Bits and Pieces Part 3: Internalized Beliefs, How They Got That Way, and What the Record Really Shows

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. It looks like this series will end up being a five-parter. Part 4 should follow later this week and Part 5 sometime thereafter.

Most of us with an interest in the ivorybill have internalized a set of beliefs about what constitutes “suitable” habitat. 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). The habitat description in Stephen A. Shunk’s excellent Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America clearly expresses some of these beliefs, which have influenced the overwhelming majority of modern search efforts and which are embedded in the minds of most searchers (myself included) to the point of being a default:

Virgin bottomland forest almost always below 100 ft. (30 m) elevation. May also have occurred in uplands but by 1900 restricted to areas downstream of pine-bald cypress interface. Requires large tracts of contiguous forest with very large-diameter trees and adequate dead and dying trees to provide forage and nest sites.

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The Guide, which draws on an 1891 article by Hasbrouck for the 100 foot elevation, goes on to list three different habitat types described by Tanner – sweet gum-oak dominated forests in the southeast (with species of oak varying depending on location) outside of Florida; river swamps in Florida dominated by cypress, black gum, and green ash; and creek swamps in Florida characterized by cypress, red maple, laurel oak, black gum and cabbage palmetto, with feeding in adjacent pine woods.

This is not to criticize the Guide or its author – I recommend the book highly and the overall treatment of the ivorybill is thorough and evenhanded. The quote is intended to point out the pervasiveness of these ideas about habitat requirements, ideas that Tanner reinforced, especially in later years. They’re so pervasive in part because the myth of the “virgin forest” has shaped ivorybill lore since well before Hasbrouck and has influenced almost all habitat assessments since Tanner.

The virgin forest myth is a topic for another day; the central point is that ivorybills have been found in more diverse habitat types than most have believed. It’s worth bearing in mind that Tanner himself asserted that ” . . . at present the only suitable habitat for ivorybills is in tracts or areas of virgin timber”, a narrow, almost lawyerly, and largely conjectural conclusion – one not entirely supported by fact. Ivorybills bred in at least one Singer Tract area (Mack’s Bayou) that was predominantly regrowth, and as has been discussed in previous posts, Tanner became more dogmatic and blinkered about habitat requirements in later years, dismissing the John Dennis Texas recording because a Pine Warbler was captured on the tape.

As should become clear, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were found in a variety of different habitats and did not always require extensive tracts of contiguous forest. Large diameter trees, their importance, and what Tanner meant by “large” are discussed in another post, but even if one accepts that large trees were preferred in the Singer Tract, much of the feeding sign Allen and Kellogg documented in Florida was on small, fire-killed pines.

My plan for this post was to focus on Ivory-billed Woodpecker records from outside the historic range as delineated by Tanner in his oft-reprinted 1942 map and adaptations thereof.

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US Fish and Wildlife Service range map based on Tanner, including locations of selected post- Singer Tract reports

The purpose behind this original plan was in part to show that the historic range of the ivorybill was considerably more extensive than is commonly believed, but more importantly to show that ivorybills inhabited more varied habitats than is commonly believed. As time went on, my focus has shifted even more toward the question of habitat diversity, though the fact remains that the historic range was considerably more extensive than the Tanner map, or the one drawn by Hasbrouck in the 1890s, might lead one to expect.

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Hasbrouck’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Range Map (1890)

In recent Facebook comments, several ornithologists have suggested that without physical evidence, no record should be accepted. As I see it, this standard is, to some extent, a kind of ahistorical overkill, since it has never been applied in the past. Post-1939 Singer Tract observations don’t meet it, so the last record date is pushed back by several years, which can impact statistical analyses. At the same time, the parsimonious approach is not entirely meritless, since it eliminates false positives. The problem is that there’s no purely objective standard for evaluation of historic (and pre-contact) records, even when it comes to specimens. In many cases, location information for specimens is non-existent or ambiguous; for example, one specimen in Cornell’s collection (1896) is listed as coming from the “Florida Keys”; “Key” in this context more likely refers to an island of forest surrounded by the Everglades than to the islands offshore.

Thus, in this post and the next, I’ll be looking at many reports from within the recognized historic range, as well as some from beyond those boundaries. I will be focusing on reports accompanied by physical evidence or published accounts stating that physical evidence was obtained but will include or mention a few additional ones that seem particularly credible based on the source or amount of detail.

The more surprising of these reports are unsupported by physical evidence. These come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Swedesboro, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Most date to the 18th-century, a time when ivorybills were reported to have fed on trees girdled for clearing. The most interesting of these come from Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist and student of Linnaeus. They have been discussed in several articles by Benjamin Leese, who has also written about early records from Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky (for which the case is stronger). Most of these papers do not seem to be available online.

Just under 200 of the 418 specimens (including Cuban ivorybills) listed by Hahn provide no location information or merely identify the state, or country in the case of Cuba, where the collection took place. There are multiple cases in which specimens were reportedly collected but have not been found, and in several cases, there’s no way to correlate the claim of collection with an actual specimen. In one instance, not catalogued by Hahn, a pair of ivorybill specimens was mislabeled as Pileated Woodpecker until the error was corrected in the 1960s.

When it comes to pre-Columbian sites, there’s no way to be certain whether material collected from graves and middens involves trade goods or locally killed animals, although tarsometatarsi are likely local, especially east of the Mississippi, where there’s little evidence to suggest that woodpeckers had ceremonial value. Leese addresses this subject in a paper on Native American uses of ivorybill parts. I have included records involving tarsometatarsi and one from a West Virginia midden that involves parts of two lower mandibles.

I’ve created a google map showing the locations of the records from habitat types that don’t fit the ‘large tracts of contiguous bottomland forest’ paradigm. I’ve provided some details for each location. The map draws on Appendix E or the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, Tanner, and Jackson. I’ll discuss the records from coastal areas, south Florida, the upper Mississippi and locations east of the river in the next post. I’ll conclude this one with a look at the records from the western edge of the range, since they relate to the Nebraska report and why I thought it might be credible; the Nebraska location is actually somewhat east of the records from the southern plains.

One record that I find compelling does not include a specimen; it’s from the 1820 Long Expedition, the first scientific exploration of the American West. Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 8.08.14 AM

The ivorybill’s call is described, and Pileated Woodpecker is distinguished and described as common in the area. These facts lend credibility to the report, as does the fact that Thomas Say was the expedition’s naturalist. While Say is best known as an entomologist, the expedition produced the first descriptions of a number of bird species, and an entire genus of flycatchers was named in his honor.

The location of this record is approximately south of Tulsa on the Canadian River, near the 96th Meridian. This is farther west than the location of the erroneous southeastern Nebraska report and well into the eastern Great Plains. It is also well beyond the range of the bald cypress. The relatively narrow floodplain would have been dominated by cottonwoods and willows, as it is to this day. This image, from ca. 1920s shows “Standing Rock” a geological feature now flooded that was discovered by the expedition a day after the ivorybill encounter. It should add a visceral sense of the area’s appearance to supplement the description above.

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Even if one opts to reject this record for lack of physical evidence, there are several others from approximately the same longitude that do involve specimens, and some are from the 20th century.

The Recovery Plan suggests that there are two records from west of Tulsa, a specimen was “probably” collected by Woodhouse along the Cimarron River, Pawnee County in 1849. Per Jackson, the specimen was sent to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, which has four specimens without location information in its collection. The second is from House Creek in Pawnee County, also Woodhouse 1849, and also reportedly sent to the Philadelphia Academy but not found there.

There are several Plains records from Texas. A specimen currently in the Dallas Museum was collected on Bois d’Arc Island, just southeast of Dallas, elevation 400′, in 1900. There were multiple reports from the area through 1910, and an additional bird may have been collected in 1918. A bird was reportedly “caught in a trap” in nearby Kaufman County in 1927 and examined by an R.E. Huck but not preserved. An additional Texas record, from farther south but west of the 96th Meridian, comes from New Braunfels County, south of Austin and east of San Antonio. There were multiple reports ca. 1900, with a collection reported but no specimen preserved.

Although only one record from the eastern Plains can be attached with certainty to a currently existing museum specimen, there’s proof that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were found in this region as recently as 1900 and considerable circumstantial evidence for their presence along riparian corridors on the plains of Texas, and possibly Oklahoma,  into the 20th-century. The habitat involved is markedly different from what so many have believed ivorybills require. I’m not suggesting that ivorybills persist at the western edges of their historic range, but as will be discussed in the final installment of this series, I think their ability to exploit these relatively narrow, willow and cottonwood dominated floodplains can help explain how the species could have persisted into the 21st century.

Stay tuned for Part 4.

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. This one will probably involve two more posts and was inspired in part by Matt’s comments about internalized beliefs in Part 1. With those in mind, 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.