The Ivory Billed Woodpeckers of Avery Island

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (male)

There is likely no other native bird in North America that remains so fascinating, so mesmerizing, as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (IBW). To many it is an almost magical bird. A bird so bewitching that even a reported 2005 sighting by experienced ornithologists eludes verification. Considered extinct by many and extant by others, the IBW captivates the imagination of many in the birding world. The only treatise of the species, The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by James Tanner (1942), was the culmination of Tanner’s research and observations of IBWs in northern Louisiana in the 1930s. Yet since the reported sighting in 2005 no fewer than a dozen new books have been written about this hypnotic bird.

We knew that the IBW had been observed in the past on Avery Island and that E. A. McIlhenny wrote about these sightings on several occasions. There are references in James Tanners book “The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker” (1942) to both Avery Island and McIlhenny.

What we did not know until very recently is that two IBW specimens from Avery Island (male and female) exist in the collection of Cornell University in Ithaca NY. The specimens were brought to our attention by a Louisiana native, Matt Courtman, an IBW researcher who, while visiting Cornell, made the discovery. The two specimens are spectacular, some of the best IBW’s Matt has ever seen. Matt has had a long fascination with IBWs and will provide more information about the provenance of those two specimens. Currently all that is known is that the birds were collected by McIlhenny on April 7, 1895.

McIlhenny apparently closely watched the Avery Island IBWs throughout the 1890s. I have found his detailed accounts of nesting activities observed between 1892 and 1894. He reported on several active nests he monitored in great detail in the “Avery Swamp.” During that time he recorded the number of eggs laid, how many eggs per nest, and how many young per nest. There is no doubt he spent a considerable amount of time observing the nesting habits of Avery Island IBW pairs, commenting on them excavating nest cavities.

The common Pileated Woodpecker is regularly confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBW). The average non-birdwatching individual often assumes that just about any large black-and-white woodpecker could be or is an Ivory-billed.

If one brings up the subject of the IBW, a common response is “they are common around here today”. So without much thought many people simply assume the two birds are one and the same. This widespread inability to distinguish the Pileated Woodpecker from the IBW only serves to make skeptics out of those most able to distinguish between the two species.


Pileated above, Ivory Billed Below
McIlhenny’s letter to James Tanner.
Tanner’s reply to McIlhenny.
Avery Island Ivory Billed Woodpecker specimens at Cornell Univ.
Avery Island specimens, just look at the size of their beaks!
Female Ivory Billed lower specimen, Male Ivory Billed upper specimen.

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