Colcom Foundation Funded Research Reveals Compelling Evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s Survival

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh, in collaboration with independent researchers have recently released a groundbreaking study that sheds new light on the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird steeped in mystery and intrigue.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a species of woodpecker known for its stunning black-and-white feathers, strong, white, chisel-like bill, vibrant lemon-yellow eyes, and distinctive pointed crest that inhabited the swampy Southeastern bottomlands of North America. Around 1944, the awe-inspiring avian, measuring 18 to 20 inches in length and boasting an impressive wingspan of 30 to 31 inches, vanished, leaving behind a legacy of speculation and debate.

Last seen in the Singer Tract in Louisiana, a swamp spanning about 80,000 acres, the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker disappeared after the land was logged despite vehement protests from conservationists.

While there have been sporadic reported sightings in the Southeast over the past two decades, the bird’s existence has been the subject of contentious discussions among researchers and amateur birders.

In 2005, Colcom Foundation awarded a $4 million endowment to The National Aviary to fund avian conservation research. The Avian Conservation Endowment was the National Aviary’s primary source of funding for this groundbreaking conservation research.

The study titled “Multiple lines of evidence suggest the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in Louisiana” was published in May of this year in the esteemed peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Evolution. The publication builds upon an earlier version of the paper and includes a collection of compelling evidence, such as audio tracks, trail camera footage, and drone videos.

Researchers used AudioMoth acoustic recording units (ARUs) and handheld devices to capture audio data from February to April 2019 and December 2019 to April 2020. They aimed to identify the distinct “kent” calls and “double-knocks” associated with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The collected data was analyzed using specialized software and compared to known recordings of ivory-billed woodpeckers from the past.

Researchers also used trail cameras, strategically placed on scaled, damaged or dying trees and other preferred feeding locations, to capture images of ivory-billed woodpeckers foraging or excavating. Time-lapse programming or motion-sensitive settings were used to capture images in different parts of trees.

Drones were used to film the treetops, capturing birds in flight, with flight locations informed by habitat, historical detections, and foraging signs.

Project Principalis, led by Steven Latta, the Aviary’s director of conservation and field research, and Mark Michaels, an independent ivory-bill researcher and attorney from West Chester, New York, have meticulously compiled a decade’s worth of visual observations, 70,000 hours of acoustic recordings, nearly 473,000 camera hours from 34 trail cameras, and over 1,089 hours of video from more than 3,000 drone flights.

According to Latta, they have multiple lines of evidence and repeated observations of multiple birds providing cumulative evidence that the bird is still alive. The wealth of data compiled by the team reinforces their claim and provides a comprehensive picture of the high probability that the ivory-billed woodpecker continues to survive.

It is crucial to note the pivotal role played by the Avian Conservation Endowment in facilitating this groundbreaking research. Colcom Foundation’s generous $4 million endowment, awarded to the National Aviary, enabled the institution to spearhead Project Principalis and carry out extensive field research, data collection, and analysis. Without this funding, such an ambitious and thorough investigation into the ivory-billed woodpecker’s existence would not have been possible.

Colcom Foundation is a philanthropic organization dedicated to promoting conservation efforts, environmental education, land and water preservation, sustainable agriculture, and the protection of wildlife habitats.

The Foundation’s generous Avian Conservation Endowment to the National Aviary highlights their long-standing dedication to recognizing the importance of biodiversity and the need to safeguard endangered species.

It is perhaps a happy coincidence that the publication of the paper, providing possible evidence of the existence of one of the first birds to make the U.S. list of nearly extinct birds under the 1966 Endangered Species Preservation Act, coincided with the 50th Anniversary of National Endangered Species Day, observed on the third Friday in May.

However, while the study and accompanying videos present a compelling case, the ultimate verdict lies with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It remains uncertain whether this evidence will satisfy the agency’s requirements for officially recognizing the ivory-billed woodpecker’s continued existence.

If the agency declares an endangered species extinct, it forfeits certain protections, including the ability to designate critical habitats, establish protective regulations, and implement recovery plans for the species.

Regardless of the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Latta, Michaels, and other researchers have already expressed plans to continue their research about the bird and its protection.

Thanks to their Avian Conservation Endowment, Colcom Foundation has enabled ongoing research, fieldwork, and conservation initiatives aimed at unraveling the mysteries surrounding the ivory-billed woodpecker. Their partnership with the National Aviary demonstrates their dedication to supporting scientific research and fostering collaborations that can have a long-term impact on protecting and restoring endangered species, like the revered ivory-billed woodpecker, and their habitats.

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