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History of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Florida

map showing specimen locations

The greatest number of historical reports and collected specimens of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are from Florida, perhaps owing to Florida's accessibility to northeastern ornithologists.  Within Florida, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are known to have existed throughout the state from the Panhandle to the Everglades.  However, records from extreme southern Florida are controversial.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were probably most numerous in three regions: 1) riparian systems, or areas located near rivers and streams, and associated pine woods in northern Florida; 2) the Big Cypress swamp in southwest Florida; and 3) swamp forests associated with several rivers in central peninsular Florida.  Riparian systems in northern Florida historically had the most Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, particularly the Chipola and Apalachicola river swamps in the Panhandle, the Wacissa and Aucilla river swamps in the Big Bend region, and the lower Suwannee River and adjacent California swamp.  Although relative abundance is difficult to detect from historical reports, some reports suggest that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers may have been more abundant in the lower Suwannee River watershed than in any other region in the state.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers declined continuously since the arrival of Europeans, with accelerated declines during the last decades of the 1800s and first decades of the 1900s.  By 1900, Ivory-bills were gone from most parts of northern Florida.  Collecting was undoubtedly an important factor in the decline of the species in Florida.  Timber cutting and habitat loss also were very important factors in the continued decline of the species in Florida.  As the twentieth century progressed, only small groups persisted mainly in southern and central Florida.

A series of credible sightings occurred in northern Florida during the 1950s along the Chipola River and in Taylor, Jefferson and Wakulla counties but were never conclusively verified.

Former Cornell University scientist James Tanner once suggested that "all Ivory-bill records have been located in or very near swamps or Florida hammocks."  However, most of Tanner's intensive field studies were done in bottomland forests and this may have influenced his perception of an ideal Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat.  The salient feature of Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat appears to be old-growth forest.  Most historical Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat in Florida can be characterized as river swamp, although still water swamps, particularly cypress swamps and cypress strands, were a significant component.

The Apalachicola and Chipola swamps, the Aucilla and Wacissa rivers, and the lower Suwannee River watershed may be the three most significant areas of potential Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat remaining in Florida because of the extensive tracts of bottomland forest that remain there.