I recently gave a talk to the Rockland County Audubon Society, and a member raised what I think is the strongest question about our evidence and about the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in general. “How could the species have survived in such low numbers and at such low densities?”
In other posts, we’ve pointed to evidence that Tanner missed a population in Mississippi and was somewhat cavalier in his approach to evaluating potential habitat, disregarding advice Herbert Stoddard gave him in 1936, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.”
A recent study on Magellanic Woodpeckers points to another factor that raises even more doubt about Tanner’s estimated population of 22 in 1939. The study was conducted in an old growth Lenga forest in Patagonia. According to this study: “Our results show that Magellanic Woodpecker family groups require a minimum of 100 ha in old-growth forest habitat; thus, forest patches in less favourable forest conditions (e.g., younger, managed, fragmented, mixed forests) should probably be much larger to support a resident pair or family.”
The specific criteria that Tanner used for estimating the 1939 population at approximately 22 are unclear, but he assumed a maximum carrying capacity of six square miles per pair. The Wikipedia entry on the IBWO is even worse and is generally rife with bad information; the editors there expand Tanner’s six square miles to “9.7“. Elsewhere, Tanner suggested a minimum home range of two and a half to three square miles. These numbers are somewhere between six and 16 times the minimum for a large southern congener that, like the ivorybill, lives in more temperate habitat than others in the genus.
Thus, there is a strong possibility that Tanner severely underestimated ivorybill populations in Florida. If he was so badly wrong about home range, he’s more likely to have missed populations in areas that he rejected for being suboptimal and not expansive enough.
Double the minimum acreage required by the magellanic in optimal habitat and apply that number to the ivorybill, and Sherburne, a large Louisiana WMA, could theoretically be home to just under 90 family groups. (We don’t think this is the case.) Even at 450 hectares per family group, the carrying capacity in Sherburne would be nearly 40. Such numbers are improbable in the extreme, but 9 or 10 family groups in an area that size would be very hard to detect.
With significantly smaller home range requirements, a substantially larger population in 1939, and a recognition that Singer Tract-like conditions are not a requirement (as Tanner himself made clear), various survival scenarios become considerably more plausible, assumptions about low densities become more questionable, and the quantity of potential habitat is far greater than anyone has imagined.
Edited to add: Although the study referenced above is more recent, Noel Snyder made the same basic argument about magellanics and other congeners in The Travails of Two Woodpeckers (2009). Snyder posits that hunting pressure, not habitat loss, was the primary cause of the ivorybill’s decline.
Snyder (who to the best of my knowledge has little hope for the ivorybill) does not fully address how Tanner’s assumptions might have affected his population estimates and habitat evaluations. He also doesn’t consider how taking Tanner at face value has influenced both search protocols and the “credibility” of post-Singer Tract reports. Nevertheless, he does hint at what I suspect is the key to the species’ survival: “With food supplies degraded, not eliminated, a reasonable possibility appears to exist that many ivory-bill populations in logged regions might still have found enough food to persist and might have endured at modest densities, had they been free of shooting pressure. The long persistence of the ivory-bill in one quite thoroughly logged region in Cuba supports this possibility . . .”
In my view, Snyder goes a little too far in downplaying specialization as a factor, even if Tanner overplayed it. It’s pretty clear – from range, habitat, and morphology – that ivorybills are more specialized than pileateds. But if the IBWO did persist after World War II and Snyder is right that hunting was a major factor in the species’ decline (even in the Singer Tract), there may be even more room for optimism, since hunting practices changed considerably in the post-war era.
I’m looking forward to spending next week in our search area, though I was saddened to hear about recent events in Marksville. I know it has caused great distress to many in that part of the state.
But on a brighter note, one of my top priorities is to see whether there’s been any fresh scaling on the downed sweet gum top. If so, we’ll likely have multiple images that show the source or sources of this unusual work. Fingers crossed.
There’s a great new series of Magellanic Woodpecker pictures over in Bill Benish’s Flickr group. Two birds are on what appears to be a not-very-recently scaled snag. Interestingly though, there are what looks like fresh, lateral bill marks on the wood. This led me to revisit some pictures I took in 2012 of this freshly scaled oak or sweet gum. While I’ve posted a couple of images of this tree in several places, I neglected to post what may be the most significant one. I’m posting it here and have added it to the bark scaling gallery. Note the strike marks in the cambium. There’s no damage to the sapwood, but these appear to come from a broad, chisel-like bill. This seems to be a perfect match for what J.J. Kuhn considered to be diagnostic, per Edith Kuhn Whitehead.
I found another photograph of Magellanic foraging sign that I think is reminiscent of work I found on the small sweet gums this spring.
I may post some brief updates from the field and should have a full trip report up in about two weeks.
I’ll be returning to Louisiana in late February and hope to make a couple of more trips during peak search season. Frank has retrieved the cards from our game cams and is in the process of going through several weeks of images. In contrast to the last set, there have been no intriguing hits thus far.
Last month, I came across a very interesting post on the Woodpeckers of the World Facebook group. The link took me to a French website that features some videos of the Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), a Eurasian species, and one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, surpassing the Magellanic in size. In another analogy to the Magellanic, the Black Woodpecker appears to have certain features that are more Campephilus-like than others in genus Dryocopus. This includes flight style; acording to Gerard Gorman’s monograph on the species, Black Woodpeckers don’t generally undulate in flight. More importantly, the size and appearance of the bill certainly evoke the IBWO – generally larger, thicker, and heavier than a Pileated’s. Bill length can reach over 70 mm (although the average is 53-56 mm). According to Tanner, the mean length for ivorybills ranged from 67.8 mm to 74.1 mm depending on sex and region.
For my purposes, this is the most interesting clip. It’s an outstanding sequence that shows a Black Woodpecker scaling bark from a medium-sized hardwood branch. I see the following aspects as being significant and supportive of the hypothesis on feeding sign I’ve discussed in several posts, including here, here, here, here, and here.
For the most part, the bird is removing bark with direct strikes, not the lateral blows of a Campephilus woodpecker. This is possible because the limb is relatively thin, and the bird is able to position herself so that direct strikes will have the same effect that a more lateral blow would have on the bole; she generally engages in lateral movements to flick away bark after it has been loosened. The clip also seems significant insofar as it reveals the amount of effort involved to remove large but very thin strips of bark. In addition, even though the bark is thin, it seems the bird is still removing it in layers, at least some of the time. I think the video tends to support my idea that the work we think is diagnostic – on boles with thick tight bark – is beyond what PIWOs can do physically. At the same time, the footage suggests that the high branch work that Tanner emphasized is likely within the capacity of a Pileated Woodpecker and is indeterminate as we suspect.
In looking at images of Black Woodpecker foraging sign online, it appears that – bill structure notwithstanding – they typically remove bark in layers, just as Pileated Woodpeckers do, and this is true on both hardwoods and softwoods. I have been unable to find any examples of Black Woodpecker work that closely resemble what we think is diagnostic for ivorybill, but examples of the layered scaling are easy to find, for example: