The ivory-billed woodpecker had not been seen in the wild since 1944. The largest of North American woodpecker species has been the subject of intensive searches over numerous expeditions though the years without any conclusive proof of its continued existence. For those reasons, the ivory-billed woodpecker was one of 23 species the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared extinct in 2021. But wait! Did they act too soon? As reported this week by the Guardian, leaders of a three-year-long scientific study insist they’ve seen the elusive birds and have video and audio recordings they claim document that at least a small population still exists in an undisclosed but remote area in Louisiana.
Screenshot from The Guardian website, taken April 14, 2022.
If confirmed, the stubborn survival of these birds is a hopeful sign. What other species might be present in remote and inaccessible lands?
We shouldn’t be surprised they’re hard to find and photograph. In the Guardian article, one of the lead researchers said “No one has held a camera and got a picture of one in years because it’s a scarce bird in tough swampy habitat and they don’t want people close to them because they’ve been shot at for 150 years. They have better eyes than we do, they are high in the trees and actively flee people. They aren’t great thinkers but they have developed a pretty simple strategy to avoid people.” Even though the researchers used trailcams, time lapses, drones, and audio recordings in their search, evidence was hard to come by, and has not yet been peer reviewed, so the jury is still out.
Next time you’re testing your patience by waiting for an owl to do something, or an elk to bugle, or the sun to poke through the clouds, think about the scientists who spent three years trying to find and photograph the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Birds Aren’t Real
It sounds like a late April Fool’s joke, but that same edition of the Guardian carried a story about the Birds Aren’t Real movement. Started almost by accident by Peter McIndoe in 2017, it is an absurdist counterprotest to some of the wild conspiracy theories currently roiling the American political scene. The mostly Gen Z proponents claim, tongue in cheek, that the U. S. government killed all the birds and replaced them with robotic drones to spy on citizens. As McIndoe told the New York Times last year, it’s a “parody social movement with a purpose,” poking fun at misinformation, “fighting lunacy with lunacy.”
The movement has snowballed. McIndoe is a sought-after interview, and you can buy Birds Aren’t Real merchandise. If you have teenage kids in your life, they may be in on the prank. But does a “collective role-playing experiment” like this make it more difficult to draw public attention to the very real threats facing birds? Or open avenues of conversation? Does this kind of thing make it harder for a conservation photographer to break through the noise and clutter with their images and stories? Time will tell.
Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog and can be found online at frankgallagherphotography.com or on Instagram @frankgallagherfoto.
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