On October 17, 2020, Bobby Harrison was in a canoe on a southern waterway heading back to his car when a large bird flew in front of him, turned, and then flew down the channel and out of his sight.
He says he knew immediately that the bird was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Harrison has been searching southern swamps for the species for more than 20 years, and it was an Ivory-bill sighting he had in 2004 with former Living Bird editor Tim Gallagher that set off a large search for the bird led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. That search effort ended in early 2007, and Harrison has continued looking for better evidence on his own ever since.
And that’s what he says he obtained with the October 2020 encounter. He was recording with a Sony video camera when the bird came into his view. The sighting lasted 9.8 seconds, and the video is, Harrison admits, not of high quality. Because it happened so fast, he couldn’t zoom in on the bird, for example. He never intended to make the video public, but eventually he did have a chance to “show it to a few people from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They were impressed with it, [and] thought it was perhaps the best evidence they had seen.”
Then, after FWS proposed in September 2021 to delist the bird “due to extinction,” Harrison knew he had to show the agency the video officially. He says the video is “evidence” of the bird’s persistence, but given its low quality, he doesn’t call it “proof.”
In early July 2022, FWS said it was giving itself six more months to decide what to do about the delisting proposal and that it was opening a public-comment period for 30 days. “Recognizing substantial disagreement among experts regarding the status of the species, the Service is extending the deadline to allow for additional time to review information,” a press release said.
Harrison created a PowerPoint presentation to explain several individual frames in the video that are consistent with Ivory-bill field marks and do not match other somewhat similar birds, such as Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Pintail, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Muscovy Duck, and others. On July 18, Harrison presented the PowerPoint to FWS officials, which added it to the public record. (That video will be posted in a day or two on a government web page.)
To reach the wider public, Harrison agreed to an exclusive interview with BirdWatching. He and I met over Zoom on July 14, and he told the story of his sighting and showed the PowerPoint. I agreed to wait to post our interview until he spoke with FWS. (Apologies for a technical glitch or two in the video and for the moment where my dog barks.) The full video is about 53 minutes long, and the PowerPoint presentation begins at the 7:37 mark. This is best viewed on a computer or other large screen (not a mobile device).
In our discussion, Harrison mentions the “Kulivan sighting.” He is referring to a report in 1999 by David Kulivan, then a forestry student at Louisiana State University, of two birds, likely Ivory-bills, in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana. You can read more about that event in this article that we published in 2002.
Other birds considered
After the interview, I asked Harrison if the bird in his video could be a Red-headed Woodpecker, which he doesn’t discuss in the PowerPoint. At about 10 inches long, the Red-headed is about half as long as the 19.5-inch Ivory-bill, and it has somewhat similar plumage. On the adults of both species, the leading edges of the wings are black, the trailing edges of the wings are white, and the tails are black.
Harrison said he considered Red-headed, as well as Pileated Woodpecker and several ducks (which he discusses in the video).
“I asked myself these questions because I knew the skeptics would ask these questions,” he says. “None of these birds — ducks, Pileated, or Red-headed fit the bird in the video. The Red-headed was easily ruled out for a few reasons. It has a white underside and an adult has a red head, and the bird in the video has a black head and black body. The speed of the bird in the video exceeds the speed of a Red-headed Woodpecker. And Red-headed Woodpecker has a white rump. The bird I saw had a black rump separating the white secondary flight feathers. Finally, the bird I saw was much larger than a Red-headed Woodpecker.”
What happens next? Perhaps during the public-comment period someone will submit a high-quality, clear-as-day photo or video of an Ivory-bill. Failing that, we’ll wait to hear what the Fish and Wildlife Service decides about the endangered status of arguably the most iconic bird in North America.