Bits and Pieces Part 4: Rethinking Range and “Suitable Habitat”

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Bottom line upfront: In pre-contact and early colonial times and into the 19th century, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers inhabited a more varied and expansive range than most people realize. The range probably reached from the southern tip of Florida to central Ohio, with the 40th parallel as the approximate northern limit, westward to St. Louis and perhaps along the Missouri River. As discussed in the previous post, the western limit of the range appears to have been somewhere around the 96 or 97th Meridian, in the southwest, and probably somewhat farther east at the northwestern edge, if unproven historic reports from the Kansas City area are valid. Outside of coastal areas, distribution appears to have followed riparian corridors to its outer limits, and there are no records from elevations of over ~1000′.

A couple of maps may be useful for additional information about forest, bioregion, and habitat types and may help with visualization along with my map of records from unexpected habitats.

This is a new avenue of exploration for me, and I’m not personally familiar with many of the areas involved. I need to do additional research on areas within Tanner’s range map, along the coasts and in Florida, to be sure my characterizations are accurate. I’m leaving some of these locations on the master map for now (but removing them from the graphic below which includes extralimital and edge of range records). The master map is thus subject to change, so view it with the caveat that the notations may be incomplete or inaccurate. This post will address locations that are outside the confines of Tanner’s 1942 range map, although he accepted some of these records in 1989.

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As in the previous post, my analysis relies on records accompanied by reported physical evidence (even if that evidence has been lost) and to Native American sites where remains found are deemed unlikely to have been trade items. I relied on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, Appendix E, Tanner, Jackson, and a few additional sources.

Before undertaking a whirlwind tour of the locations involved, I thought I should return to the mythology discussed in the previous post. I chose my words poorly in describing that mythology: “To a large extent these beliefs treat the Singer Tract as a model – a vast tract of “virgin” bottomland forest dominated by oaks and sweetgums, with abundant, moss-draped cypress for atmosphere (although ivorybills seem to have avoided cypress in the Tract).”

In fairness to Tanner, he didn’t characterize cypress as being abundant in the Tract. (It was not.) And his overall view was that cypress-tupelo swamps were not good ivorybill habitat. Audubon, with his romantic, indeed gothic, language is the father of the cypress myth.

I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind’s eye the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the intruder during the meridian heat of our dogdays, in those gloomy and horrible swamps! But the attempt to picture these scenes would be vain. Nothing short of ocular demonstration can impress any adequate idea of them. 

Hasbrouck (1891) perpetuated the emphasis on cypress and very low-lying locations:

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Hasbrouck’s explanation of the Missouri extralimital records is odd. The locations given are well outside bald cypress range.

That aside, the myth discussed in the previous post is a composite. The emphasis on cypress originates with Audubon and Hasbrouck, and the emphasis on large tracts, old growth, oaks, sweetgums, and tree size is largely drawn from Tanner.

Here are the extralimital records:

Reedy River, South Carolina: Nest with eggs reportedly collected in 1896 and later lost. The location is in the Piedmont, south of Greenville, at an elevation of approximately 900′. The Reedy flows into the Salad, which flows into the Congaree. This report is listed in the Recovery Plan because it was accepted by Sprunt as “definitive” but is considered highly questionable.

Etowah Mounds, Georgia: Pre-contact site, elevation approximately 700′. Presumably not trade goods “but requires further discussion” per the Recovery Plan. The Etowah River is at the northern end of the Alabama River watershed.

Between Martinsburg, West Virginia and Winchester, Virginia: Specimen reportedly collected by Wilson ca. 1810. Elevation at Winchester is 725′ and at Martinsburg is 453′. This would appear to be in the Potomac watershed.

Edited to add: This report is probably based on an incorrect inference. (Leese and Michaels, 2020)

Moundsville, West Virginia: Two lower mandibles found in a pre-contact (early Common Era, 0-200) midden. Potentially trade goods. Elevation 696′. The location is on the Ohio River.

Philo, Ohio: Near the Muskingum River. Tarsometatarsus found in pre-contact midden, dates from ca. 1100-1500. Elevation 735′.

Sciotto County, Ohio: Same as above. Elevation of the site is 1050′, but the nearby Sciotto River is lower. The site is about 10 miles from the Ohio, and the elevation at the confluence is 533′.

Ross County, Ohio: Same as above. Also on the Sciotto River but farther upstream. Elevation 863′

Near Troy, Ohio: Near the Miami River, March 1804 sight record by Gerard Hopkins, a Quaker envoy to the Miami and Pottwatomi. The report includes a description, “. . . resembling the red headed woodcock of Maryland, except that its head is black and its bill ivory. ” (Leese 2001). Omitted from the map because it doesn’t involve a specimen, but included here because it adds weight to the archaeological records.

Franklin County, Indiana: Report of a specimen, 1869, now lost. Elevation at least 490′. Probably along the Whitewater River, an Ohio tributary. There are a number of early reports from Indiana, but no other reported specimens and no archaeological records. In light of Audubon’s collection at Henderson, KY (just across the Ohio River) as well as the Ohio records, it seems likely that ivorybills were present in parts of Indiana into the 19th century.

Henderson, Kentucky: Female specimen collected by Audubon in July 1810 and used as a model for his first painting of the species. Elevation 400′. This record does not appear in the Recovery Plan or Jackson, and it seems to have been overlooked by researchers. Audubon’s own notation describes the location as “Red Banks”, on the Ohio River at the northernmost limit of the cypress-tupelo association, well upstream from the confluence with the Mississippi. Article by R. Haven Wiley in Kentucky Warbler, May 1970.

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Stanford, Kentucky: Pair reported, with one specimen collected by a Colonel Fleming, 1790. Record accepted by Tanner in 1989. Elevation 942′. The Dix River, which flows into the Kentucky and thence the Ohio, is nearby.

Cahokia Mounds, Illinois: East of the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, 1500s or earlier, tarsometatarsus. Elevation 490′.

Forest Park, Missouri or Vicinity: West of the confluence of  the Mississippi and Missouri. Specimen collected 1896 and in the collection of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. Elevation approximately 500′.

I find it interesting that Ohio is the state with the most pre-contact records involving likely food items – 3 out of a total of 4-6.

With regard to Missouri and the Missouri River watershed, Hasbrouck accepted reports from Fayette and Kansas City, and given the overall picture, this does not seem implausible. In addition, there were persistent reports from the vicinity of Lake of the Ozarks, in the Missouri River watershed, until the end of the 1940s; Tanner received information about Missouri reports from local Audubon society officers but apparently disregarded it. There’s no way to assess the validity of these old, anecdotal claims and no evidence to support them, but given this perspective on the historic range, they may be somewhat less far-fetched than it seems at first glance.

I’m heading for Louisiana soon. More after I return – a trip report and probably two additional installments.

Bits ‘n’ Pieces Part 2: A 19th Century Report from . . . Nebraska? Updated – Turns Out to Be Pileated.

Update and correction: Since writing this post, I have sought additional information, and it appears that the record was due to a miscommunication (not an erroneous report or false claim). It turns out it was retracted as pertaining to Pileated Woodpecker a few years later (T. Labedz, pers. comm.). Pileated Woodpeckers were extirpated in Nebraska ca. 1900 and only resumed breeding there in the late 20th century. Rather than delete this post, I will leave it up. I stand by the broader point about internalized beliefs and the variety of habitat types in which ivorybills were found in the past. More on that to come.

Part 1 is here.

What I envisioned as a single post has evolved into a series, as sometimes happens when I start digging into a topic. I started looking at reports from the edges of or outside the range described and mapped by Tanner in the monograph. (At the time, he was unaware of a number of these reports, some of which he accepted in 1989.)

I’ll be discussing those records and some others in the next post. For now, I’ll be focusing on one that seems to have been missed by other researchers. At first glance, it may seem improbable, since it goes against internalized beliefs about “suitable” habitat and extensive tracts of southern bottomland hardwood swamps as a requirement. While I’ve been a frequent critic of these beliefs, they’re part of the ivorybill legend, and they still affect me.

In the end, I think there is some basis for treating this report, which appeared in the 1896 Proceedings of the Nebraska Horticultural Society, as credible. It comes from Nemaha County, in the southeastern corner of the state, approximately 100 miles NNW of Kansas City.

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It’s worth pointing out that Audubon described the ivorybill’s range as extending to the “very declivities (slopes) of the Rockies.” This was undoubtedly mistaken, but Hasbrouck (1891)treated Kansas City as the northwesternmost edge of the range. Several of the records accepted by Tanner in the monograph come from farther west in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Red and Arkansas River watersheds. I’ll have more on the range descriptions from these three authors in the next post, but the evidence suggests that the post-contact range followed riparian corridors and extended into the eastern Great Plains. Thus, a 19th century record from southeastern Nebraska is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

After I found this record, I did some research on G.A. Coleman, who was cited 66 times in the 1896 compilation of state records, including for Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Downy, Hairy, Red-headed Woodpeckers. He was not cited for Pileated, which was described as rare or a winter visitor along the Missouri.

The first reference I could find for Coleman was a description of American Coot behavior in the January 1, 1887 edition of Ornithologist and Oölogist. It mentions that Coleman had attended The Normal School in Peru, so he had some college education. Coleman remained active in Nebraska until around 1901 and appears to have  been respected in ornithological and mammalogical circles. He is cited and quoted in several journals, and in 1892, he stood in for the chairman of the ornithology committee and delivered a brief paper to the State Horticultural Society. In the presentation, Coleman mentioned the Agriculture Department’s Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, a government body that would soon become his employer.

I was able to find some additional information about Coleman and the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy in a U.S. Geological Survey publication:

. . . [O]n the 3d of March, 1885, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the promotion of “economic ornithology, or the study of the interrelation of birds and agriculture, an investigation of the food, habits, and migrations of birds in relation to both insects and plants.” The money became available on the first of July following. Upon the recommendation of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, physician and lifelong student of natural history, was appointed head of the new project. He selected as his assistant Dr. A. K. Fisher, also well trained in field zoology and botany, and a graduate in medicine, and these two men, with a secretary, who in 1886 became Mrs. Merriam and was succeeded by Mrs. A. B. Morrison, constituted the entire force of the new organization. It was first established as a branch of the Division of Entomology. The year following the appropriation was doubled and the unit became an independent “Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy.” In 1896 the name was changed to “Division of Biological Survey.” On March 3, 1905, just twenty years after the date of the first appropriation, the name was changed to the Bureau of Biological Survey.

Gradually, through the years, the little band that started the Survey–the Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy–was enlarged by the enlistment of other naturalists, mainly young men raised in many States from New England to California, who from boyhood had studied the birds and mammals and other wild inhabitants of the woods and fields about their rural homes, and including also a number of older men with extensive field and laboratory experience in various phases of natural-history study. During this period both Merriam and Fisher, for a part of nearly every year, carried on field work, mainly in the Western States or in Alaska, and published widely on their findings.

. . .

April 1892 witnessed the addition to the Survey’s field force of J. Alden Loring, of New York. Loring was an enthusiastic collector, and during the next few years worked in most of the Western States and the southern part of the central Provinces of Canada. At this period the standard salary for a field man was $100 a month, from which he had to pay all or nearly all his field expenses. For example, Loring thus financed two expeditions into the Rocky Mountains west of Edmonton, Alberta, the scene of the early labors of David Douglas and Thomas Drummond, by being allowed to spend the winter in Washington, and saving up for the summer’s work. Loring left the service in 1897, but was reemployed for special duties on several occasions, notably in 1920, when he spent the summer on the great waterfowl breeding grounds in central Canada.

In April of the same year Russell J. Thompson and George A. Coleman received appointments to do field work, and after a few weeks training (along with Loring) under Vernon Bailey were assigned separate itineraries. Thompson worked in Georgia, Mississippi,ouisiana, and Tennessee during that summer and fall. Coleman began work in Mississippi, and later collected in Louisiana, Kentucky and Nebraska. Neither remained in the service later than 1893.

Coleman’s field book (along with Thompson’s) is housed at the Smithsonian, but it has not been digitized. Thompson’s has, and it reveals that the two spent a brief period together, collecting in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Given the awareness of the ivorybill’s declining numbers, given the interest in the species that existed in the 1890s, and given the fact that Coleman was collecting in states where ivorybills were extant, it seems likely that Coleman would have been schooled in the differences between Ivory-billed and Pileated Woodpeckers in the course of his training, if he wasn’t already aware of them. I think this lends some additional credibility to his report and places it on or near a par with quite a few other records that have been accepted by Tanner and others. Of course, it lacks a detailed description, and without a specimen, it will always be open to question.
A couple of final thoughts on the habitat: most of the county was unforested in 1856, as would be expected on the eastern Plains. It has been described as “hilly”, encompassing densely wooded hills and bluffs, broken by numerous valleys and ravines. The dominant species included willows, cottonwoods, lindens, box elders, and sycamores in the lower areas and various oaks, hickories, walnuts, elms, ashes, and cherries in the uplands. Forest cover only decreased by 11% between 1856 and 1955, and in 1856, it comprised less than 5.5% of the county’s total area, under 10,000 hectares/38.6 square miles, mostly along narrow riparian corridors or in isolated patches surrounded by prairie.
Similar characteristics probably existed in other locations at the western edges of the ivorybill’s historic range. If this and other reports indeed pertain to ivorybills, they were using habitat (even as vagrants) that differs markedly from the southern swamp forests that figure so heavily in popular lore.
To be continued.