Rare Woodpecker Search Sheds Light on Bigfoot

This is a 1977 still photo made from a 16mm film made by Ivan Marx reportedly showing the legendary Big Foot cavorting in the hills of northern California. (AP Photo/File)

As reported around the world, the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), last known to exist in 1944, was sighted in eastern Arkansas in 2004. The sighting prompted a massive (and secret) follow-up search in 2005 of a sixteen-square-mile area of Arkansas forest. When the bird was confirmed to exist, the discovery spawned international headlines, an article in the journal Science, and a book titled The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

While the search for additional evidence of the woodpecker continues, the investigation is instructive for what it did not find: the alleged and elusive Bigfoot. The search for the woodpecker took months of intensive research in the woods of rural Arkansas. Bigfoot believers try to explain away the lack of evidence by suggesting that Bigfoot are out there in remote areas, but few people are out actively looking or listening.

Here is a perfect counter-example: knowledgeable researchers with sophisticated equipment in the field for extended periods of time.

Arkansas is known as prime Bigfoot territory, and even touts one famous local creature, the Fouke Monster. And yet no reports of large, unidentified Bigfoot creatures emerged from the team's painstaking recordings and observations.

Though the researchers were not specifically looking for Bigfoot, new discoveries often occur when people look for one quarry but find another. Surely so many trained eyes and ears, with so much equipment, could not have failed to notice hairy bipedal giants living in (and roaming through) the Arkansas woods.

The woodpecker's rediscovery was touted by Bigfoot buffs as proof that animals thought long extinct may still exist. They often point to the example of the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to be extinct for 70 million years. In 1938, in the Comoros Islands off the coast of Madagascar in Africa, one was caught. A second one was caught fourteen years later. This discovery is immeasurably important to those trying to prove the existence of mysterious creatures. After all, they claim, scientists were wrong about this animal; they may also be wrong in suggesting Bigfoot does not exist.

Yet these comparisons ignore the huge difference between Bigfoot (giant, unknown, creatures for which no hard evidence exists) and finding a surviving member of a relatively small species long proven to exist. There is no doubt that new creatures remain to be found on our big blue globe, and every year more animals are discovered.

But virtually every recent animal "discovery" was either previously known to exist (such as the coelacanth or ivory-billed woodpecker) or are simply subcategories of known species. There are exceptions. For example, in 2002, German entomologist Oliver Zompro discovered a new order of insect, the first such discovery in nearly 90 years. The four-centimeter  "cross between a stick insect, a mantid, and a grasshopper" was found in remote Namibian mountains, in southwestern Africa.

In modern times, zoological discoveries are almost always of small animals such as insects, birds, and small rodents—not huge creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. It shouldn't surprise anyone that a tiny new insect might be found in a desert in a country with a small population; it should surprise people that thousands of Bigfoot supposedly exist across the United States, from Maine to Texas to Washington, and yet not a single one of the ten-to-twelve-foot beasts can be found, alive or dead.

Ongoing searches for the woodpecker may yet yield results; Cornell scientists and researchers have renewed their efforts, and are currently scouring thousands of acres using Global Positioning System equipment, binoculars, digital video cameras, and cell phones. Tree-mounted digital cameras capable of taking time lapses, motion detection, infrared, and high-definition are used. High-tech, multidirectional audio units able to record sounds up to 200 meters away should be suitable for capturing both distinctive woodpecker taps and the oft-reported (but never verified) Bigfoot calls or vocalizations.

Surely such a sustained, well-equipped scientific effort in an area famous for Bigfoot sightings will likely yield some evidence for whatever elusive creatures may lurk in the Arkansas woods.

If the Bigfoot believers are right, scientists may make a far more important discovery than another woodpecker. Of course, if no evidence of Bigfoot is found, this will not deter believers (Loch Ness has been repeatedly and thoroughly searched for during most of a century with little results). But it will remove the excuse that no one's searching Bigfoot territory.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine and has written extensively on mysterious creatures, including in his upcoming book "Lake Monster Mysteries," co-authored by Joe Nickell.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.