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The Search for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Although it is often an inevitable fact of nature, species extinction seems especially disturbing when caused by human activity. So it is understandably exciting when evidence suggests that an animal assumed to have disappeared may yet live.

In recent years, no presumably extinct animal has created as much fuss as the ivory billed woodpecker. Always rare, these largest of North American woodpeckers stood twenty inches tall and had a wingspan averaging thirty-three inches. Sporting ebony and white feathers and a crimson crest, the male ivory bill was famed for its oversized beak. Ivory bills lived mainly in old-growth river bottom forests in the Southeastern and Golf Coast areas of the United States. There they used their long, powerful beaks to pry beneath the bark of dead trees to dine on beetles and beetle larvae living in the decaying trunks.

Many scientists believe that extensive logging in these areas led to the ivory bill’s extinction in the early 1950s. In 1938 experts counted only twenty-two members of the species, and the last confirmed sighting of an ivory bill woodpecker occurred in 1940. The bird was never officially declared extinct, however, and since the 1950s birders have clung to the hope that the ivory bill may still exist.

In 1999, an unconfirmed but seemingly authentic sighting of the ivory bill led to an expedition involving six bird experts who set out to confirm the report. Despite the team’s best efforts, thousands of hours of audio recording failed to turn up evidence of the birds, and what was thought to be a double rap of the woodpecker’s beak turned out to be gunshot echoes. Still, the search for the ivory bill continues.

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