Picus principalis Linnaeus, 1758, based on Mark Catesby's drawing of the "Largest White-bill Woodpecker" from South Carolina. Two subspecies recognized.
OTHER COMMON NAMES
French: Pic a bec ivoire; German: Elfelbeinspecht; Spanish: Carpintero Real.
18.5-21 in (47-54 cm); 15.5-18.3 oz (440-570 g). A very large, black woodpecker with white lines extending down the neck on each side to the upper base of the wing, white secondaries and inner primaries, a very robust, chisel-tipped, ivory-colored bill; male has a pointed crest that is black in front and scarlet behind; female has a longer, more pointed, somewhat recurved solid black crest.
C. p. principalis formerly found in southeastern United States from eastern Texas to North Carolina and north to southern Illinois and southern Ohio; C. p. bairdi formerly in forested areas throughout Cuba. Most recent known populations are from northeastern Louisiana, Florida, and northeastern Cuba. May now be extinct, though continued unverified reports in southeastern Cuba, southeastern Louisiana, and Florida provide hope.
Extensive old-growth forest, especially bottomland forest, but also pine uplands in both the United States and Cuba; habitat losses resulted in last North American populations being in bottomlands and last Cuban populations being in upland pines.
Wanders over a home range of 6 sq mi (15.5 sq km) or more; perhaps somewhat social, often seen in family groups; characteristic call is a plaintive, single- or double-note nasal tooting that has been likened to a child's "tin horn" and that can be mimicked by blowing on a clarinet mouthpiece; mechanical sound produced is a hard single pound on a resonant surface followed immediately by another such that the second sounds like an echo of the first. This mechanical sound is characteristic of Campephilus woodpeckers and is called the "double rap."
Visits recently dead trees and with its heavy, chisel-like bill, knocks large slabs of bark from the tree to reveal subsurface arthropods. Feeds extensively on the larvae of large wood-boring beetles, especially Cerambycidae; also takes other arthropods and fruit in season.
Monogamous; known to breed from January through April in North America and March through June in Cuba, but few data are available. Nest cavity is in a large dead tree or in a live tree with extensive heartrot. Recorded nests have been 24-50 ft (7.3-15.2 m) up; cavity entrance typically taller than wide, but shape varies. Clutch 2-4 eggs; incubation by both parents; incubation period and age at fledging not known; young may remain with parents until next breeding season.
Critically Endangered by all criteria; may be extinct. The major factor leading to current status has been loss and fragmentation of old-growth forest, but other factors have been nineteenth century killing of birds by scientists, amateur collectors, Native Americans, and hunters, and probably more recent limitation of natural fire. In North America, confusion with the similar-sized and similar-appearing pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) leads to many false sightings.
Bills and scalps of males were culturally important to Native Americans, apparently symbolic of successful warfare. They were often used to decorate war pipes and medicine bundles and were widely traded outside the range of the species. Early Europeans in North America also killed the birds for their bills and used them for such things as watch fobs. In the late 1800s, there was a brisk trade in skins and eggs among private and professional collectors. In both the United States and Cuba, ivory-bills were occasionally eaten. The ivory-bill has become symbolic of rarity. Collector prints, ceramic ivory-bills, trade cards with ivory-bills on them, and use of ivory-bills in advertisements have drawn much attention to the species. ♦
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