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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






Sunday, December 09, 2012

 

-- In the Shadow of Mason Spencer --

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Credibility….

When David Kulivan claimed an encounter with 2 Ivory-bills in the Louisiana woods in 1999, some doubters found his verbal/written reports TOO good… TOO on-the-mark… TOO accurate… in short, his details sounded TOO much like they were lifted out of a book instead of being a spontaneous, accurate recounting of what his eyes actually saw. 

As best I recall, Kulivan admitted that after seeing the birds he consulted a field guide to confirm what he believed he'd just observed, and later made his report… many feared that by the time he verbally gave his account, he unintentionally blurred, in his mind, his actual experience with that description read from a book.
I've always leaned toward believing Kulivan's take, but it is a tough call (and for a lot more reasons than the one I'm pointing out above), and I understand why Kulivan's all-too-excellent account makes some people nervous.

Indeed, there can actually be a fine line between Ivory-bill claims that are discounted because the details are too poor… and those that are discounted because the details are TOO perfect (too out-of-the-book). There is SO much IBWO information now readily accessible that the ease of concocting a "believable" sounding story out of whole cloth is great. 

Jerry Jackson used to relate the story of a lady in Mississippi who's sighting tale sounded credible to him because she described the call of the birds as sounding like geese honking -- he'd not heard anyone use that description, and it was clearly her own interpretation, but it made a lot of sense; made her sound credible. No non-birder, on their own, would likely say an IBWO call sounded like "kent" or "henk" -- those are strictly pneumonics you pick up from the literature, but the comparison to geese was more unique (...just as a non-birder would never say they heard an owl in the woods call out something like "who cooks for you," except by getting that out of a book).
My point in all this is simply that "credibility" (especially of non-birders) is hard to judge, and often in the eye of the beholder. At this point, in the IBWO arena, I suspect even the credibility of USFWS and Cornell is pretty much in tatters for many in the wider birding community. And despite 1000s of excellent birders (including famous ones) in this country, I literally don't know who, outside of David Sibley, could report an Ivory-bill with no accompanying photo/video, and immediately have widespread believability. NO ONE, I suspect.

Over the last 6 years many anecdotal reports have been sent my way… sometimes from sighters themselves, sometimes from people informing me about a sighter they know of. In two instances I sent stories along to "higher ups" saying essentially, "ehhh, maybe this is worth checking out a little further…" In all the rest of the cases, I only needed to ask a few questions to conclude the tales lacked credibility and details (that doesn't always necessarily mean the stories had NO credibility, it just means they lacked enough to warrant pursuing). 


An hour after the Dan Rainsong story broke I wrote that I regarded it as bogus; some folks emailed me saying I should let the story play out, wait for more info and specifics; that I was reacting too quickly… but it only took 30 minutes of Googling on the Web to find enough red flags and incriminating oddities to utter an opinion that the story lacked even an iota of credibility, and was going to be a distraction and time-waster. The only way one could take the press release seriously was to be too lazy to research it on the internet.  

An earlier episode by the fellow known as "TheMagicGuy" in Florida similarly was quickly discounted by most of us because again a little websleuthing made his story (which also sounded a bit too perfect and too bookish) seem unlikely. And when the Steve Sheridan tale became public I began asking questions in backchannels because on so many counts it too lacked a solid ring of authenticity, to be taken seriously for so long. And MOST of the stories I get through email are even more obviously lacking in cred (…BUT, a tiny tiny residue do have substance).

I bring up this whole discussion now because of the prior post and comments to it. Without photos/video, claims of credible IBWO stories are largely meaningless to the wider birding community… been there, done that, 1000 times. I specifically asked if any official agency was involved with the "interview" of the current LA. claimant because obviously any story told by Fred or Frank, or Mary, Larry, Gary, Harry, or Albert Einstein for that matter, needs to be vetted further by others… and then others… and then others, to attain any traction at all (unless or until there are photos).

...But, BUT, BUUUUT… having said all this, the single greatest error I live in fear of, is what I call the "Mason Spencer error" -- Mason Spencer was a non-credible reporter of Ivory-bills (I won't repeat his story here), and as a result one of these precious specimens died for him to verify his claim... I probably would have scoffed at him myself. In the end, just because someone is NOT credible, does NOT automatically mean every given claim they make is UNtrue. It is NON-birders, with less than stellar experience, knowledge and background, who spend far more time in IBWO-type habitat than skilled birders -- percentage-or-probability-wise, it is more likely a NON-birder will encounter Ivory-bills than a birder. And so while I have no patience for hoaxes and pranks, and trust my instincts on those strongly, I always carry some lingering fear of premature judgments…

In short, I fully understand why skeptics express doubt at a story like the latest familiar-sounding one from LA. I'm dubious of it myself (for many reasons)… but, it is none-the-less, the type or form of story I can't write off out-of-hand... because it likely won't ever be a David Sibley or any other expert who resolves this saga… it is at least as likely to be a Mason Spencer or Gene Sparling type figure, who no one saw coming.
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