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What is an Ivory Billed Woodpecker?

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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Averaging 20 inches (about 51 centimeters) in length, the ivory billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is one of the biggest woodpeckers on the planet. Native to North America, the ivory billed woodpecker was believed to have become extinct in the 1940s. Sightings of the woodpecker have been reported in some southern states in the early 2000s, but claims have not been substantiated.

Once widespread in the swampy forests of the southern United States, from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf Coast and Florida, the ivory billed woodpecker is mostly ebony with white wing patches. Adult wingspans can reach 30 inches (about 75 centimeters). When in the air, the woodpecker looks to have white wings with black tips.

The bird is the only North American woodpecker to posses a flattened bill. Males and females sport different looking crests. Males have a large red crest while crests of females are black. The ivory billed woodpecker is distinguished from other woodpeckers by its distinctive double knocking sound while tapping on trees.

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The beak of the ivory billed woodpecker is not made of ivory, but consists of a keratin covering over bone. The wide bill grows continually during the woodpecker’s life, but becomes dull because of the bird's constant striking at trees. The bills are used to pry bark from decaying trees in order to get at the beetle larvae, a staple in the woodpecker’s diet. While they do not carry the value of true ivory, some Native Americans used the bills as ornamental objects.

The ivory billed woodpecker requires a great deal of space of uncut forest to survive. A pair needs as much as six square miles (about 15.5 square kilometers) to function, which is approximately 36 times more space than similar North American woodpeckers. The ivory billed creatures hollow out trees to make holes for their nests. The oval-cavity stretches down more than 20 inches (about 51 centimeters) in the tree and stands 40 feet (about 12 meters) high.

Through development, many of the woodlands that supported the woodpecker have been eliminated. During the 1800s, the woodpeckers were almost totally wiped out due to extensive logging and hunting. In 2005, ivory billed woodpeckers were reportedly seen in Arkansas and people claimed to have spotted the birds in Florida in 2006. None of the claims, however, were proven.

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