Encouraging signs but no woodpecker

Birders searching a Louisiana forest this winter for the long-lost ivory-billed woodpecker heard a knock-knock and would dearly love to know who’s there.

STILL THERE? Young ivory-billed woodpecker photographed in 1938. James T. Tanner

The ivory-billed woodpecker, with its 31-inch wingspan and 20-inch length, hasn’t been documented in the United States since the 1940s, and observers haven’t confirmed the existence of the Cuban subspecies since the 1980s. A particularly vivid report of a supposed sighting in 1999 inspired Zeiss Sports Optics to send an international team to comb Louisiana’s Pearl River Wildlife Management Area and adjacent woodlands.

After a month-long search, the team’s final report on Feb. 20 says it hadn’t found conclusive proof that the species still exists, but it had hopeful signs. On Jan. 27 at 3:30 p.m., four members of the team heard a loud knocking, as if a huge woodpecker were drumming on a tree. Pileated woodpeckers up to 17 inches long abound in the area, but none of the team had ever heard one hammer out the pattern, which featured paired knocks. Cornell University ornithologists had also heard paired knocks in the area.

That patch of forest—the team will not disclose the location—looks like good woodpecker habitat, the searchers say. They found cavities in trees and bald spots in bark that might have been big enough to represent ivory-billed woodpecker work.

Now, hope rests with the Cornell researchers, who have left 12 recording devices in the woods.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.