Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at the Movies: Q&A

Since 2004, five films about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have been released or are in production, each with a unique perspective. (Read review by the Cornell Lab’s Miyoko Chu.) As a whole, they explore themes of science and conservation, as well as the human side of hope and obsession. We provide the Q&As below to help answer questions raised by some of the films.

Q: Which films did the Cornell Lab participate in?

A: We provided sounds, photos, and/or footage of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers recorded in Louisiana, from the Cornell Lab’s Arthur A. Allen collection (1935), for use in The Birdpeople, Woodpecker, The Lord God Bird, and Ghost Bird.

The Birdpeople includes commentary by Kim Bostwick, curator of birds and mammals in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, and by Martjan Lammertink, a woodpecker expert and member of the 2002 Pearl River search team, who joined our staff after the film was produced. Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick and other staff were interviewed in The Lord God Bird, a film in production by White Mountain Films and National Geographic Feature Films in association with The Nature Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Q: What do you think of the premise that hope causes people to see what they want to believe?

A: Hope is a part of being human, and all scientists are human. That said, scientists strive to be as objective as possible by using the scientific method to test hypotheses, and by providing data for others to examine and question. In the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, debate about the evidence resulted in much scrutiny and reanalysis of the data, but our interpretation, and that of many others in the science and conservation communities, remains the same: Compelling evidence justified continuing searches for the ivory-bill, not only in Arkansas, but across its former range (See our analyses and learn more about the debate.)

This conclusion was also reached by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their review of the Luneau video (2005), alternative interpretations by Sibley et al. (2006) and Collinson (2007), and auditory evidence and sightings collected during the five-year search. (See full statement from USFWS.)

Q: How much federal money was spent on the ivory-bill search?

A: $5.4 million were spent on the search effort, as well as research, habitat analysis, habitat management, and recovery planning. (See USFWS Recovery Plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker for FY 06–09 totals plus "Recovery Planning Activities" on the USFWS Federal Funding Fact Sheet for FY 05).

An additional $5 million were allocated from multiple programs for habitat conservation, refuge operations, and law enforcement in 2005, including funds that had already been allocated for planned habitat acquisition on the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. (See all sources other than "Recovery Planning Activities" on the USFWS Federal Funding Fact Sheet for FY 05).

One of the biggest misconceptions is that the ivory-bill search and recovery efforts cost $27 million. This was the amount proposed for recovery if a recoverable population was found. These estimated costs represented all funds, including non-governmental sources, that could be considered to assist with recovering the species. The amount was not a funding request or commitment. For actual expenditures see the USFWS Recovery Plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Federal Funding Fact Sheet.

The amount spent on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was a small fraction of the overall funding used to recover endangered and threatened species. For example, the $10.4 million listed above for the search and land acquisition during five years (2005–09) was just 0.1% of all federal recovery funding spent for endangered and threatened species during that time period. (Total expenditures are available in the Endangered Species Act Document Library.)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes decisions each year to allocate  resources while balancing new information, changes in need or priorities, and fiscal reality. The conservation community recognizes that funding for endangered and threatened species is limited and must be divided among many species in need.

Many endangered bird species, including Kirtland's Warbler, Whooping Crane, and California Condor, also received funding and continue to increase in number markedly and steadily during the years in which the Ivory-billed Woodpecker search and recovery efforts were funded.

Q: The “Ghost Bird” film makes it appear as though searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was unwarranted based on the evidence. What is Cornell’s take on this?

A: After extensive analysis of the evidence—and reanalysis in light of alternative interpretations—scientists at the Cornell Lab concluded that the evidence justified searching for the ivory-bill in Arkansas and across the species’ former range. This conclusion was shared the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and numerous scientists, refuge managers, and wildlife biologists leading on-the-ground conservation efforts for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, wildlife agencies in six additional states, Audubon Arkansas, The Nature Conservancy, and others. The interpretations of these professionals from the conservation community were not included in “Ghost Bird.”

The foremost concern of scientists at Cornell has been to interpret the scientific data responsibly based on the evidence, including consideration of alternative viewpoints. All the data on the ivory-bill search have been made freely available, including in peer-reviewed scientific articles, on websites, and in numerous scientific and public presentations. (Explore the evidence).

The Cornell Lab also leads research and conservation efforts on numerous other threatened and endangered species and their habitats, always with the mission of using the best scientific evidence to inform conservation decisions. (Learn more about our work.)

Q: Is the Cornell Lab still searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? What’s next?

A: The intensive five-year search in eight states has concluded. We will no longer actively search for ivory-bills unless new credible reports surface.

Based on the cumulative data, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the evidence “supports the hypothesis that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers continue to exist in Arkansas and other parts of the range. However, due to the inability to reliably locate birds, we cannot at this time conclude that a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is established in this region...the potential presence of this species justifies continuing habitat conservation and restoration efforts that were already well underway in eastern Arkansas. Although region-wide federally funded searches have now concluded, the Service will continue to appropriately act on behalf of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended.” (See full statement from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Cornell Lab scientist Martjan Lammertink and colleagues are now writing a scientific volume summarizing ivory-bill ecology and the results of search efforts.

More to Explore:

Evidence and Analysis

"Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at the Movies" Review

Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bird Conservation Work