The ivory-billed woodpecker recently went from near total obscurity to superstardom when birders reported a sighting of the believed-to-be-extinct species.
The world's third largest woodpecker was condemned to oblivion some 50 years ago, but in April 2005, a stunning video emerged from a vast Arkansas swamp forest. The tape appeared to show a live ivory-billed woodpecker—and captured the attention of the world. It was hailed as the birding equivalent of finding Elvis alive.
In the wake of the discovery, some experts supported the evidence while others suggested that the tape showed a similar, smaller woodpecker—the pileated—which remains common in much of North America.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers make a unique double-knock noise when pecking at trees, and this sound may be a crucial aid to identifying any surviving birds. A recent recording may have captured this distinctive sound, but it may also reflect noises of nonavian origin.
Until more hard evidence emerges from the Mississippi Delta's inaccessible, 860-square-mile Big Woods region, the ivory-bill's status must remain uncertain. But it is beyond doubt that the bird captured the attention of America and became a tragic symbol of the vanished old-growth delta forests it once frequented. These woodlands survive today mostly in isolated patches.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers use their enormous white bill (not really made of ivory, but bone) to strip bark from dead but standing trees, and to access the beetle larvae that make up their primary food. These bills were once decorative objects prized by some Native Americans. They have been found in archaeological digs far from the bird's ancient range—which suggests that they had value as trade items.