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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.

Web ivorybills.blogspot.com

"....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

Thursday, January 18, 2018


-- Nice Stoddard Tribute --

Herb Stoddard's claims for Ivory-bills in Georgia in the 1950's are among the last ones that some people take seriously. ICYMI, hat tip to Mark Michaels for pointing out a new account of Stoddard in an ejournal freely available here (the Stoddard piece beginning on pg. 38):


It all kind of reminded me of a post I did almost 6 years ago that I'll re-link to for entertainment:


[...on a sidenote, some folks have emailed me asking about the Ivory-bill Researchers' Forum being down -- I don't know anymore than you do, except this has happened before, and it's usually a temporary glitch, so just keep checking back on it.]

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


-- Where Oh Where… --


Mark Michaels continues his historical look at Ivory-bill data here:

The history is of course interesting, though I’m not sure it will help find IBWOs today, but his main point that IBWOs likely succeeded in a greater range of habitat than Tanner would later imply, still holds (especially if you go back far enough). Mark also adds this original mapping of historical claims or specimens from uncharacteristic habitat:


In this regard I’ve previously mentioned that I thought Bill Pulliam’s writings on western Tennessee (and other claims for there) of some interest, but there are many other such odd or outlying areas as well (over the years I’ve had reports sent to me, that I couldn’t always completely discount, from southern Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, and parts of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina outside the traditional IBWO range). One of my hopes for the widepread USFWS/Cornell search was that it would at least narrow any possible IBWO persistence down to a very few (perhaps 2-3) localized areas; instead the failed endeavor left open the possibility of 2 dozen or more (sometimes little-birded) areas that scarce IBWOs might conceivably utilize. The lack of a single Ivory-billed Woodpecker appearing on remote, automatic cameras by now at more traditional and well-searched areas remains a pretty devastating obstacle to hope for the species… unless indeed it has found a home in the canopies of less-obvious, lightly human-trafficked woodlands.
I don’t want to hold out too much false(?) hope for this species, but on the other hand I believe most southeast woodland habitat is rarely birded in any regular or significant fashion and the vast majority of individual woodland birds are never systematically recorded — moreover, the ornithological literature is rife with weak, unscientific conclusions/generalizations/assumptions about bird behavior, and perhaps even bird biology. There's just a lot we don't know, while pretending we do.


Monday, October 02, 2017


-- Collins on "Periodic and Transient Motions of Large Woodpeckers" --


Here is Mike Collins’ latest publication regarding his Ivory-bill data:

…and he lists his other major summaries of data in this bird listserv posting:

--> One reader reports the above link not working fully for them, so the 3 summaries are here:




Sunday, August 27, 2017


-- Very Sad News… Bill Pulliam passes --


One of the more intrepid participants in the Ivory-bill debate (and more generally, a very active-and-respected Tennessee birder) has passed on at the too-youngish age of 56. For those who followed the IBWO debate closely early-on, Bill is probably well-known, though in recent years he was more quiet about the subject. I never met Bill, but in those earlier years some of my most interesting (and enjoyable) backchannel encounters were with him… we didn’t agree on everything, but we agreed on a lot and I hope he respected my opinions as much as I respected his.

More recently, he had tweeted about suffering through a tic-borne illness, but apparently that turned out to be an aggressive, undiagnosed form of lung cancer that he succumbed to a few days ago. A tremendous loss of an intelligent, independent, entertaining cuss, if I dare say so!

I always wished that he had pursued more searches of the Ivory-bill in western Tennessee, following up on some claims, but if he did he never reported it back to me. At one point he indicated IF the bird was there it ought just be left alone.

When Bill's father died a few years back I sent him this well-known poem I've always enjoyed and sent to many over the years upon such occasions. I feel odd using it again, so soon, but in his honor, and for his loved ones, I will: 

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. 

-- Mary Elizabeth Frye

eBird, where Bill was very active as a regional editor and more, has posted this memorial:

...and now Mark Michaels has penned some further tribute here:

Tuesday, August 08, 2017


— Still On the Prowl —


Mike Collins persists with his efforts to document the Ivory-bill, now heading to Arkansas with plans to utilize a drone for above-canopy forest surveillance (he’s done this before in Louisiana). His notice to the Arkansas listserve group is here (not sure what sort of reception he’ll get from them, but if anything significant, I may add it to this post later): 


You can see a sample of his drone explorations (at the Pearl River area) here:
...and he'll no doubt add his Arkansas video, once completed, to the same YouTube site.

ADDENDUM: oy, trip off; Mike now reports the following to the listserv:
"Thanks to all who replied, but my plan to visit Arkansas has hit a snag. I had a small window of opportunity, but there isn't enough time to obtain permits for using a drone in the area. This is unfortunate because a drone is a small battery powered aircraft that has no effect on habitat or wildlife."

Monday, July 31, 2017


-- What Are the Chances.... --

Mark Michaels summarizes a lot of useful information in a lengthy posting today:



Monday, July 10, 2017


-- Whatever... --


Not Ivory-billed material, but in the meanwhile, a kind of interesting, fun read about the Passenger Pigeon here:


Saturday, June 24, 2017


-- Pileated Flight --


Myron Wasiuta has posted on YouTube the below brief flight of a departing Pileated Woodpecker:

This may well be the first such video I’ve seen that shows in at least some individual frames the sort of broad white visual effects that Sibley/Jackson/et.al. posited in critiquing the Luneau video. Hard to compare completely since angles/heights/speed vary somewhat, and only certain frames pertain, but still interesting (Luneau video below):


Monday, May 22, 2017


-- USFWS's Bob Russell Speaking --


I see Bob Russell, retired USFWS official and long-time IBWO searcher, is giving a talk this coming Thur. night (May 25) at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Center in Bloomington, MN.
If any readers here happen to hear his presentation please let us know whatever he has to say about the current outlook for the Ivory-bill.

Monday, April 03, 2017


-- A Few Notes --


A nice article on Iowa wood-carver Dean Hurliman for the many who know of him through this blog… and I can’t help but note that it ends with him saying, “I plan to do 10 more ivory-bills.” 10 more lucky people or groups out there somewhere.


Meanwhile, Project Coyote folks in central Louisiana are promising more discussion/analysis soon of recent kent-like sounds they’ve recorded in their search area.

And finally for your entertainment and discernment (nothing new here, but good bit of history) a recent 14-minute podcast on our favorite subject:

Saturday, April 01, 2017


-- South Carolina Claim --


FWIW, long-time searcher George DeBusk reports a possible sighting in South Carolina (Francis Marion National Forest) on March 28 :



Tuesday, March 28, 2017


-- A Shout Out to Bill Pulliam --


No IBWO news, but a quick shout out to Bill Pulliam today... just noticed that his small Tennessee community (and house!) took a direct hit from an EF-1 tornado yesterday. All's well with him as best I can tell, but no doubt a bit unnerving (I've only been in some wicked wind shears before, never a tornado, and those are scary enough!).
Many/most here, know that Bill has been a stalwart in the IBWO debate going back a long while (and is also very active in Tennessee birding).
I don't have a habit of citing events in people's personal lives here at the blog, but since folks haven't heard from Bill in a long while, just thought I'd give this update and wish him well.

Sunday, March 05, 2017


-- Bark Scaling Ideas --


Recent post from Mark Michaels on bark scaling, especially of hickories, will be of potential interest to any ongoing searchers out there:


Wednesday, March 01, 2017


— Mississippi Tweeting —


Just passing along this bit of Twitter trivia…

Occasionally people on Twitter report seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker (either recently or in the past), but rarely have any details lending credence to their claim. Once-in-a-long-while I see a tweet that may have some bit of plausibility. This week a scientist (astrophysicist) casually mentioned having seen an IBWO back in 1980. He was probably quite young back then and unaware of Pileated Woodpeckers, but nonetheless I explored it a little further and he writes “it was definitely an Ivory billed Woodpecker.” 
It was in a heavily wooded (and still today, he says, undeveloped) locale “in the area between the Tallahala Creek and Chickasawhay River” (southeast corner of Mississippi). That all makes it a bit more interesting since there was an official claim of an Ivory-bill for the large De Soto National Forest in that area in 1978, and probably more anecdotal claims for that area since.
Even if the claim is accurate, what, if anything, it means for us 37 years later I don’t know, but there it is.


Saturday, February 18, 2017


-- Drone Views From Mike Collins --


Mike Collins has posted 30 videos (at current count) from drone flights over potential Ivory-bill habitat -- primarily sections of the Pearl River, but a couple of clips from Florida's Choctawhatchee, and a couple from the Apalachicola area (I assume, but don't know, that Mike took all these himself):


Very pleasant, even mesmerizing, to watch, though hard to tell if such overview flights could ever give the resolution necessary to permit identification of an Ivory-bill below (unless by sheer chance one flew immediately beneath the drone)... in the 40-or-so random minutes I've viewed I've only seen one bird at all! IF a narrower area of potential IBWO activity was isolated then one can imagine flying the drone lower in a more concentrated way and perhaps picking up activity; also of course the views are better when the foliage is off the trees, as in the sample below:

Anyway, check 'em out for some relaxing viewing.


Saturday, February 04, 2017


-- And the Beat Goes On --


I’ve been hesitant to link to this since it’s a lot of sound and fury that’s been argued before, but some may want to see it before it fades from view (and they are about to close out the thread), so I’ll note that the birding “ID Frontiers” listserv has had ongoing "discussion" (much of it superfluous) of Mike Collins’ latest piece here:

Mike, as usual attempts to reply to doubters, and interestingly one of the better known critics of Cornell’s original work, Martin Collinson, even weighs in cutting Mike a little slack.

On a separate side-note, Mark Michaels informs followers that Frank Wiley, of their search team, is in a hospital in Louisiana with a systemic infection. Am sure we all wish Frank a full recovery, and his family well:

ADDENDUM 2/5/17:  Sadly, Mark now reports that after taking a turn for the worse yesterday, including emergency surgery, Frank passed on this morning... Condolences to his many friends and family... I'm happy he was one of the recipients of the beautiful Ivory-bill sculptures given out by artist/carver Dean Hurliman... perhaps that piece can hold and represent many memories of Frank's passion, for his loved ones. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2017


-- Mike Collins Persists, With Open Access Paper --


Once again Mike Collins has put together his evidence for Ivorybills in a published conservation paper, this time for an online, open access science journal (from Elsevier) called Heliyon:


(shorter news release here: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-01/e-rcf011717.php)


ADDENDUM:  “Concolor1” emailed me that he had some sort of difficulty posting a comment (don’t know if anyone else has?) but he wanted to provide a link to one of Mike’s YouTube videos, which was this one from Florida:

Mike has a LOT of YouTube videos under his “IBWOvids” channel, but if I were going to point people to just one I would pick the discussion of his so-called “fly-under sighting” here (rather than the Florida vid):
(I think many consider it to be his single best piece of evidence, while still not entirely convincing.)
Also, do note that if you scroll all the way down on the Heliyon article linked to above, under “Supplementary Content” Mike has 21 films that can be linked to.


Saturday, December 24, 2016


-- Goodbye To A Year That Will Live In Infamy --


Feel like I should post something before end-of-year just to indicate I remain alive... or at least had a pulse last time I checked; so here's a fun, sped-up video from Tara Tanaka of a Pileated Woodpecker making a tree cavity:

Timelapse of a Pileated Woodpecker creating a cavity, shot in 4K with the GH4 from Tara Tanaka on Vimeo.

It's not the video I'd most like to see of course, but still fun to watch. The few remaining publicly-reporting searches continue to post occasional updates, but I've not heard anything promising in private email for a long while. 
Good Holidays to all.


Saturday, September 03, 2016


-- Checking In Before End of Summer --


Sorry for long dry spell, but been busy this summer with other things, and none of the very few IBWO dribs and drabs I’ve heard reached a threshold worth passing along. Wouldn’t expect there to be much if any significant news before wintertime, and quite possibly not even then. (p.s… apologies to a few folks I just realized I never got back to in email this summer with IBWO being on such a backburner right now… I usually respond, to acknowledge emails, fairly quickly, but a few have slipped by, though I do still enjoy hearing people’s ideas).

Also, thanks to all who have written about their delight in receiving one of Dean Hurliman’s incredible life-size sculptures. I know Dean requests folks to email me, though it really isn’t necessary unless you feel so-compelled, and I’ve certainly heard from enough recipients by now to know how appreciated these generous gifts are. At the very least they are fantastic mementos and heirlooms of the creature that transfixes us, and, if ever finally documented, perhaps Dean’s work might even one day have major art or collectable value (…or 100 years from now one will show up on “Antiques Roadshow”! ;-)


Tuesday, June 28, 2016


-- Ivory-bills Coming Before Winter! --


Well, wooden ones anyway!

Wood carver par excellence, Dean H. will have more Ivory-bills ready to ship before this coming winter. Those who received these life-size beauties last year were overwhelmed both with the specimens themselves and with Dean's generosity. Here is the verbatim note he sent along to me awhile back about coming offerings:


Once again presented to partisans and fellow travelers:  a few carvings of the American Bird-of-Paradise Lost.  Free.  Post-paid. Skeptics check the blog of Sept. 30, 2015 and with CyberThrush.

Welcome centers and educational arenas will find this IBW a commanding addition to entryway or exhibit.  Let no indecisive committee table a request.

Remember a letter of rank enthusiasm.  Stay positive -- no debunkers, dilletantes or deadwood.        
-- Dean

How grateful I am that the mystery and romance of this seemingly lost bird has followed me far into adulthood.


Hey, are there any better things in life than "mystery and romance"! :-) 
And as you can see Dean is especially interested in seeing some of these artworks make their way to appropriate museums and educational centers -- what a GREAT idea!!! If you can spread the word and help make that happen feel free to.

Contact Dean here:  faithluth@gmail.com

He also does several other species, especially waterfowl/decoys, so if there's something specific you're looking for, probably worth checking with him (unlike the IBWOs, those may have a price or charge for shipping). And if your interest is solely in the IBWO I'd touch base with him ASAP, since the order-list could fill up quickly.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016


-- Summer Doldrums --


Summer rapidly approaches with full leaf-out, heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, Zika! etc... a time of diminished IBWO searching, so not expecting to post much in next few months. Obviously, very few areas even getting much organized attention these days. As I'm too busy with other things right now, maybe just as well.
Anyway, IF the blog goes silent for a good while, I'm still around, but just not finding much to get excited over. We'll see what, if anything, transpires next winter. Meanwhile, continue to follow some of the left-hand IBWO links for any updates.


Thursday, April 21, 2016


-- Cuba Narrative --


New Audubon Magazine journalist's account of the Ivory-bill quest to Cuba:


ADDENDUM: after just 2 weeks, Tim Gallagher wraps up the failed, pessimistic Cuba search here (but vows to continue searching areas of the U.S. Southeast):


Monday, April 11, 2016


-- On To Cuba --


With American-Cuban relations thawed, Tim Gallagher, veteran of the Arkansas Ivory-bill search (and others) has gone to Cuba with Martjan Lammertink and others to again look for the elusive species.
Audubon begins reporting on his effort here:

And Gallagher's own journal entries will be here:

I'm not overly hopeful of a small team finding the birds in Cuba (not clear to me how long the team will spend?), even on the slender possibility of some remaining there, but it will at least add one more data point to the few searches remaining in the American Southeast. Wish them well.


Monday, April 04, 2016


-- Mark Michaels on the Radio --


Project Coyote's Mark Michaels was on the radio tonight for 40 mins. discussing the Ivory-bill and their Louisiana search:

I tend to assume that most readers here do check the Project Coyote site on a regular basis, but in case not, the last posting (regarding an area of plentiful bark-scaling) is here:

I'm continuing to keep "comments" off for awhile, though folks can always email me if necessary.


Wednesday, March 02, 2016


-- Back To 2005 --


Today, re-running an entry I posted here over 10 years ago!
Recently Mark Michaels linked to an older Geoff Hill review of a Noel Snyder monograph where he [Snyder] argues that hunting played a much greater role in the demise of the Ivory-bill than generally recognized (definitely worth reading):

I made the same essential argument here a decade ago (in a different post), and to give people their due, Mike Collins made a similar argument as far back as 1997. At the time I utilized this quote from T. Gilbert Pearson, one of the foremost naturalists of his day:
"The reduction in abundance of this species [IBWOs] is due most probably to persecution by man, as the species has been shot relentlessly without particular cause except curiosity and a desire for the feathers or beaks." (National Geographic Magazine, April 1933)
The reason I bring it up now is to again reiterate my belief that very little that is concluded in the literature about the behavior or needs of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, based on Tanner's work, can be assumed true for currently surviving IBWOs. I don't even believe Tanner's conclusions for the Singer Tract birds automatically generalizes to any Ivory-bills that then survived in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, or elsewhere -- we just don't know -- the sample size, studied largely by a lone individual, is simply too small to be very meaningful (p.s., I DON'T blame Tanner for this; it is common practice in field biology to draw over-reaching conclusions from inadequate sample-sizes -- nor do I mean to imply that the historical studies lack any merit, but only that they must be viewed cautiously, instead of as gospel fact).

Anyway, here's what I wrote, more generally, back in 2005, in the post "Science and Sample Size":

One of the fundamental tenets of science methodology concerns having adequate sample sizes from which to draw conclusions/generalizations. In the years since James Tanner's dissertation on the Ivory-bill (based on but a handful of birds), notions that Tanner himself often recognized as tentative became hardened into unchallenged dictums without a good basis for doing so. There is in fact little that can be stated with certainty about the Ivory-bill's diet, behavior, habits, or requirements for survival, even though such statements are rife in the literature. (If one were to intensely study a dozen people and then write a report generalizing to the entire human species the weakness would be readily apparent.) This is all especially true given that any Ivory-bills still around today may in fact have survived specifically BECAUSE they came from individuals with significantly DIFFERENT characteristics/behavioral traits from their brethren, which increased survivability for themselves and their offspring. At least Tanner got it right at the end of his original introduction:

"The chief difficulty of the study has been that of drawing conclusions from relatively few observations... My own observations of the birds have been entirely confined to a few individuals in one part of Louisiana... the conclusions drawn from them will not necessarily apply to the species as it once was nor to individuals living in other areas. The difficulty of finding the birds, even when their whereabouts was known, also limited the number of observations. Especially was this true in the non-breeding season. With these considerations in mind, one must draw conclusions carefully and with reservations." (italics added)
The problem with our knowledge of Ivory-bills is not simply how little we know, but rather how much we think we know that might just be utterly wrong for any birds remaining today...

Monday, February 08, 2016


-- Intermission --


One quick 'housekeeping' note:
I don't mind anonymous or pseudonymous commenters, but would prefer if folks adopted a consistent identifying sign-off (fake name, initials, whatever), just so we can keep track of which anonymous comments hang together from the same individual, and which are new/different commenters.
But otherwise continue the comment discussions below, and meanwhile, enjoy a video:


Thursday, February 04, 2016


-- Explaining the Inexplicable... --


"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool."
-- Richard Feynman

[There's ongoing discussion for readers to follow, in the comments to the prior post (which I'm trying to stay out of!), but I will here further explain my own speculations a bit...]

Whenever I've asked participants in Cornell's Big Woods search whether they thought the search was adequate or suffered major problems, I've received a similar answer: the effort had issues/flaws, but nothing that any large, similar project wouldn't experience. Generally, most felt the search was good enough that IF the birds were there they would've been found and documented -- of course Cornell didn't survey the entire Big Woods area, but did cover what they felt were the most promising areas. (It's even slimly possible that, as Cornell always acknowledged, the one IBWO initially reported, was the very last of its kind and deceased by the time the major search was underway.)

Similarly, Auburn's organized Choctawhatchee search began with high confidence and ended unsuccessfully, despite a lengthy, systematic effort.  David Kulivan's rather astounding 1999 claim for the Pearl (La.) was followed (after some delay) with an extensive search of those woods, unable to verify his claim. And I've lost count of how many missives I've received over the years from people telling me, 'Ohhh, that woodpecker, I know where they are; I'll get the proof, it'll be easy; those other bumpkins just don't know where to look.' And of course none of these folks EVER get back to me. None, NONE, NONE, NONE, ZIPPPPPO....

So I well understand why almost every individual I knew growing up who seriously believed there was a chance of IBWO survival no longer thinks so. The exasperation is palpable. We don't need reams of evidence for this bird, or pages of info, or 100s of hints or claims or recordings, nor DNA evidence, nor even a nice video... we just need ONE clear, indisputable photo in 70+ years to get this story out of the starting gate, and nobody can do it... even in a day of excellent, lightweight, prolific, easy-to-operate, point-and-shoot cameras, not a single individual has been able to pull it off, even... one... friggin'... time.  Probably no other woodland bird in the history of the planet (certainly not of this size, loudness, distinctiveness) has EVER proven this elusive to so many searchers. There has to be an explanation for such an outcome.

For decades I presumed the difficulty of proof was a reflection of the bird's scarcity and remote habitat. But following the Kulivan, Big Woods, and Choctaw searches (in combination with all the smaller searches over time) I find that, while not impossible, increasingly implausible -- it requires a remarkably fine balancing act for there to be enough Ivory-bills continuously reproducing successfully over 7 decades, yet so few as to be undetectable or little encountered. The bird gets seen, but then rarely re-seen; it is heard, but then rarely found; its sign is observed, but it doesn't return to it; it is spotted by a single individual, but virtually never by a group, nor remote camera -- this species either does NOT exist in the places we are looking for it, or, if present, it is essentially invisible to human eyes... and of course it can't be literally invisible -- my speculation (prior post) is merely a means to explain such "invisibility."

Either the photos taken by Fielding Lewis in the early 70's, with a Brownie camera no less, within yards of an Ivory-bill, (and in the presence of dogs no less), are absolute frauds (stuffed specimen), or remaining Ivory-bills have markedly changed their behavior since then. My outside-the-box view is simply that few of the habits, behaviors, requirements recorded for prior IBWOs (which are based on an exceedingly small sample anyway) can be assumed to hold true today for any birds remaining. Loud, mobile Ivory-bills, scaling downed dead trees are a creature of the past, replaced by relatively quiet, reclusive, canopy-dwelling denizens (so I'm hypothesizing, until someone can persuade me of a better alternative). (It all reminds me a tad of white-tailed deer evolving nocturnal habits as a sheer survival mechanism... and yet, when a herd is hunted repeatedly at night, they will switch back to daytime activity; animals continuously adapt for survival.)

Millions of dollars spent, 1000s of man-hours expended, yet we seem no closer to finding Ivory-bills today than we were 10 years ago. The failure is STUNNING! One goal I expected that even a failed Cornell effort would accomplish was to delimit the search for IBWOs to perhaps no more than 3 states and a few locales. Instead, we remain stuck with at least 7 states (perhaps more) and dozens of tracts that might be home to the species... little has been ruled in or out, and paltry little established with certainty after all this time and money.

Having said this, I STILL believe IBWOs ARE out there (and likely in multiple states) -- but the near inexplicable situation we have cries out for an explanation (other than as skeptics wish to explain it). My own belief (in persistence) rests almost entirely on the tiny trickle of good sightings of this almost unmistakable bird that have transpired over the years; beyond that I see no strong evidence for the species (though there are intriguing bits in association with some of those sightings). Many disagree, and regard the sightings themselves as very weak evidence (if the IBWO is ever confirmed, a serious, clarifying discussion of the crucial nature of sightings and field-identification ought occur) -- for now, my engagement with this topic is so deep it's difficult, any longer, to even judge my own objectivity on those few pieces of evidence I'm relying on. We need always keep Feynman's admonition fresh in mind, for we most risk being fooled... by ourselves.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016


-- Speculatin' --


I hear from skeptical sorts from time-to-time who clearly think (without saying it out loud ;-) that I'm a misguided idiot for keeping this blog going, and maintaining hope that IBWOs could possibly still persist.
Oddly... I beg to disagree ;-)  (even as my confidence declines each passing year).

...Certain things though DO have to be accounted for, if Ivory-bills persist... and two I find particularly troubling are:

1)  Why, after soooo many searches, over decades, as well as birders' repeated recreational presence in suitable areas, have there been so few direct encounters with Ivory-bills, especially close or lengthy such encounters? Even when birders flood into an area relatively quickly after a sighting, repeat sightings are rare???

2)  Why, despite 100s of attempts (and millions of snapshots), has not a single clear Ivory-bill been captured on film by remote, automatic cameras trained on cavities and foraging sites deemed Ivory-bill-like? Even if humans can't encounter an IBWO, surely by now a robotic, automatic, non-tiring camera should've?

In the past I've offered two potential explanations to account for these dilemma and I'll re-state them here:

1)  Possibly the vast majority of IBWO sightings are young, dispersing birds (or otherwise nomadic birds searching for new food sources) that don't actually reside in the territory where they are spotted. They are just passing through an area, but actually settling 25-100 miles away.  And so, even if searchers flood into a locale following a sighting, they are simply searching the wrong place. While this might account for a lot of search failures, though, I'm doubtful it can account for all over the years.

2)  My pet theory for awhile now is that remaining Ivory-bills have, through self-selection over decades, grown very wary of human activity. Both Noel Snyder and myself have hypothesized that it was hunting, and not habitat destruction, that finally drove IBWOs to near-extinction in their latter years, and the birds that survived would be those that learned to avoid humans.
The way to avoid humans is not only to inhabit remote woodland (which still gets visited by humans on occasion), but to occupy the most out-of-reach levels of that woodland -- the upper seasonally-leafy canopies of hardwoods; perhaps even spending more time inside cavities than was historically the case -- essentially out-of-sight of ground dwelling humans, who can, by the way, be kept under surveillance at great distance from such heights.
The birds might still visit ground-level for brief water or food excursions, but not to spend extensive time scaling bark, at a level that leaves them highly vulnerable, when perched. A lot of searches may simply be focusing on forest levels too low for where IBWOs spend perhaps 80-90% of their time (and the higher reaches are barely accessible to humans). There are several bird species that specialize in either upper or lower stories of forest habitat; why not the IBWO. (I previously had hopes for Mike Collins' novel tree-scaling methodology in the Pearl, but of course one individual can only cover a limited tract of area at any given time... and still can't see that well into leafed-out canopy). (...A separate, further problem, by the way, has been the frequent unreliability of most of the automatic camera systems deployed, even if we could actually recognize IBWO sign.)

It is always hugely speculative to hypothesize behavior changes in a species over time, but I think it also logical, and to-be-expected that any Ivory-bills remaining today, MUST have evolved changes from their early 20th century counterparts, or those few that Tanner witnessed at the Singer Tract. If they did not adapt such behaviors than I expect they are indeed extinct right now. (Even Tanner's Ivory-bills had likely evolved different behaviors from IBWOs populating North America a century or two earlier.)

If Ivory-bills are ever documented, the frustrated cry arising from the ornithology community will be, "How could this possibly be? HOW could we have missed them along the way!?" But some relatively small assumptions (about behavior and habitat requirements) can account for it... Nature is subtle, but persistent; humans on-the-other-hand are rarely as competent as we think we are. (Of course, if Ivory-bills are never indisputably documented, then yes, we "believers" will go down in history resembling 'misguided idiots.')

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