Ornithologist, Matt Courtman showing the distinguishing characteristics of Campephilus principalis to a roomful of people at the Lousiana Master Naturalist Northeast event in the Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge Visitors’ Center on January 19th 2020.

Yet again, The Louisiana Master Naturalist Northeast group is very grateful for a highly interesting talk to accompany our first quarter meeting. I greatly enjoyed yesterday’s presentation by Ornithologist Matt Courtman on his quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Once negotiations I’d initiated with the new ceiling-mounted projector were successfully completed by our capable new Vice President, Ann Bloxom Smith, it all began with a rather exciting question considering that this bird is generally considered to have been extinct for almost a century!

“Have any of you actually seen an Ivory-bill?” Matt asked the packed room at Black Bayou Lake Visitors’ Center.

One gentleman half-way back in the audience raised his hand and answered in the affirmative, that he believed he had and he then described the bird’s appearance and when questioned about its size, he described it as being about a third larger than a crow.

To put this assertion into perspective, this is a cryptozoological account yes, but it is not the Far Side of cryptozoology, not like someone saying that they’ve seen a sasquatch, the Loch Ness monster or a Yeti. It is more like someone saying that they saw a live Passenger Pigeon, but more likely than that to be true because the doomed pigeon flew in great flocks in plain sight while the woodpecker was always more solitary and a deep forest dweller. It had the habit of appearing suddenly and startling people and for that reason was nick-named the “Lord God!” bird.

This Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a bird that is known to have lived in the Southeastern United States in large numbers and is famous, but is generally believed to have been extirpated by people when they destroyed its habitat. For sadly all forest in Louisiana is tertiary, the virgin stands were all logged out by the mid twentieth Century. The Singer Tract in woodland now within the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge was one of the last refuges of the Ivory-billed Woopecker. Unfortunately the timber rights were owned by Chicago Mills and despite entreaties to practice crop rotation it was too profitable for them to just clear cut the area. Apparently the trees were felled by German POWs and made into tea chests for the British market. According to an LMNA friend it was the loss of mature Ash trees (Fraxinus sp.) with their associated beetle grubs that hit the Ivory-bill hard.

Matt Courtman’s passion for this remarkable bird has fueled his very determined efforts to find out all he can about it and thus his presentation to us was informed by his original research into museum collections, journals and also in the field even to the extent of asking an opera singer to help differentiate the sound quality of the Ivory-bill from Jay calls, and I must say he has assembled a very nice collection of photographs of museum specimens and documents including a preserved nesting cavity!

It is just such cavities that he believes may provide us with the best proof of these birds’ survival, for he argues, many of the bolder birds were shot out of the population and he expects that only the most reclusive survived to breed and subsequent generations were forced to alter their behaviour patterns. His own encounters were unexpected and intriguing. He saw a large bird, reminiscent of a magpie with an extended tail about a third of the total body-length flying low, in a straight-line, like a duck! This characteristic tail ties in with a description he later discovered in Jim Tanner’s notes. Matt showed a wonderful old photograph of Jim hunkered down with a large parabolic listening device and pointed out that Tanner took his famous shot of the Tensas Ivory-bill by its nesting hole from his own perch 70 ft up in a neighboring tree!

His most recent encounter was with a bird 85-95 ft off the ground on March 10th, 2019.

Sadly there was no field ecology before 1914 and this was the time where the populations were dying out. The idea that relict populations of the bird in a super-shy form may yet exist is an intriguing one.

He argues that some birds remain, even if the species is functionally extinct (too few to viably reproduce). A hyper-sensitive bird whose home range might extend 20 miles is probably best discovered by its nest cavities but he is calling upon the hunting fraternity to keep their eyes out for the birds. People spending long hours in blinds or tree chairs waiting for deer might see them where others would not.

He emphasizes his belief that the flight profiles of Ivory-bills are quite different from the Pileated Woodpeckers , Dryocopus pileatus, which flap more like a butterfly, in an undulating fashion. The Ivory-bills fly straight and fast, like a duck.

As a wildlife photographer myself, the fact that Matt wasn’t able to show us a photograph of his own sighting doesn’t surprise me in the least. You’d have to be at the ready with camera turned on and in hand, and lens cap off to have a hope.

Matt praised Ranger Gene Laird as a protector of the Ivory-bill and also his son Jesse Laird, the grandfather of our own board member Suzanne Laird-Dartez. Suzanne told us something of her close relationship with Jesse and how he had raised her in the knowledge of the Ivory-bill’s ways on their large estate in Northeastern Louisiana and imparted both his love and respect for the wild along with much of his knowledge to her.

Matt talking about Suzanne's grandfather Jesse Laird's work with the Ivory-bill
Matt talking about Suzanne’s Great-grandfather Ranger Jesse Laird’s work with the Ivory-bill
Suzanne Laird-Dartez talking about her grandfather Jesse Laird's work with the Ivory-bill
Suzanne Laird-Dartez talking about her grandfather Gene Laird’s familiarity with the Ivory-bill back in the early twentieth Century and his teaching her on his estate .

Gene Laird is credited with the last confirmed observation of the Ivory-bill, it was seen no more after a storm blew down its nesting tree on his property in 1933. We all were well-impressed by her family resemblance to Gene and it seems so fitting that she is now a Louisiana Master Naturalist and carrying on her forbears’ quest for knowledge and care for the country that they cared for themselves, for so many years.

Further Reading on the Ivory-bill

https://www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2016/can-ivory-billed-woodpecker-be-found-cuba

Matt’s own website is coming! Watch this space.

Further Reading on Cryptozoology