Leading Edge

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

The “Holy Grail of Ornithology” is an ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). The last undisputed sightings of this large, spectacular bird were from Louisiana in 1944. Unconfirmed and/or disputed sightings of one or two individuals have been reported several times since then. In 2004-2005 Cornell University conducted extensive searches for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Big Woods area of eastern Arkansas after experienced birders reported sightings. No completely conclusive evidence for an ivory-billed woodpecker was found. Videos and recordings also exist, but are not incontestable. For now, the ivory-billed woodpecker is considered extinct or nearly extinct in the United States.

The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is common in areas where there is potential for ivory-billed woodpeckers and can easily be mistaken for it. The pileated is smaller than the ivory and lacks the white back stripes of the ivory. The pileated’s bill is blackish or greyish, not ivory, and its chin is white, not black. One of the outstanding field markings that distinguishes the pileated from the ivory-billed woodpecker is the underwing in flight. The ivory-billed woodpecker has white on the trailing edge of the wing while the pileated woodpecker’s underwing in flight has white on the leading edge.

There is no chance of ever seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker here in the high desert of northeastern California where I live. Ivory-billed woodpeckers were inhabitants of old Southern bottomland forests. However, this picture showing the white leading edge on the pileated woodpecker’s underwing did make me think of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

This pileated woodpecker was photographed near Burney Falls State Park (California) slightly away from the Pacific Crest Trail. It is carrying an insect or grub or (?) in its bill.


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