Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Ivorybill: Curiouser and Curiouser

Saturday, March 18, 2006
Image of a male ivory-billed woodpecker specimen from The Field Museum in Chicago.

Well, the code of polite silence about the ivory-billed woodpecker has finally broken among some of North America's leading birding experts. Both David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman have spoken out this past week concerning their doubts about bird ID'd as an ivorybill in the famous/infamous accidental video captured by David Luneau.

The four seconds of Luneau's digital video footage have been analyzed, scrutinized, criticized, and lionized by everyone interested in the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. It was used by the Cornell Lab/Nature Conservancy folks as proof positive of the species' existence. Now David Sibley and a handful of colleagues, in an article in the journal Science, are flatly declaring that the same video actually shows a pileated woodpecker. And that the original discoverers were, to put it kindly, mistaken in their identification. See links below.

Sibley, Kaufman, Jackson, and others are asking the right, hard questions. But there is a rumbling bit of backlash against them, almost like they are somehow being unpatriotic. (Where have we heard that before?)

There are so many things at stake here--including millions of dollars in conservation funding, personal and professional glory, and the potential for the greatest conservation success story of all time. But emotions are running so high that critical, logical thinking may itself become extinct. The birding community is slowly dividing into camps: The True Believers, The Really-Want-to Believers, The Mostly Dubious, and The Non-believers. Where do you stand?

I must admit that I started out in the first category, but have drifted, over time, into the Dubious category, mostly because no other confirmation of the bird's/birds' existence has come to light. Thousands of hours have been spent in The Big Woods of Arkansas by woodpecker experts, master woodspeople, ornithologists, top-notch avid birders, and we have not much to show for it. Certainly if there was any kind of definitive proof (a still photo, better video footage), I believe the Cornell/TNC gang would have made this public immediately. It is the lack of any such proof, combined with the intensely controlled search process, limited access to the area, and "ownership" of the species has placed the entire ivorybill "scene" in an increasingly harsh light.

This is going to be a very interesting story to follow in the days and months to come. I have a feeling that we may only be seeing the beginning of the debate. I just hope that all the positive press that bird watching has gotten during the past year is not turned into "Check out the crazy birders!" coverage because we are too busy scratching each other's eyes out.

There's no doubt we ALL want the species to still be extant. There's also no doubt that we need better proof of its continued existence. Let's hope that proof comes soon...

Some linky-dinks for your perusing enjoyment:

Sibley, et al in Science Magazine
Sibley in The New York Times
Sibley on NPR

Kenn Kaufman on OhioBirds Listserv, writing about a South American relative of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Download a pdf of the Jerome Jackson, et al article from The Auk.

Read the Cornell Lab's take on the oddball, leucistic pileated seen in the Big Woods.

The Ivorybill Skeptic roosts and blogs here and offers many links to support his points.


On March 19, 2006 at 11:24 AM Mike's Soap Box said...

I am agnostic about this whole Ivory-billed Woodpecker ordeal.

On March 19, 2006 at 1:22 PM Face said...

Bill - knowin your love of strange signs and birding - see thelink

feel free to blog it.

On March 19, 2006 at 1:24 PM Face said...

Try this again

On March 19, 2006 at 5:17 PM ivars krafts said...

Bill, I assume you are familiar with the following site:
What do you think of this fellow's findings?

On March 19, 2006 at 11:48 PM Bill of the Birds said...

I am turning agno, too, sad to say.

Face: Is that your photo? I'd be happy to use it, but prefer to have permisssion.

Anselm: I'd love to say this fishcrow site is showing definite proof, but it makes the Luneau video look like a high-definition National Geographic special. He's hitting some interesting spots, but the photos leave a lot to be desired.

On March 20, 2006 at 8:57 AM Face said...

Bill - entirely mine.

Slate Run Metro Park - Sat.

Ross's goose in the area also

On March 20, 2006 at 10:33 AM Rondeau Ric said...


I’m in the agnostic camp, maybe I should be from Missouri.

The biggest problem I worry about is a possible backlash against conservation in general. The public has a short attention span and will eventually forget about the ivory bill, however, special interest groups could use the perceived discord and confusion to undermine other conservation efforts.

Can’t you just hear those who want access to the trees, minerals and water in wild areas that are currently protected or are being considered for protection to save a species What about developers?

Scares the beejeebers out of me.