The ivory-billed woodpecker was hunted to the point of extinction back in the 1930s, and ornithologists had long assumed it had died out entirely. But one amateur birdwatcher swears that he's seen them...and now he's out to get some proof.
Louisiana resident Michael Collins claims without hesitation that he's spotted these woodpeckers at least ten times, and he says he's got three videos to back up his claims. A researcher at Naval Research Laboratory-Stennis Space Center, Collins is a trained mathematician but only a hobbyist when it comes to ornithology, and he claims that has kept his research on the ivory-billed woodpecker out of professional journals.
Leaving aside the academic controversy, here's what we can say for sure. The ivory-billed woodpecker was once the largest woodpecker species in the United States, and the last confirmed sightings were in around 1940. In 2005, Cornell ornithologists published a video that showed intriguing but hardly definitive evidence of an ivory-billed sighting in Arkansas. Collins, aware that these woodpeckers had once lived in the Pearl River area of Louisiana, headed out on a kayak to search for evidence of them.
Collins has found some potentially compelling evidence for the woodpecker, as Natalie Wolchover of Life's Little Mysteries reports:
By analyzing the size of the bird relative to its surroundings in the video, he determined that its wingspan was approximately 30 inches – the historically recorded size of an ivory-billed woodpecker. Careful frame-by-frame measurements revealed a flight speed of 15.6 meters per second (35 mph) – approximately its purported speed, according to the historical record, and much faster than its relative the pileated woodpecker. Collins also analyzed the bird's coloring, and found that the pattern of white and black on its wings matched ivory-billed, not pileated.
The audio recordings, which he obtained in conjunction with the videos, also smack of the Lord God bird, which makes very distinct double knocks when pecking, and makes vocalizations somewhat like a blue jay's and nothing like a pileated woodpecker's. Collins used his mathematics expertise to construct sophisticated acoustical models of the bird's vocalizations. The audio and video evidence combined, he says, give firm support to his claim that ivory-billed woodpeckers live at Pearl River.
Taken together, it's fascinating evidence that maybe these woodpeckers really have survived in some of the remotest corners of the southern United States. And whatever Collins's actual relationship with the professional ornithology community - which you can read more about in the original article - there is a mounting consensus that these birds really are still out there, even if they are extremely hard to find and the evidence is not yet definitive. And on that point, Collins has a fairly straightforward message:
"All these politics are very damaging. We should be saying, 'OK, the bird exists, it's just very difficult to observe. Now where are they? Where do they live? How can we save them?"