fourth toe. Photo courtesy of Carrie Griffis, who posted it on the Woodpeckers of the World Facebook group and kindly granted permission to include it here.

    In addition, Campephilus woodpeckers typically climb and forage with their legs both farther apart and higher relative to their bodies than Dryocopus. This enables them to keep their lower bodies closer to the trunk and move their upper bodies more freely, providing more stability for making powerful, lateral blows.

    4. Tail structure: the ivorybill’s tail feathers are long, thin, barb-like, and stiffer than the pileated’s. The tail serves as an anchor and also helps allow for a broader range of motion.


    Middle Tail Feathers: Flicker, Ivory-billed, and Hairy Woodpecker


    Pileated Woodpecker Tail Feathers. Note how the longest one resembles that of a Flicker more than that of an ivorybill.


    5. There other structural differences, including wing shape, but these are the main ones that point to how Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have evolved in a way that makes bark scaling their most efficient foraging modality, whereas Pileateds are far better suited to digging, using a perpendicular motion.

Much of the foregoing is based on Walter Bock’s  analysis of woodpecker adaptations for climbing, which was also discussed in depth here. I’ve tried to explain Bock’s key points in straightforward and less technical terms. A longer quote from Bock appears at the end of this post.*

In addition to these structural differences, Pileated Woodpeckers (and to the best of my knowledge all their congeners) regurgitate when feeding young. Campephilus woodpeckers carry food to the nest and appear to be highly dependent on beetle larvae when caring for their nestlings. This means that Pileated Woodpeckers have to ability to take advantage of multiple food sources during nesting season, while Ivory-bills have a more limited range of options. While I don’t think this supports Tanner’s theory of old-growth dependence, it does point to a higher degree of specialization that would impact numbers, range, and suitability of habitat.

At the same time, the anatomical differences and degree of specialization convince me that certain types of feeding sign are beyond the physical capacity of a Pileated Woodpecker and are likely diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

There is a dearth of clear images showing Ivory-billed Woodpecker feeding sign. There are a handful of photographs, most of them very poor. The majority were taken in the Singer Tract and some showing work on pines were taken in Florida by Allen and Kellogg.  Few of them depict the high branch work that Tanner described as being characteristic, and when they do, there’s virtually nothing that can be discerned from them. It is also not entirely clear that Tanner’s attribution of feeding sign to ivorybills was always based on direct observation, which makes us wonder whether some of the work might actually have been done by squirrels. Regardless, this makes it difficult to draw inferences from the existing body of imagery.

That said and with awareness of the perils in extrapolating, one lesser known image from the Singer Tract is worth comparing with the work on boles that’s been discussed in multiple posts.



“The Blind at Elm Rock”, Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest tree and detail showing scaling and excavation on trunk. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

This is a view of the 1935 nest tree, which was a red maple. It’s taken at a different angle than the more familiar shots, so it shows some large areas of scaling on the bole that the others do not. While I can do no more than infer that this was done by ivorybills, it’s clearly old, and there’s an abundance of excavation in the underlying wood; nevertheless, the edges and contours of the scaling are strikingly similar to the work we’ve found on boles, especially the area at the lower right, just above the intervening foliage.

This is the jagged appearance I described in the previous post; the similarities are most evident in the picture below and on the home page. ScalingNewArea

Because there are so few informative images of ivorybill feeding sign, the best available option is to look at the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. Even though they are not as closely related as the Cuban ivorybill or the imperial, their morphology and foraging behaviors are similar; even the work of the smaller-billed but oft-photographed magellanic can provide some clues. I’ll examine this and some probable identifying features of squirrel scaling in the next post, which will take a close look at scaled patches on trees.

*”. . . in most woodpeckers, as, for example, the pileated woodpecker, the legs are held more or less beneath the body,the joints are doubled up,and the tarsus is held away from the tree trunk. This position of the legs is disadvantageous for the bird, because the body is held away from the tree trunk and the muscles of the leg are working at a mechanical disadvantage; the analogy is to the mountain climber who is standing on a narrow ledge with hand holds only beneath his chest. In the ivory-billed woodpecker, the legs are directed away from the center of the body, and the tarsus is pressed against the tree trunk. This method allows the body to be held close to the tree, with the joints of the leg extended. Hence the leg muscles have a mechanical advantage, because they are at the beginning of their contraction cycle and are acting along the length of the segments of the leg. When the body is held close to the trunk, it not only decreases the outward component of gravity but allows the tail feathers to be applied to the supporting surface for a greater distance from their tips. If the bird is climbing on smaller limbs, the feet can encircle the limb and thus obtain better support. However, no matter what size the limb is, the disposition of the legs and the spreading of the toes of the ivory-billed woodpecker furnish direct and powerful resistance to both the lateral and backward motions of the woodpecker when it is at work and, with the tail, furnish a tripodal base of great strength against the pull of gravity.”