Editor's Note (February 2017)—Since reported (and controversial) sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods of northeastern Arkansas in 2004 (Science: June 2005), extensive efforts to locate this species in Arkansas, Florida, and elsewhere have proven difficult, and no unequivocal evidence of the species has emerged. This account will be updated in 2017 to reflect developments.
To John James Audubon, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker brought thoughts of the “satin and lace” portraits of the genteel by the seventeenth-century artist Van Dyke. Indeed, this species is an “aristocrat” in appearance among woodpeckers: Its great stature, heavy, ivory-colored, chisel-tipped bill, pale lemon-yellow eyes, crisp black-and-white markings, distinctive crest, and lean, long appearance distinguish it from all others. Colonial naturalists such as Catesby, Wilson, Vieillot, and Audubon all expounded on this “largest” of all woodpeckers (Catesby 1731, Wilson 1811, Vieillot 1807, Audubon 1842). Linnaeus, basing his description on Catesby's (Catesby 1731) illustration and description, gave it the specific name principalis, believing it was the largest of woodpeckers, although the Ivory-billed in fact stands third to fifth in the hierarchy of picid size — the largest being the congeneric Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis) of Mexico, and the next being the Great Slaty Woodpecker (Mulleripicus pulverulentus) of Southeast Asia (Short 1982, Winkler et al. 1995).
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was once found in virgin forests throughout much of the southeastern United States and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at least as far north as St. Louis. It was also known from mature forests through much of Cuba. The past 100 years of this species' history link U.S. birds to bottomland swamp forests and Cuban birds to upland pines. In truth, throughout its range, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was associated with extensive old-growth forests, the solitude of wilderness, and the availability of immense beetle larvae that were its principal food. The specific forest types in which it survived may have been an accident of human actions.
Human attention to this lord of the forest and human destruction of its realm have led to its current status as one of the rarest birds in the world, or extinct. In spite of a continued flow of unsubstantiated reports, some with tantalizing but inconclusive evidence, the scientific community has no conclusive documentation for recent occurrence of the species in the United States. The population in Cuba seems little better off, its habitat decimated and the last reported (undocumented by photos or sound recordings) sighting in 1992 (J. McNeeley, personal communication). James Tanner took the last universally accepted photos of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the United States in northeastern Louisiana in 1938 (Tanner 1942b), and John Dennis took the last photos of this species in Cuba in April 1948 (Dennis 1948a).