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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

Saturday, September 17, 2005


- Being Skeptical of Those Skeptical Skeptics -

Not much in-the-field news lately, so (tiresome as it is!) I'll again look at some of the skepticism out there.
Lately, various "professional" ornithologists' names who haven't endorsed the AR. sightings have been tossed out as further evidence for disbelieving. However, it is misleading to imply that each of these people believe there are NO Ivory-bills in AR. Some have simply taken a nuanced 'agnostic' stance that there may or may not be IBWO in the Big Woods, and the Cornell evidence doesn't reach a level of adequate proof. In fact, my guess is that if you surveyed the 1000s of ornithologists in this country dozens would say they doubt there are any IBWOs in AR., dozens would say they believe there are most likely IBWOs in AR., and the vast majority would adopt the professionally-expedient, non-committal, fence-post-straddling, uhh-well-geee-stutter-stutter-stutter view of not-quite-sure-let's-wait-and-see! Of course none of these folks saw whatever the Cornell sighters witnessed so one can question precisely how much value such a survey would even have.
Prum and Robbins are a particularly odd case: without ever seeing all of Cornell's evidence they pieced together an opposing paper (somewhat unconventionally for internet publication, but that's ok) which was significantly hyped across the web for weeks, only to then be retracted at the last minute when they heard snippets of acoustic evidence (which many of us find weak), causing them to do a 180 and suddenly deduce there were likely multiple IBWOs in AR. (a claim not even Cornell was making)! Now, supposedly, they think they may have retracted too hastily. What seems to have retracted too hastily in my opinion is their credibility!!
Most birders have never been in habitat that might be home to an Ivory-bill in their entire lives. Even so there have been dozens if not 100s of reports of the birds in the last 60 years, and no doubt many other sightings never officially turned in. (By the way, how many brief/"low quality" "sightings" of "Pileateds" over the years were actually IBWOs!!?? -- big, black-and-white woodpecker sightings are almost always routinely written off as "Pileated" despite completely inadequate looks!!) The likelihood of having a camera or video ready at the moment of a brief IBWO encounter is low, even for a dedicated IBWO searcher, let alone for the more casual observers who have made most of the sightings over the years. Indeed the vast majority of photos ever snapped of birds, especially by amateurs, are probably too poor and fuzzy for definite ID purposes (the 1000s of wonderful bird photos you see everywhere represent a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of all photos snapped of birds). In short, there is NOTHING WHATSOEVER UNUSUAL about a rare flying creature residing in remote, poorly-accessible habitat going 60 years without a confirmed sighting/video -- why is this so difficult to comprehend!???
Regarding the Cornell evidence: 7-15+ individuals must be totally wrong in their judgments of what they saw; and while anything is possible, again how likely really that the same mistake occurred repeatedly on different days/places by different individuals with different views? Against this you have skeptics who weren't actually there (nor have seen all of Cornell's evidence/analysis) offering all manner of alternative speculative notions of what might've/could've happened. Speculative alternative explanations for occurrences are easy to come by or invent, and require evidence or proof just as much as the claims they are attempting to replace. Maybe things will eventually swing their way, but for my satisfaction the long-term reputation/credibility of the Cornell Lab/Nature Conservancy group who were on the scene trumps that of all their critics combined.
In my view David Luneau's film clearly shows a bird with too much white for a Pileated -- possibly the single best shot being the initial one of the bird edging around the side of the tree trunk prior to flight (we can go 'round and 'round on this forever). For now, I'll stick with my own notion that if that bird isn't an Ivory-bill (I think it is), then it's a mutated ibis or other heron-like species, NOT a Pileated. The acoustic evidence is, I think, weak but tantalizing. Then there are the previous claims of Mary Scott and Bob Russell. There is previous bark-scraping evidence David Luneau had seen in the White River area of AR., near the Cache River findings. Some have argued that a lot of instances of weak evidence cannot add up to strong evidence. Technically, in a strict logical sense, I agree with that, but as a matter of day-to-day practical application, I opt for "where there's smoke, there's fire." And there have been enough puffs of smoke across decades regarding the IBWO. The bottom line is that "extinction" is a HUGELY serious step -- it is imperative that we proceed with a view of the Ivory-bill as existing until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, NOT the other way around (for the last 60 years there has simply been NO EVIDENCE rising to the level of proof for Ivory-bill extinction, and yet, whether they admit it or not, this is the underlying unproven and dangerous assumption skeptics operate from.) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In short, there is NOTHING WHATSOEVER UNUSUAL about a rare flying creature residing in remote, poorly-accessible habitat going 60 years without a confirmed sighting/video -- why is this so difficult to comprehend!???

Because it's a big, noisy, flashy, famous bird that is the "Holy Grail" of birding and 6 decades is a long, long time. There is NO place in that part of the world that isn't visited fairly frequently. Hunters, fisherman, birders and other outdoors people search out every nook and cranny. A large percentage of them carry cameras. An even larger percentage would GET a camera if they thought they had located some ivory-bills.

There were hunters coming through the search area during the search. Somebody STOLE some of the team's equipment.

Contrary to popular opinion, there have been numerous attempts to follow up on good ivory-bill leads.

In many of your arguments, you talk of how an ivory-bill would just hide if people came along. Well obviously you believe that IBs have been successfully breeding for 60 years. That's a pile of nesting sites. And if just ONCE a half-knowledgable person had located a nesting site and returned with a camera they could have gotten proof. It was done repeatedly until the 40s. But not ONCE in 60 years. Pretty hard to believe.
What naivete!

A sizeable percentage of the fisherman and hunters that go back in the deep places don't give a rat's ass about an IBWO or a pileated, are not looking for them, and have never heard of either.

And a sizeable percentage of fisherman and hunters who did see an actual IBWO would not report it for fear there would be an influx of nerdballs into the area.
Actually bucktrack, you are right.

Sincerely, Anonymous
I want to believe, but...

I just read Tom Nelson's extensive, thoughtful comments recently. I was struck, especially by his analysis of the critical video.

I was suddenly struck with an eerie sense of deja vu. In reviewing the video myself, I had tried and tried to see any white on the upper wing surface, and could not see it. I see Nelson reaches the same conclusion. The video shot the bird from below, where most of the wing would look white in a Pileated. The focus is so poor, it is difficult to interpret what one sees of the underwing pattern. I'm not convinced by any of the size estimates either--they are looking at blobs on an out-of-focus video. The white on the dorsum frame is not convincing either.

I independently reached the same conclusion as Nelson of the initial frame--alleged to show the bird perched and white on the back--to me it looked like the underside of a wing being raised--again, consistent with a Pileated. The fact that I developed the same impression independently was rather disturbing to me.

I'm finding Nelson's analysis very disturbingly convincing: all big woodpeckers seen well by the Cornell team in Arkansas are Pileateds. All glimpses of the Ivory-bill are fleeting. The field sketches in the Science paper are poor--they show nothing but the white trailing edge of the wing and no other details. They are tantalizing, but not very convincing. (I found Mary Scott's account of seeing a perched bird along the White River more convincing, but I've not seen any sketches or notes she made at the time.) I'm not sure Will Cook or Harry LeGrand would accept those Science field sketches and descriptions as evidence for a controversial sighting on a Christmas Bird count right here in our area.

I don't buy the "all Ivory-bills are shy and silent" now argument. (This has been made by several, including in an article in a summer 2005 edition of Natural History Magazine.) The birds were hunted extensively by Native Americans for millenia, and then by gun-wielding Europeans for 250 years, yet were still noisy into the 1940's. Implausible that they should suddenly become shy post 1940's. Also, it just makes no biological sense: birds that do not call do not defend a territory, do not find a mate, do not reproduce. That sort of behavior ends with the life of the bird that displays it, even if it evades hunters.

I've seen quite a few Pileateds. They are shy birds and usually flush when one walks up on them as during a normal bird walk. I've gotten close looks at Pileated and other shy birds and mammals (Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Ovenbirds, Mule Deer, Golden Eagles, Coyotes, Possums) when I sit still for minutes to hours out in their habitat. I don't think Ivory-bills have any preternatural powers for detecting still, camouflaged humans. The Cornell team has had many observers in that area for a year being stealthy, and still has no close observations and no photos. That, I find very disturbing. They've even done a "saturation search" in the area where all of the sightings have been. Results: no close observations with careful field sketches, no still photos, and no in-focus videos at any range.

Likewise, I find the lack of any recording of Ivory-bill vocalizations in the Cache River NWR to be disturbing. They claim to have seen the bird 8-15 times, but never to have heard it? (OK, maybe a double-rap or two.) That is a complete inversion of what one would expect with a woodland bird. I hear Pileateds 50 times for every time I see them. (And again, I don't buy the "now Ivory-bills don't make noise" idea--see above. The historical accounts described them as noisy, and heard frequently in their habitat, I believe.) That is just very, very odd.

I want to believe more than anything. I hope there are live Ivory-bills out there. I support efforts to find them and to preserve potential habitat. I just don't think the Cornell team has come up with convincing evidence of their existence in Arkansas. I want to see that stunning photo. I'm going to try not to get excited about Ivory-bills until I see a better photo or video. I'll smile for a month if I do.

Note on the Science paper. That journal is designed for rapid reporting of important, sometimes controversial, scientific findings--peer review is meant to be an accelerated process in that publication. I'm a former biological researcher, and can cite examples of important new findings in cell biology published in Science that had to be retracted later. That's OK--that's the mission of that journal--rapid publication of potentially important results that need confirmation. One just needs to bear this in mind when reading a paper in that journal.

I love your Blog is a great idea, and I check it every couple of days.
Oh, this keeps getting more interesting. Perhaps somebody here can shed light on this. I wrote Laura Erickson, who attended the AOU meeting, and asked her several questions. She wrote me a detailed e-mail within 30 minutes--so very kind.

I asked her specifically about the presence of an aberrant plumaged Pileated in the Cache River area. She stated she had asked Tim Gallagher the same question at the AOU meeting, and he admitted that there was one. The bird had extra white on one wing (specifically, its shoulder) due to abnormal molt or loss of feathers. It regained its normal plumage after molting. (She did not mention when this aberrant Pileated was sighted or when this molt occurred.) That bird was NOT mentioned in the paper in Science. To me, that is a serious omission. Here is the quote from the paper.

"During 14 months of nearly continuous fieldwork by dozens of observers, pileated woodpeckers were encountered virtually daily throughout the study region, where they are common and noisy residents occupying permanent territories. We would expect any strikingly plumaged leucistic individual in the study area to have been observed regularly."

To me, they are saying they observed no such "leucistic" individual, i.e., one that looked exactly like an Ivory-bill. It seems to me they should have mentioned the "aberrant" individual showing unusual white on the wing. To not mention it in the paper is downright fishy.

OK, I had been feeling better about the whole thing after reading Laura's very thoughtful message, but now I'm becoming WAY more skeptical. The "white on the shoulder" Pileated sounds rather like the bird Sparling saw in 2004 from his kayak. The way I understand it, that was the main thing he noticed--white on the wings when perched, correct? Perhaps I err.

I'm curious to know if the lone Ivory-bill, "Elvis", has been seen recently. I guess that's what Tom Nelson was intimating in his blog--I did not understand that previously. (This all just hit me today.) Have there been no sightings since spring of 2004? That would be consistent with a bird having gone through a molt and re-grown its black coverts. Here's a quote from the paper:

"Except for the flurry of sightings and the video in April 2004, our surveys have provided no evidence for the predictable occurrence of ivorybilled woodpecker in a localized area and no evidence of a mated pair."

It seems to me they are saying there were no sightings after April, 2004, but perhaps I read it wrong. Perhaps other sightings were mentioned at the AOU conference? All I've heard of since then is acoustic monitoring.

Again: What I'm hearing is no sightings in the Cache River NWR of Arkansas since April, of 2004. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong.
Just a couple of things in response to Patrick's query: two of the seven published sightings did come post-April, one in June '04 and one in Feb.'05. I believe there were other possible post-Apr. sightings (among the 15 collected) but they weren't considered good enough for publication. The June-Feb. time period is also when various people believed they heard IBWO double-raps in addition to the possible ones caught on tape.
I'm not altogether sure how "abnormal molt or loss of feathers" would cause EXTRA white to appear on the wing, nor am I sure that if that were the cause of extra white appearing it would accurately be called "leucistic" (which would mean actual white feathers, not appearance of white due to missing black feathers). There have been some reports of a possibly leucistic bird (though I don't believe symmetrically leucistic) but I'm also not sure where in the timetable that bird, if it's real, became known relative to Cornell's publication date. Finally, several sighters (including Sparling) noted the 'bulk' or size of the bird they saw relative to pileateds -- in fact I would say THIS was the single most eye-catching aspect of the bird in several cases -- only after being struck by the sheer size of the bird did several sighters hone in on the pattern of white which everyone is told to look for. If you're accustomed to seeing pileateds (as these folks were), seeing something black-and-white, and more massive than a pileated gets your attention real fast.
So far as I know there's been no serious searching since early May due to summer inhospitable conditions so of course no recent sightings, but the search begins anew in earnest come Nov. 1.
Thanks. The statement from Gallagher which Laura reported to me was that the bird was missing some coverts. This caused the white lining of the wing to show through from above, giving the impression of white on the "shoulders". That I found to be an alarming statement, and I was very perturbed that this observation was not included in the Science paper.

The timing of the sightings was not clear from the paper. Where are you getting that information?

I'm like "whoa" on impressions of size, or "bulk" in the field without direct comparison with another bird. I've been birdng for 40 of my 46 years, and I've been fooled by "size" more often than I care to remember.
OK, I found the list of sightings on Cornell's web site:
February 11, 2004: Gene Sparling (while kayaking)
February 27, 2004: Gallagher and Harrison (field notes published in Science paper)
April 5, 2004: Jim Fitzpatrick
April 10, 2004: Melinda LaBranche
April 11, 2004: Melanie Driscoll
(April 25, 2004: Luneau video acquired--not listed on web site, but referenced in Science paper)
June 9, 2004: Bobby Harrison
February 14, 2005: Casey Taylor (heard double raps, saw bird fly across clearing being mobbed by crows)

Audio only:
November 9, 2004: Marshall Iliff (double-knocks heard)
March 7, 2005: Two observers simultaneously heard double-knocks
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