Is the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct?

Meet the true believer racing to prove a grand American bird is still out there.

Matt Courtman and his wife, Lauren, pose with ivory-billed woodpecker paraphernalia at their home in Monroe, Louisiana.

Published October 29, 2022

MONROE, LOUISIANA — The humidity was thick around 5 in the morning as birders in northeastern Louisiana geared up for a search expedition. After a second-straight stormy night, mosquitoes swarmed. We donned our headlamps, grabbed our hiking poles and headed north into the forest.

We had to be in the “hot zone” by first light.

Leading our pack was Matt Courtman, 61, tall and bearded and a true believer. At the tail end was his friend, Lynn Hightower. Both wore camo to blend into the woods—men turning invisible in pursuit of a grail.

This, indeed, was no ordinary hike: For those in the know, it was a quest generations in the making—and one reasonable observers might describe as unthinkable.

All was silence except when Courtman warned of sharp logs and poison ivy, noted bear prints or named the rhythmic sounds of birds, one by one, as they woke.

Among them, Courtman hoped, was the creature he’d sought for years. The one whose image decorated virtually every room of his home. The one he’d built an online community to honor. The one he’d moved across the country to pursue:

The Lord God Bird.

Courtman, right, and Lynn Hightower prepare to search for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge near Tallulah, Louisiana.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service last September announced plans to take the grave and unusual step of removing the ivory-billed woodpecker from the endangered species list due to extinction. Thorough scrutiny of “the best scientific and commercial data available,” the agency told CNN, had determined the bird simply is extinct.

But researchers and amateur birders, like Courtman, believed otherwise.

"I know from recent personal experience that the ivory bill is not extinct,” said Courtman, who claimed he’d encountered it at least twice:

He had audio recordings—though not as clear as others’.

And while the image of this bird was seared into his memory, he said, he’d never managed to snap a photo.

People had searched for decades for traces of North America’s second largest woodpecker, whose population had declined since the 1880s because, researchers say, of excessive hunting, habitat destruction and perhaps the climate crisis. The government’s last accepted sighting of the species was by artist and birder Don Eckelberry in April 1944 in the same area CNN hiked with Courtman on his recent pursuit.

Original and post-European-settlement range of the ivory-billed woodpecker

Range in 1885

Original range

KY

MO

NC

TN

AR

OK

SC

Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge

AL

MS

GA

TX

LA

Atlantic

Ocean

FL

Gulf of Mexico

Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Graphic: Renée Rigdon, CNN

Original and post-European-settlement range of the ivory-billed woodpecker

Range in 1885

Original range

KY

MO

NC

TN

AR

OK

SC

Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge

AL

MS

GA

TX

LA

Atlantic

Ocean

FL

Gulf of Mexico

Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Graphic: Renée Rigdon, CNN

Prior to European settlement, the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat covered a wide range of the Southeastern US, spanning from eastern Texas to the Carolinas. But with European settlement came deforestation, which shrunk the bird’s habitat. The last commonly agreed upon sighting was in 1944, in the Tensas River region of Louisana.

Original and post-European-settlement range of the ivory-billed woodpecker

VA

Range in 1885

Original range

KY

MO

NC

Oklahoma City

Charlotte

TN

AR

Memphis

OK

SC

Little

Rock

Atlanta

AL

MS

GA

Charleston

Dallas

Montgomery

Tensas River

National Wildlife

Refuge

Jackson

TX

Atlantic

Ocean

LA

Jacksonville

Houston

New Orleans

FL

Gulf of Mexico

Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Graphic: Renée Rigdon, CNN

Since then, some compelling—albeit controversial—research had emerged. But officials accepted none of it as indisputable proof. Some even quipped the ivory-billed woodpecker was another Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster.

Still, ivory bill devotees persisted, combing vast, wild expanses for any tiny shred of evidence of their treasured species.

Now, the feds’ proposal had them rattled.

Declaring the ivory bill extinct, advocates said, would trigger the pullback of measures that preserve its habitat, ironically becoming the nail in the coffin that truly would lead to its disappearance.

Courtman looks at his phone to find locations he might spot the ivory bill.
Courtman and Hightower search for evidence of the bird. Courtman believes the species exists and is opposed to it being declared extinct.

The wildlife service insisted there would be “little to no change in the treatment of (ivory bills’) habitats” if they were declared extinct since land acquired for their conservation would still be protected for other species, it told CNN.

But Courtman’s fear festered.

"Such a declaration could lead to the very thing that might cause the actual extinction of the beloved ivory bill—fragmentation of the magnificent large, unbroken, tracts of bottomland hardwood forests, which the bird relies on to survive. If that habitat was destroyed,” he said, “the ivory bills would not adapt, and so they'd be doomed to extinction.”

Declaring extinct a species so revered for its elegance and strength could also shatter something perhaps more delicate: the long-held hope of people who have sought the ivory bill despite skeptics’ long glare and nature’s long odds.

People like Courtman.

And so, he intended to find it.

Listen, now, for the Lord God Bird…

At almost 6 a.m., birds across the old Singer Tract—part of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge where the sewing machine company once sourced wood for its products—chirped in harmonies and knocked the trees. In this bottomland forest of oak, sweet gum and wild pecan, winter and early spring breeding seasons offer the best chance to spot the ivory-billed woodpecker, Courtman said.

But on this morning, no birds sounded like the ivory bill.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt chronicled spotting a few of them here in the early 1900s. And while the ivory bill’s range once stretched from Florida and South Carolina to Texas and Oklahoma, it was here the late Cornell University-educated ornithologist James Tanner in the 1930s gathered the clearest video and images of the majestic creature.

The ivory-billed woodpecker’s divine nickname, per its devotees, echoes the gasps of those lucky enough ever to have seen it swoop into view. It is nearly 2 feet long, with a wingspan of almost 3 feet. And it boasts a gigantic chisel-shaped, ivory-white beak, with a protruding red crest in males and a black crest in females.

Despite those distinctions, it could easily be mistaken for its slightly smaller cousin: the pileated woodpecker, which has a black bill.

About a mile in, as we reached the hot zone, sunlight started to pour in. Along with the melodic chirps of awakening birds, we heard a powerful, quick drumming sound above us.

“Is that the pileated?” I whispered to Courtman.

“Yes, you’re starting to get it,” he said.

Then, six chirps somewhere farther to the left. I looked at Courtman.

“That’s the red-bellied woodpecker,” he said, adding, “I don’t anthropomorphize, but it’s probably saying, ‘I want food.’”

The ivory-billed woodpecker, center, is larger than the pileated woodpecker, right. Both are smaller than a mallard duck, left.
Listen to a 1935 recording of ivory-billed woodpeckers.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

To a non-birder’s eye, the pileated and ivory-billed woodpeckers might seem identical. In fact, many reports of ivory-billed woodpecker sightings have been shut down because they turned out to be pileated woodpeckers. Fervent birders usually tell them apart by the color of their wings and their distinct calling and drumming sounds.

The ivory bill produces a quick, double-knock sound with its bill that slowly decrescendos, whereas the pileated makes a loud, slow, deep rolling sound that lasts for roughly three seconds.

So far in our trek, we’d only heard the latter.

… and be sure to bring a camera

Courtman first got interested in ivory bills as a kid in Monroe, Louisiana. He grew up blocks from a prominent ornithologist, who at 8 let him hold an ivory bill specimen at the Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science and at 12 listed him as a contributor to his 1974 book, “Louisiana Birds.”

“Matt calls the woods his cathedral,” whispered Hightower, who admitted he isn’t as well-versed about birds as Courtman. Sitting on a camouflage-printed cushion, Hightower sometimes pulled out a book of birds to try to identify species he saw and heard.

Searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker requires concentration and review. Since the 1944 sighting, the only other “compelling evidence” out there, according to the federal wildlife service, was 2005 research from Cornell’s renowned ornithologist John Fitzpatrick and his associates that claimed ivory bill sightings in eastern Arkansas’ Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

Fitzpatrick had launched a series of expeditions there soon after Tim Gallagher, the former editor-in-chief of Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine, walked into his office the prior year and announced he and colleagues had seen the ivory-billed woodpecker while out on the Cache River.

Courtman and Hightower search the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge.
A tree is covered with holes created by woodpeckers.

“A large black-and-white woodpecker with the characteristic color pattern of this species flew across the bayou at close range,” Gallagher wrote of the encounter.

But they had no visual proof.

“As soon as we landed, we took off through the boot-sucking muck and mire of the swamp, climbing up and over fallen trees and through branches, with camcorders in hand and running,” he wrote in a Cornell news blog in 2005. “Although the bird landed on tree trunks briefly a couple of times, we weren't able to catch up with it or take a video.”

Fitzpatrick—taking in Gallagher’s tale in his office—was stunned and grabbed a recorder to document the mere conversation.

“After he tells me the story, I said, ‘What are the chances this wasn’t an ivory bill?’ And Tim said, ‘Zero. It was an ivory bill, Fitz,’” Fitzpatrick recalled to CNN. "So, I said, ‘Well, Tim, our lives are about to change.’ And they did.”

Soon, a team of researchers—fully equipped with cameras and audio recorders—went back to the Cache River to try to nab evidence that would prove the ivory bill was still alive. But the task wasn’t easy: This bird is a whiz. Without finding an active roosting site—like Tanner did—birders say it can be near-impossible to document.

Fitzpatrick’s 2005 evidence, published in the journal Science, included audio and video recordings, pixelated visuals and helicopter surveys. The findings were persuasive enough to trigger a large-scale, government-led, five-year survey of the ivory bill’s historical range, with some $2 million spent on survey work.

An ivory-billed woodpecker is seen in this 1935 photo from a Cornell Lab expedition to the Singer Tract. James Tanner/Cornell Lab of Orinthology

Teams searched and searched. But over that time—and in the years that followed— “no conclusive evidence” of the bird emerged. The dearth highlighted a grim irony: The ivory-billed woodpecker had been among the animals that motivated Congress in 1973 to pass the Endangered Species Act.

Strong evidence of the ivory bill’s survival remained scant as the Trump administration and its allies sought to pare back the landmark law that saved the bald eagle and grizzly bear. And so, even as President Joe Biden pledged to conserve 30% of the country’s lands and water to protect wildlife, the federal government moved last year to delist the ivory bill.

An unexpected gift arrives…

It's never easy, said Amy Trahan, an endangered species biologist from the federal wildlife service’s Louisiana Ecological Services Office who contributed to a 2019 review report concluding the ivory bill “no longer exists.”

“We're biologists. … Our whole purpose is to recover species,” she told CNN. “We don't go into this career having to say something's extinct.”

The government removes a species from the endangered and threatened species list for just three reasons: it's recovered so well it no longer needs the law’s protection; new information suggests it isn't threatened; or it's gone extinct. Removal helps the agency “to be good stewards of conservation resources,” it said.

And removal is rare. Of over 700 animal species on the endangered species list, only 11 ever have been removed due to extinction—only four in the last 20 years, the agency confirmed.

Just after the feds a year ago officially proposed delisting the ivory-billed woodpecker, a wave of stunned sadness spread among its adherents. But a nugget of hope remained: The public would have two months to weigh in before a final decision would be rendered a year out.

Comments poured in—from ornithologists, from amateurs, from communities like the Cherokee Nation, whose leaders asserted the creature is a symbol whose “influence on our cultural activities remains to this day.”

Equally enthusiastic birders also took the opposite view. The president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society—a role Courtman once held—was among the first submitters, with a comment stating the bird “should be declared extinct” and urging the feds not to focus on "poor science” and “self-serving” claims it’s still out there.

Preserved specimens of male, left, and female ivory-billed woodpeckers are on display at the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.

Courtman felt compelled to speak up, and as a one-time attorney, he had the requisite skills—if no longer the imprimatur. Sixteen years ago, he had been disbarred in what he called a “disastrous end” to his legal career over matters involving issuing worthless checks and misdemeanor convictions for theft. The mistakes, Courtman said, made for a “painful, embarrassing, and humbling experience”—but one that, with all its distress, helped focus the task now at hand: to get “everything right regarding the ivory bill.”

“While certainly not perfect,” he said, “my efforts on behalf of the ivory bill have been to the best of my ability.”

In his public comment to the wildlife service, Courtman laid out his reasons for opposing the extinction proposal. He also requested—and won—a public hearing at which he and other ivory bill seekers spoke—disciples testifying with an unwavering faith to what they claimed to have seen and heard.

Still, though, no new, clear-cut proof of the bird had surfaced.

And the calendar was running out.

Then, amid the pressure from bird watchers and ornithologists, the wildlife service invited more public comment and announced a six-month extension, effectively postponing its ivory bill verdict into 2023.

There had been “substantial disagreement regarding the interpretation of evidence that exists” for the ivory bill, wildlife officials told CNN in July.

For the believers, it was a gift.

A reprieve.

More time.

Courtman needed it. So did a research team convinced a pair of ivory bills was still alive.

Courtman stands along the bank of the Tensas River.

Around the time we trekked the old Singer Tract, the team known as Project Principalis—a nod to the ivory bill’s scientific name, Campephilus principalis—released a paper, still in the process of peer review, detailing evidence observed over the prior decade by Steve Latta, of the National Aviary, and colleagues including Tommy Michot, coauthor and research scientist retired from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the US Geological Survey's Wetland and Aquatic Research Center.

Using unmanned trail cameras and drones, they’d recently captured grainy pictures of what they claimed was the ivory bill. “We have some of the best images, if not the best images, that have been produced in 80 years,” Latta told CNN.

And in a secret section of Louisiana’s marshes, they were still gathering data while seeking an active roosting site—and the high-quality images everyone expected.

… but can’t restore what's lost

The sun now lit our path in the Tensas woods, reflecting off tacks Courtman had placed toward tree cavities to signal nearby trunks with likely ivory bill scaling and nesting.

The ivory bill requires up to 2,000 acres of undisturbed forest to feed on mostly long-horned beetles by scaling them off the outer bark of dead trees, he explained.

After the Civil War, ramped-up hunting, mass draining of swamps and insatiable timber harvesting set in motion the ivory bill’s population decline, according to the late Cornell professor and ornithologist Arthur Allen, who took the world’s first photograph of the ivory bill in 1924 in Florida and later mentored Tanner.

Meantime, the same factors that drove off the ivory bill also sparked an exodus of people who live and work on this land, including woodsmen who helped ornithologists spot the elusive bird, recalled the 81-year-old son of the late Singer Tract game warden Jesse Laird, who’d worked with Tanner and Eckelberry.

“(My dad) was heartbroken,” said John Laird, who showed us worn photos of the old house on the Singer Tract where Tanner stayed.

John Laird, 81, poses for a portrait outside his home in Delhi, Louisiana.
The Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, once known in part as the Singer Tract, is where the last commonly accepted sighting of the bird took place in 1944.

The climate crisis also may have harmed the ivory bill’s habitat, Latta said, pointing to models showing its impact on bottomland hardwood forests. Climate change already is killing off some species and will likely continue unless humans slash planet-heating emissions, a landmark February report backed by the United Nations noted. Warming temperatures, global scientists say, are influencing bird populations due to declining forest cover.

However, Tanner in his book—dubbed the bible for the ivory-billed woodpecker—argued the Lord God Bird thrived in places where hurricanes and fires had devastated trees. More heat wave-fueled fires, hurricanes and coastal flooding can lead to more dead and dying trees, which may result in more wood-boring beetles and their larvae—prime ivory bill dinner.

"Some of this might be seen, in the short term,” Latta said, “as being beneficial potentially to the ivory bill.”

A leader musters his crew…

By 7:15 a.m., the sun was up. More birds chirped as we settled by the Tensas riverbank—a good sightline, Courtman said, for a flying ivory bill. His camera around his neck, a GoPro strapped to his head and binoculars at his eyes, Courtman was focused.

He spoke often of how he encountered the ivory bill in 2017—when he recorded audio of it for three hours and heard dozens of its “kent” calls—then again in 2019, when he said he saw a pair of ivory bills. It was after his claimed 2019 sighting that Courtman, with his wife Lauren, decided to move back from Ohio to Monroe.

“We knew that helping save the ivory bill would be our life's work,” he said, even though his sightings so far—like the evidence revealed by Fitzpatrick’s and, unofficially, Latta’s teams – hadn’t produced the sort of vital proof that could keep it on the protected species list.

In the pandemic, Courtman and his wife created an impressive online ivory bill community from their home, a place awash in ivory bill images—on picture frames, a bookend, the kitchen light switch. And last October, following the extinction proposal announcement, they launched a weekly virtual gathering to talk about the enigmatic bird.

Paraphernalia and literature related to the ivory-billed woodpecker is seen in Courtman’s home.
Courtman speaks about the bird during a lecture in Monroe.

Every Monday at 7 p.m., Courtman sits at his computer screen in his kitchen with Lauren—usually off-screen, handling technical glitches and clarifying talking points at a whisper—to organize slide shows and host other experts to discuss the ivory bill.

At first, only a couple dozen people who’d learned of the meetings on Facebook joined. A guest speaker could draw at least 70 from across the country. Recently, some 130 people attended.

“So far, we have hosted five PhDs, all of whom have explained why the ivory bill should not be declared extinct,” said Courtman, who founded the group, Mission Ivorybill. “For us as Americans, the ivory bill provides an opportunity to do something hopeful and spectacular—to save these breathtakingly beautiful birds from the brink of extinction.”

Fitzpatrick, now retired as director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has joined the Zoom calls. He’s hopeful the ivory-billed woodpecker is still out there.

But unlike others in this tribe, he also accepts it may be gone.

“I never felt an obligation or even that big of a personal desire to convince skeptics that I'm right, and they're wrong,” he said. “How you take the evidence is not up to me, it's up to you.”

… and faith in things unseen

To prove the ivory bill exists requires more than a sighting and an audio recording. Courtman played his 2017 recording for me, and it wasn’t as clear as the one Allen took in 1935 in Louisiana. Even the pixelated images and research Fitzpatrick declared as indisputable were criticized by ornithologists who said the audio did not match Tanner’s descriptions of the ivory bill’s raps or actually captured the pileated woodpecker.

Ultimately, the wildlife service seeks “clear video or photographic evidence ... that can be repeatedly interpreted the same way by independent observers,” it said, noting the standard mirrors protocols in the 2010 Recovery Plan.

Something deeper might also be out there for those in the throes of this search—something Latta felt in Louisiana in 2019, when on the same search as Courtman he says he got “one of the best looks at the ivory-billed woodpecker than anyone has had in generations.”

“It left me literally shaking.”

That’s because for all his fieldwork, Latta hadn’t believed the ivory bill still lived: “I do not chase rarities,” he later wrote.

But after that claimed sighting, “for two or three nights,” he said, “I couldn't sleep. I felt this responsibility that, because I had seen this and that I knew it existed, I now have this responsibility to do what I could to conserve it.”

Federal officials—on their own expanded timeline—were still reviewing hundreds of public comments this fall en route to a final judgment on delisting the bird from the endangered species docket.

All the while, the birders kept searching.

“There are a lot of things out there in science that we don't know the answer to yet, but slowly, we find the answers, and sometimes it takes years or decades,” Michot said. “The fact that humans can't say for sure whether the bird exists or not is a compelling way to make a person want to go out and find it.”

Courtman walks down a dirt road in the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge.

Walking months earlier through the Louisiana forest, Courtman used bird calls to signal us on our expedition’s return leg: right, left, stop, straight. We waded through muddy water that washed away a spider I hadn’t seen crawling on my right boot. Soon, we stepped back onto the paved road and unloaded our gear.

It was around 9 a.m. The air, still a bearable 70 degrees, now was less humid. Standing outside our vehicles, we refueled on granola bars and soaked in the sounds of the forest one last time.

Then, we got into our cars and drove away, Courtman looking ahead to the next search—then the next and the next.

“I am confident,” he told me, still steeped in firm belief, “that ivory bills are not extinct.”