The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is considering declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWO) to be extinct, and a final decision is expected any time now. The largest woodpecker in the U.S., the IBWO is popularly known as the “Lord God” bird because that’s what people often muttered when they saw it.
The IBWO is about the size of a crow with a long ivory-colored bill. The birds have a black body with white feathers on their cheeks that wind around to the back, and the males have a red crest. White feathers are on the wings’ top trailing edges and on the front and trailing edges underneath. Pileated woodpeckers are sometimes misidentified as IBWOs because they share some of the same markings, but they are, in fact, a separate species.
IBWOs were once found throughout the southeastern U.S. in hardwood bottoms with old growth timber, but by 1900, they had become extremely scarce because of habitat destruction and hunting.
The last known IBWO nesting site was located near the modern-day Tensas River NWR in Madison Parish, and the last irrefutable sighting was in northeast Louisiana in 1944. Since then, people have reported seeing IBWOs, but none of the photographs or videos taken provided clear, irrefutable proof.
Matt Courtman, a former president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, believes the ivory-bill still exists because he is convinced that he has seen them.
“On February 18, 2019, I had a lone female ivory-bill fly almost directly at me. The bird came to within fourteen yards of me, then zoomed up out of sight,” Courtman said. The bird was so close that he was able to positively identify all of the IBWO markings.
In 2019, Courtman and his wife, Lauren, launched Mission Ivorybill to try to document and save the species. Mission Ivorybill is an informal group that educates the public through Zoom presentations featuring ivory-bill experts and searches diligently for the bird. The organization also offers a $12,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of an active nest or roost.
Large expanses of bottomland hardwoods with numerous dead and dying trees are prime IBWO habitat, so that’s where Mission Ivorybill searches. Courtman believes two of the most likely places one will be discovered are the Pearl River WMA and the Tensas River NWR.
According to Courtman, May is a good time to search for the IBWO because the young hatch in April and will still be dependent on their parents.
“This increases the chances of sighting the birds because the parents will have to sacrifice some of their wariness to tend to their offspring,” he said.
Work will continue
Even if the USFWS declares the ivory-bill to be extinct, Courtman said that Mission Ivorybill will continue its work. In 2021, the organization committed to a five-year search, and the Courtmans are determined to see that commitment through.
The Mission Ivorybill Facebook page can be found at facebook.com/MissionIvorybill/ and its YouTube channel at youtube.com/@missionivorybill2296. The YouTube channel has an instructional video on how to look for the IBWO.
One good place to use as a headquarters while searching is the Fountainebleau State Park, near Mandeville. It is conveniently located about 25 miles from the Pearl River WMA where IBWO searches have been made. It has hiking trails, RV hookups and improved campsites with water and electricity and primitive campsites without. Unfortunately, Hurricane Laura significantly damaged the park in 2021 and its cabins were unavailable at press time.
Fountainebleau is also one of several state parks that offer glamping. Glamping is a more luxurious style of camping with a safari-like tent, queen-sized bed, propane heater, picnic table, fire pit with grill, solar shower and portable toilet.