Ivory-billed Woodpecker Searches, 1948-1971

Cuba and the Big Thicket area of Texas

The story of the quest for the ivory-bill moved from Louisiana to Cuba in 1948 when John Dennis and Davis Crompton traveled to the Oriente region search for the birds. The habitat they found was nothing like the appropriate habitat described by Tanner. They were in an area of cutover pines, which Dennis described as being like hell on earth. However, amid the destruction they found a breeding pair of ivory-bills nesting in the hole of a dead pine tree. Dennis snapped the last scientifically accepted photographs ever taken of an ivory-bill, an adult male perched on the side of its nest tree. One of his pictures and an article by Dennis were published later that year in The Auk.


John Dennis continued to search for ivory-bills for the rest of his life. In 1950, he checked out reports of ivory-bills in northwestern Florida with fellow graduate student Whitney Eastman from the University of Florida. Dennis left the search after a few days and at first dismissed later reports that Eastman had located a pair of ivory-bills after Dennis had left. But he returned to the area and reported hearing an ivory-bill call from its roost hole.


Over the years Dennis followed up on numerous ivory-bill reports. In December 1966 he found himself in the Big Thicket area of east Texas. Olga Hooks Lloyd, a birdwatcher in Beaumont, Texas, had reported seeing one that April in a swamp along the Neches River. After two days of searching, Dennis heard the kent calls of an ivory-bill. Several days later, after days of heavy rain that precluded searching, Dennis visited the bayou again where he spotted an ivory-bill flying. "Sweeping majestically from where it apparently had been feeding on the ground, it soon settled upon the trunk of an enormous cypress tree," wrote Dennis.


The bird left almost immediately and Dennis waded across the bayou to try to get a better view of it. He walked in the direction in which the bird had flown and stumbled upon her, perched like a vision on a stump, her wings outstretched.


Dennis' subsequent report was greeted with skepticism in the ornithological community; Jim Tanner searched the area for two days, saw nothing, and declared the habitat totally unsuitable for ivory-bills.


Nonetheless, the Big Thicket National Preserve, a more than 97,000-acre preserve, was set aside by Congress in October 1974.

------------------------------------------------------------------------


Almost a decade since the 1940s has brought its share of ivory-bill sightings in Cuba, and many southern states including Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. In the late 1970s a deer hunter reported spotting an ivory-bill while sitting in his deer stand in the Achafalaya Basin in Louisiana. A team of searchers set out from Louisiana State University and a couple of them heard possible kent calls and caught glimpses of what they believed were ivory-bills.


The problem with all of the searches since Dennis's 1948 search in Cuba is the lack of hard physical evidence. People were catching fleeting glimpses of ivory-bills but not photographs. In 1971, ornithologist George Lowry, Jr., then director of Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Science, brought two blurry photographs of an ivory-bill perched on the side of two different trees to the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union. These photographs had been brought to Lowery by a man who had taken them while out training his hunting dogs. Lowery believed the photos to be real, but he was one of the few who did.