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IVORY-BILLS  LiVE???!  ...

=> THE blog devoted to news and commentary on the most iconic bird in American ornithology, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO)... and... sometimes other schtuff.
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"....The truth is out there."

-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

-- Hamlet

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."

-- Arthur Schopenhauer






Wednesday, April 28, 2010

 

-- Nutshell --

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On-the-one-hand, probably no bird in history has had so many sighting claims (even eliminating all the least plausible/credible ones) and still been thought extinct by so many people, as has the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. On-the-other-hand, it's likely that no extant bird species has ever before been the subject of so much time and energy and yet failed to be definitively confirmed. That, in a nutshell, I think are the two competing views that cannot be easily conjoined here.


One side sees the sheer volume of repeated IBWO claims (and associated evidence) as hugely difficult to just explain away, especially by simple, ad hoc proclamation of "mistakes" regarding a bird that is nearly unmistakable. They picture a wary, cavity-dwelling bird, fast in flight, thin in numbers, spread out among vast habitat, with essentially, bumbling ill-able humans in not-so-hot pursuit.
The other side finds repeated failed follow-ups (often within 48 hours) to sightings over and over and over again for decades, to be the part that is almost impossible to account for --- how could such a large forest creature traverse known locales and escape solid detection for so long by experienced, skilled humans? ...Two stances, looking at the same circumstances, but with conclusions irreconcilably in stark contrast.

Yeah, I'm oversimplifying a bit, but not by much. The longer searches go on, the more the skeptic case is slowly bolstered, and the thinner the tightrope that optimists must walk to account for the facts at-hand --- simultaneously, explaining the scarcity of the bird and sightings, yet allowing for continuous active breeding for 6+ decades --- it can all be explained, it just gets harder with each passing year.

And while human inability to get an adequate photo is comprehensible, I remain troubled by matters I've referenced before:

1. Lack of a photo from ACONE cameras at Bayou de View -- these were the "intelligent" automatic cameras that were placed to continuously film a logical flyway for Ivory-bills in the Big Woods, that only snapped shots of birds fitting a software algorithm which described an Ivory-bill in flight. While the technology was very advanced, the idea was beautifully simple: no humans needed, just set the cameras in an open flyway that IBWOs were likely to cross, given other evidence from the Big Woods, and wait for it to snap a picture of the wanted bird. The system was down a great deal and had various mechanical problems, but also, as intended, took a great many pics... just none (identifiable) of IBWOs. I've never heard an adequate explanation of what in total it did collect, or how much of the time it was down, or any sort of clear explanation for why it failed to capture the bird on film in a locale the bird was expected to be.

2. Lack of a photo from automatic cameras placed at promising foraging sites or cavities --- even with all the failures, problems, and poor quality of automatic cameras, the fact is these cameras DID capture recognizable Pileateds, flickers, mockingbirds, mammals, etc. etc. on film... just no IBWOs. Either IBWO's weren't in those areas or researchers truly lack any insight to select out active IBWO foraging sign and cavities from others. Are we this incompetent?... possibly.

Further, on a 5-year project, I'd expect information gathered in the first two years to translate to refined, more focused efforts in the 3rd, and then a more focused search in the 4th etc. etc. I'd expect more sightings, sounds, foraging signs as time proceeded... but such has not transpired. Instead there seems a remarkable lack of progress to this story... a lack of progress, and an equally remarkable lack of consensus of what it all means.

"Cotinis" fairly asks over at another site, 'where are we headed from here?'... are we to conclude yet AGAIN that the IBWO may be in any of a dozen or more places, ohhh, but BTW it's kinda hard to find? Is that what 5 years and $10 million will bring us as a scientific conclusion? Something is amiss. Despite it all, I still believe probabilities (yes, based on sightings) broadly favor the persistence of this species, but for that to be so, something must be very amiss with the science employed.
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Comments:
The failure of science to come up with answers within the time and money allotted is frustrating, and makes additional official spending hard to justify. I think that is OK. While it would be beneficial to know specifically where it is living and what it needs in order protect it, that information may not be necessary. Although some habitat may be lost in specific areas, the condition of the southern bottomland forest is generally improving. I think it's reasonable to expect (or at least hope) that if the species has made it this far without our help, it will continue.

In the mean time, we will have no official answers to what goes Double Knock in the woods and looks like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It will continue being an iconic legend and inspiration for those with an adventuresome spirit.
 
My view of the problem has certainly changed. In the spring of 2005 I would have said that the reason ivory-bills had not been properly documented was inconsequential search effort in likely places. We can quibble about methods and assumptions, but I would certainly no longer argue that the effort has been inconsequential, even in relation to the challenge. It has been a good effort in good faith by many talented people. It will continue, without much fanfare, in the years ahead. Are some of us obsessed? Probably we are. I have never been able to resist a natural history challenge. This one is a real beauty. I intend to get some answers.
 
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Amen, Fang!
 
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