"Elvis" Woodpecker Could Rebound Near Florida River, Expert Says

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
December 15, 2006

Among U.S. birders, one of the dream sightings is a giant, black-and- white bird with a distinctive red crest called the ivory-billed woodpecker.

For the past 50 years many bird experts believed the creature to be extinct. But recent sightings in Arkansas and western Florida have tantalized biologists with the thought that a few might have survived.

(Related news: "Extinct" Woodpecker Found in Arkansas, Experts Say [April 28, 2005].)

The sightings are frustratingly uncertain, but if even a few birds are still out there, the species might have a fighting chance of making a comeback along Florida's Suwannee River (interactive Suwannee map).

"[The Suwannee] is the heart of where the birds were once abundant," said Jerome Jackson, a biologist at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. "That really was the homeland for ivory-bills."

Jackson has been on the hunt for ivory-billed woodpeckers throughout the southeastern U.S., including the Suwannee region.

In a book chronicling his as yet unsuccessful effort to find definitive proof, Jackson notes that the bird's 30-inch (75-centimeter) wingspan and dramatic plumage led people to dub the creature the "Lord God Bird."

That's probably because people who saw the bird in its heyday, he said, would exclaim "Lord God, what a bird!"

Last Stand

Ivory-billed woodpeckers depended on dense old-growth forests with aging trees to supply them with their prime food source—large beetles.

"They were specialists in these big beetles," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society, who is based in Washington, D.C.

But heavy logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries devastated the birds' habitat.

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