The ivory-billed woodpecker is the fourth or fifth largest woodpecker in the world (4). It was previously considered to be extinct but recent evidence provides some hope that the species may still cling on in remote areas of Cuba and Arkansas in the U.S. (2)(4). The bill is, as the name suggests, ivory-white in colour whilst the feet and legs are grey (3). These birds are predominantly black with striking white stripes on the side of the neck and large white wing patches (2). Males are distinguished by their prominent red crown (4). The most commonly recorded call was an alarmed ‘kent’ or ‘hant’, which has been described as sounding like a toy trumpet or clarinet. Nestlings produce weak ‘buzzing’ vocalizations (3).
The ivory-billed woodpecker feeds on wood-boring invertebrates, which colonise trees that have recently died (2). Using its sturdy bill to excavate holes and thus reach the grubs inside, an individual woodpecker is capable of producing a 12 centimetre deep hole in soft wood in less than a minute (4). It is thought that pairs of ivory-billed woodpeckers mate for life, occupying large territories (4). Mating occurs between January and March and the clutch of one to four eggs is laid within a nest hole located in a partially dead tree (4). Both sexes help to incubate the eggs and to care for the developing nestlings; young may remain with their parents until the onset of the following winter (4).
Two subspecies of ivory-billed woodpecker were previously known. Campephilus principalis principalis was found throughout the southeastern United States, whilst C. p. bardii was restricted to Cuba (2). The species was declared extinct in 1996 but two years later hope was renewed that the Cuban subspecies survives in the Sierra Maestra Mountains to the southeast of the island (2), and in 2005 the U.S. subspecies was rediscovered in Arkansas, six decades after the last confirmed sighting (4).
The ivory-billed woodpecker was previously found in a variety of forest types from Florida swamps (4) to montane forests, the ivory-billed woodpecker is today restricted to Pinus cubensis forests in mountainous areas of Cuba (2).
The ivory-billed woodpecker was known from the southeastern United States and Cuba. Logging, mining, plantations and other forms of exploitation have swept away the once extensive tracts of pristine forest that were home to this woodpecker. Logging of the mature forests that form its habitat was probably the major cause of the disappearance of this species (2). Although incredible recent discoveries have provided new hope for both the U.S. and Cuban subspecies, previously considered extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker is nevertheless clinging on to an extremely precarious existence.
Searches for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker in the mountains of southern Cuba and in the U.S. continue. If sightings are confirmed, the implementation of effective protection measures will be vital for the future of this fascinating bird (2).
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