Big woodpeckers and renewed life for Migratory Bird Treaty Act

On Sept. 29, the Biden administration finalized a rule that restores protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that disappeared under the previous administration. The century-old MBTA is one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws that has served the continent and 17 presidential administrations (from both political parties) just fine. Despite opposition from the conservation community, the Trump administration watered down the law a couple years ago.

Male Pileated Woodpecker In Yard On The Ridgeway Property

Many Americans have seen pileated woodpeckers (this shot shows a male) visiting suet feeders or a tree in their backyard, but the USFWS says its cousin, the ivory-billed, is gone forever. (Photo by Bob Drieslein)

I was glad to see the Biden U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restore the changes the previous administration implemented, including a prohibition on “incidental take” of migratory bird species. National conservation groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership applauded the action.

(BTW, kudos also to President Joe Biden who last week signed an order restoring protections to three U.S. national monuments, including two that saw their size reduced by the last administration, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments in Utah. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers gave that news a thumbs-up in a release on Oct. 8.)

The MBTA announcement came on the same day as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release that proposed delisting 23 species from Endangered Species Act “due to extinction.” Among the birds was the ivory-billed woodpecker (IBW), a southern species that some believe has been extinct since the late 1940s, so including it in the release struck me as odd. Joe Soucheray in his Oct. 2 Pioneer Press column saw a conspiracy to link the extinction of ivory-billed to climate change, a concept that Joe has bashed for decades. I believe the USFWS release (and an Associated Press story) both mentioned climate change more as a threat to existing bird populations, and I don’t think the feds were suggesting climate change wiped out ivory-billeds (it didn’t). That said, I’d partially agree with Soucheray that it felt mildly gratuitous for the Biden administration to leverage one more round of emotion from the ivory-billed, a poster child for lost, charismatic North American species.

Ivory Bill Size Comparison Photo By Bobby Harrison

This image, courtesy of Tim Gallagher, shows museum specimens revealing the difference in size between the pileated (top), ivory-billed (center), and the imperial woodpecker (also another extremely rare and possibly extinct species).

Working outside last weekend, I watched a pileated woodpecker for several minutes on a small cottonwood. A question that’s always bothered me stirred in my brain: Why does the pileated, which runs slightly smaller than the ivory-billed, thrive among people today, when its closely related cousin couldn’t reach the 21st Century?

The general consensus is that the pileated’s ability to survive in many wooded habitat types has allowed the species to cope with human habitation of North America much better than the more specialized IBW. (There’s a fascinating fact sheet about IBWs from the USFWS here.) Still, I asked a couple of experts for their take.

Bob Zink, a frequent Outdoor News contributor, former Breckenridge chair of ornithology at the U of M’s Bell Museum, and now professor of biological sciences and natural resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, tells me that IBWs probably always were rare, and they required big stretches of old growth forest. Once that habitat disappeared, they were gone. The pileated is much more widespread and while it requires mature trees, it doesn’t depend on old growth like IBWs did.

“We did not destroy the habitat of the pileated the way we did for passenger pigeons and ivory-billed woodpeckers,” Zink said.

Tim Gallagher has a reputation as the foremost authority on IBWs, and he took a moment from his latest writing project to respond via email to my inquiry about the birds. Gallagher has written a couple of books on big woodpeckers, including The Grail Bird, Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker; and a book about the closely related (and also possibly extinct) imperial woodpecker of Mexico, Imperial Dreams, Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre.

Editor-in-chief of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s Living Bird magazine for 26 years and before that on the editorial staff of WildBird magazine, Gallagher played an instrumental role in the 2004/2005 search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas. He was one of the first three searchers to report seeing and identifying the species.

His email response to my query is below, and as you can see, he’s not ready to count the IBW extinct just yet.

ODN question: “Why does the more northerly pileated, which runs slightly smaller that the ivory-billed, thrive among people today, when its closely related cousin couldn’t survive the 20th Century?”

Gallagher: “A couple of quick comments before I answer your question. You said the pileated is a more northerly species. Actually, pileated woodpeckers are quite common in the South – in fact, probably a lot more common than here. And about the size: I know a lot of people say the pileated and the ivory-bill are about the same size, but the ivory-bill is actually significantly larger and is more elongated looking in flight. I’m attaching a picture by Bobby Harrison of some museum specimens, showing the difference in size between the pileated, ivory-billed, and imperial woodpeckers. (The imperial is the ivory-bill’s closest relative.)

“As for why the pileated woodpecker has done so much better than the Ivory-bill, it’s because the pileated is such a generalist. They exist in a wide variety of habitats – including suburban yards – and have a much more varied diet. Ivory-bills thrive in old-growth forests, where at any given time there are always dead and dying trees, infested with huge beetle larvae (their favorite food), which they reach by peeling off long strips of bark with their chisel-like bills. They were never as common as pileateds. When massive logging took place across the South, the ivory-bills were driven into smaller and smaller pockets of decent habitat. Then the specimen collectors went to work, hunting them down and shooting them – devastating a population that was already in trouble. The word going around in the late 19th was, these birds are going extinct so if you want a specimen for your collection, you better get it now. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

“But I think there are actually a few ivory-bills left, and I believe the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is wrong to declare them extinct. There have been enough interesting sighting and evidence over the years to convince me of this. (I had a sighting myself in Bayou de View, Arkansas, in 2004.) The fact that they were hunted so extensively, and only the shyest and spookiest individuals survived to pass on their genes, probably explains why the birds are so difficult to approach now. You could say, it was a case of selective breeding.”

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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