By Mitchell Marks, Freedom Hills WMA (Retired)

The largest woodpecker to call Alabama home was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, also known as the “Lord God Bird”. Its nickname is thought to have come from someone seeing this very large woodpecker and saying, “Lord God, what a bird”. It is actually the third largest woodpecker in the world. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was found in bottomland hardwoods of the southeastern United States and Cuba. In Alabama, it was believed to have ranged in an area from south of an imaginary line running from the Mississippi border, just north of Tuscaloosa, extending northeast to Birmingham, then down through the Auburn area to Georgia.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was believed to be extinct. Until recently that is. An ornithologist, who was bird watching in eastern Arkansas, is believed to have rediscovered it. Short segments of video appear to prove it. Now the question is - has it been overlooked elsewhere in its former range? “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have formed a Species Recovery Team engaged in planning for the conservation of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The recovery effort will cover the bird’s historic range and will focus on the Big Woods corridor of central Arkansas, eastern Texas’ Big Thicket, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, southern Georgia, and the Carolinas.”(CornellUniv. Web site)

The Ivory-billed woodpecker is a large, black & white woodpecker, 19 to 21 inches in length, showing large amounts of white on the wings and back during flight. The male sports a red crest while the female’s crest is black. Also known as the “Lord God Bird”, the Pileated Woodpecker is very similar in appearance to the Ivory-billed but slightly shorter in length, with both sexes having a red crest. Ivory-bill’s have a white stripe that extends from either side of the face, below and behind the eye, down the neck, over the shoulders, running behind the wings and down the back. The Pileated has a black stripe that passes through the eye between two white stripes. The white stripes then extend down the neck and in front of the wings. The Ivory-bill’s legs, feet and claws are a grayish color and the Pileated has black legs, feet and claws. A very important difference is the color of bill. The ivory-billed has a light pale white or “ivory” color. The pileated had a dark color bill.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers nest in dead or dying trees, most often associated with bottomland maple, pine, white elm and sweetgum. It typically excavates a nest cavity in the dead or dying portion of the tree, usually below a limb or limb knot to protect the cavity from rain. Cavities are typically used for only one nesting season, with a new cavity usually constructed close-by the following season. There are some recorded instances where a nest cavity was used two consecutive years.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers feed on beetle larvae found in dead and dying trees, mostly in old growth forests. They have also been known to move into areas damaged by natural disasters, feeding on beetle larvae in damaged trees. It peels off the dead bark with its strong beak exposing the beetle larvae growing underneath.

By far, the number one reason for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s disappearance from Alabama was from habitat loss. The expansion of farmland and the demand for wood by the timber industry after the Civil War, and the need for wood during both World Wars, claimed much of the remaining forest that the Ivory-billed called home. When the scientific community noticed their populations declining, there was an increase in the collection of Ivory-bill’s for scientific display and study. By the mid-1940’s, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had disappeared from 90% to 95% of its former range. This is probably around the last time they were found in Alabama. Isolated populations were noted in Louisiana that existed into the late 1960’s. Some remnants were believed to have survived in Cuba into the late 1980’s. With any luck other populations like the one in Arkansas can be found, and just maybe, a great bird once thought to be extinct can reclaim its throne as “Lord of the Woodpeckers” of the southeastern U.S.