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North America's largest woodpecker, 22 other species may soon be declared extinct

1935 photo of an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Arthur A. Allen
Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may soon declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The nation's largest woodpecker was first listed as endangered in 1967. And its historical range spanned Cuba and the southeastern United States, including Florida.

The United States' largest woodpecker may soon be declared extinct. The bird lived in Cuba and the southeastern United States, including Florida. Now, the nation's Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove the bird from the Endangered Species Act due to extinction.

The last commonly agreed-upon sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker was 77 years ago in Louisiana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the most compelling alleged sighting since then was in 2004 in Arkansas. But the agency says there's no objective evidence of the continued existence of the species.

"The amount of time and dedication that the people put into searching for the ivory-bill was just immense," Amy Trahan, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says.

After the 2004 alleged sighting, she says her agency spent about $2 million between 2005 and 2009 searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker.

"I mean, these people spent a lot of time—weeks and weeks and weeks out in these habitats trying to find something," Trahan says.

But Trahan says nothing conclusive came out of those searches. And after a 5-year review of the bird's status completed in 2019, she was the one who made the recommendation it be delisted due to extinction.

"It took several days if not a few weeks to be able to write, type that up as like I said, we don't go into this career for that. It's not what we want to do. So, it's been really hard for me to do that, and it was just really difficult," Trahan says.

Pictured here are three ivory-billed woodpeckers on a tree.
John James Audubon
Audubon Florida
Illustration of Ivory-billed woodpeckers courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing.

Still, some never gave up hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker would be found.

"It's just sad to think that we've lost something so special," Julie Wraithmell says. She's Executive Director of Audubon Florida, a conservation group.

"My entire life, it has been kind of the holy grail bird. You know, while we suspected that they were gone. You can't help but hold out a little bit of hope that one would be discovered somewhere, or an isolated population would be found, and so in some ways, finally declaring them extinct is almost like agreeing to give up on that hope, and that's sad," Wraithmell says.

The bird lived throughout Cuba and North America, including Florida's peninsula and panhandle east of the Apalachicola River. Jim Cox heads the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers, a research station headquartered in Tallahassee. He says ivory-billed woodpeckers depended on what's called old-growth trees in Florida.

"They're sort of like these sequoias out west. You can drive a truck through them if someone were to cut a lane through them, they're just extremely wide, and those old-growth trees just aren't hardly to be found anywhere in Florida anymore," Cox says.

Cox says these old-growth trees had decayed wood with more beetles for birds to eat than the younger trees that replaced them. But when the old trees were cut down for logging or development, Cox says the ivory-billed woodpecker had nowhere to live or eat. The species was declared endangered in 1967. But Cox says it needed help way earlier.

"People had found them starting to be rare as late as 1930, 1940, and so really when we got into current time there was very little hope for sustaining the birds," Cox says.

Cox says people needed to start protecting the bird's habitat at a large scale beginning in the 1920s and 30s.

"We didn't even start to think about conserving habitat for rare species until not many years ago, just a few decades ago, and so that kind of mindset just wasn't around back when these birds were suffering habitat loss significantly. We now understand that importance with the species we have remaining we're making every effort we can to secure the habitats they need to sustain themselves that's just something you can't recreate historically very easily," Cox says.

When the bird was listed as endangered, it was well known that timber harvesting was a threat to the species. Another was collection or hunting. And it's not just the ivory-billed woodpecker that may soon be delisted from the endangered species act. Bachman's warbler is another bird considered to be extinct. Wraithmell from Audubon Florida says it would sometimes visit Florida during its migration.

"Birds add to our quality of life, and anytime we lose one, the world becomes a little poorer," Wraithmell says.

Pictured here are two Bachman's warblers on a tree.
John James Audubon
Audubon Florida
Illustration of Bachman's warbler courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing.

Bachman's warbler, along with the ivory-billed woodpecker and 21 other species, may soon be removed from the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says all 23 species are believed to be extinct and no longer need the added protection provided by the act. The service will be gathering input and comments on the proposed change and will be reviewing them before it makes a final decision.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.