Ivory-billed woodpecker - Big Woods Conservation Partnership - Ivory-bill bird

Ivory-billed woodpecker - Big Woods Conservation Partnership - Ivory-bill bird

Ivory-billed woodpecker - Big Woods Conservation Partnership - Ivory-bill bird

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker

 

Description: The ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, is among the world’s largest woodpeckers. Only the imperial woodpecker of Mexico, now thought by many to be extinct, was larger. Averaging about 20 inches in length, the ivory-bill is frequently mistaken for the smaller but similarly marked pileated woodpecker. Ornithologists distinguish the two by the location of the white wing feathers. The full-width white patch in the ivory-bill’s trailing wing feathers (when seen from above) folds to form a white “saddle” on its back when the bird is perched. Males have a prominent scarlet crest; the female’s crest is black. (Both male and female pileated woodpeckers have a scarlet crest.) The “ivory” is a keratin sheath over the bill of bone. The broad bill continues to grow from the bird’s thick-boned skull throughout its life (potentially up to 30 years) and is worn down by rigorous pounding on trees.

Range: The ivory-billed woodpecker once ranged through swampy forests in the southeastern and lower Mississippi valley states: from North Carolina to Florida and west to eastern Texas and Arkansas, with some reports from the 1800s in Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma. John James Audubon reported ivory-bills as far north as the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers around 1825.

Communication and flight: Ivory-bills communicate with a vocalization ornithologists transcribe as “kent, kent, kent” and with the “BAM-bam” double-rap of their bills pounding on wood. Their swift, arrow-like flight through trees resembles that of the pintail duck, unlike the slower, swooping flight of the pileated woodpecker. Stiff wing feathers make the ivory-bill an especially loud flyer. People who saw the impressive creature in flight could be forgiven for shouting, “Lord God, what a bird!”

Habits and habitat: Ivory-bills are believed to mate for life. Females usually lay about three china-white eggs per clutch. The parents share the duties of incubating the eggs and raising the young, which usually leave their parents’ territory at the end of the season. A pair of ivory-bills is estimated to need six square miles of uncut forest, roughly 36 times as much territory as pileated woodpeckers require. Ivory-bills excavate trees to make nest holes, usually 40 feet or higher above the grounds. The openings are typically oval, four and six inches in size, extending 20 inches or more down into the tree.

Food: Beetle larvae are the primary food for ivory-bills. When beetle larvae bore through the bark to feed on the sapwood beneath, ivory-bills use their elongated beaks to pry bark from the trees and expose the larvae. Later, other woodpecker species mine deeper into the dying trees for insects. Thus, ivory-bills do not – for the most part – compete for food with other woodpeckers, and their territories can overlap. The big birds have few natural predators. Although collectors took a toll on ivory-bill populations, the main reason for the species’ decline was the annihilation of the forests where they lived.

(Sources: “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” James T, Tanner, 1942;”The Race to Save the Lord God Bird,” Phillip Hoose, 2004, The Birds of North America Online)

 

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