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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, December 08, 2005


-- Shootin' From the Hip (...aka 'My Thoughts') --

(warning: longish and rantish...!) :

The 'Rorschach' nature of the Arkansas Ivory-bill evidence continues to confound: I keep reading of folks who are swayed to IBWO 'believer' status by Cornell's acoustic evidence, which oddly, still strikes me as their weakest armament. The 'double-raps' released thus far seem to me unconvincing, and for now I trust my instinct on this -- in 2002 the only evidence brought forth from Pearl River was a 'double-knock' audio clip, which upon hearing, I was sure, was NOT an Ivory-bill (didn't know what it was, just that it certainly wasn't any IBWO); it took Cornell additional weeks of analysis to identify the sound as gunshots. It was hugely disappointing that after 30 days in the field this was the best evidence searchers could produce or that this was even perceived/offered as possible evidence.
Nor do I believe the Jan. 29 'kent' calls emanate from Ivory-bills (again, not sure what they are, just don't sound like IBWOs). The Jan. 31 calls are more intriguing and might rate them a 50/50 chance of being IBWO, but 50/50 is not as great as one would hope for.
The grainy Luneau film I think rates higher -- not because it clearly shows an Ivory-bill, but because (to my eyes) it DOESN'T look much like any of the alternative options. If I had to stick a number on it I might say 60-75% probability IBWO, based on the visual, and if you accept and add in Cornell's computed measurement data the probability goes up from there.
What continues to be most convincing for me (and yet is problematic for others) are simply the sheer number, details, credibility, and firmness of the various sighters across time -- essentially, what in an earlier era would have been a gold standard for acceptance -- only because we live in a now video-saturated world, and for 50 years people have been prejudiced/indoctrinated by a notion of IBWO extinction (despite little evidence for such), has that gold standard changed. What others speak of as brief, poor quality sightings, I view as repeated, consistent, and most importantly, credible (i.e. coming from people with experience, and familiar with Pileateds in the field). The talk of aberrant Pileateds has been somewhat confused and inconsistent -- if they are present why has no one (out of all the excellent birders that have been there) simply stated, "I saw something that looked like an Ivory-bill at first, but turned out to be a leucistic Pileated." I don't recall anyone specifically yet saying they saw an abnormal Pileated 'that if seen by others, could easily be mistaken for an Ivory-bill.' (...it seems to be just a given assumption, unfounded I think, that if abnormal Pileateds exist they will be easily mistaken for IBWO 16+ separate times, rather than recognized as abnormal PIWOs). And of course no photo of one.
Like 'creationists' who relentlessly and effectively focus on a few weakpoints and gaps to tear away at evolutionary theory (and in so doing make persuasive arguments to lay people), so too IBWO skeptics employ narrow arguments, I believe, to create doubts about IBWOs, downplaying the totality or breadth of the evidence. Unlike the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, the Great Auk, the Heath Hen, Bachman's Warbler... the Ivory-bill has been reported repeatedly over decades by credible observers in various locales across it's former range -- this alone should be enough for faith in its presence, until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt (by the passage of decades with NO such reports coming in from credible observers).
If the IBWO is finally verified, only to then die out years from now, it won't be the loggers and hunters and collectors of yesteryear who pounded the final nails in its coffin, but the 20th century ornithologists and skeptics who, upon such scant flimsy data, prematurely wrote the species off and failed to do the hard professional work needed to save it decades ago. For a scientist, a bigger sin is usually committed NOT by being SO open-minded that one accepts as possibly true, things which later prove to be false, but rather, the bigger sin is made when being so closed-minded as to dispute as false, things which are later shown to be true -- that is the error we ought be guarding against as birders, conservationists, and/or scientists.

Or,... so it seems to me. . . . .

I thought that was a very sensible post overall. In response to your below quote...

"I don't recall anyone specifically yet saying they saw an abnormal Pileated 'that if seen by others, could easily be mistaken for an Ivory-bill.' "

I think it's fair to say that most people would be fooled by the bird described below if they didn't get the opportunity to study it at close range.

From Noel Snyder's book "The Carolina Parakeet, Glimpses of a Vanished Bird":
Surely, mistakes in identification are sometimes made even by highly competent observers. Two examples from my own experience illustrate the risks clearly. One was a sighting of my own of an apparent Ivory-billed Woodpecker in central Florida in 1979. This was a bird that I flushed from a log in working through a hammock east of the Archbold Biological Station. The bird flew up to the vertical trunk of a pine only a few yards distant, and I could plainly see that it was a very large woodpecker with distinct large white secondary triangles on its folded wings, the most diagnostic field mark of the ivory-bill in distinguishing it from the somewhat similar Pileated Woodpecker.

Had the bird flown on immediately after I detected it, I would have been forever sure that I had seen a living Ivory-bill. But the bird remained perched on the pine trunk, giving me time to examine it more closely with binoculars. I soon determined that the white triangles on the bird's wings were in fact cream in color, not pure white, and in fact there were two black feathers intermixed with the cream-colored secondaries on the bird's left wing. Further, the bird lacked the huge white bill of an ivory-bill and instead had the much smaller black bill typical of a Pileated Woodpecker. I was almost surely looking at an aberrant Pileated with odd secondary feathers, not an ivory-bill, although optimists might suggest that it could have been a hybrid of the two species."

"Shootin from the hit" is a good piece, particularly the last paragraph.

I know of one particular ornithologist who for years did not follow up on very possible IBWO sitings for fear he would lose credibility within his
peer group. Said peer group, the sum of which would probably make a mess of a lemonade stand, of course has scoffed at reports of ivorybill sightings for years. Afterall, if Tanner decided they were all gone, then that is all there is to it, and let us attend to more important matters, such as where is the next wine and cheese party?

As far as the Pearl River fiasco, I would discount that. I reckon that was a keystone cops fire drill...probably not a true woodsman among them.
In response to the Snyder quote, again I would reiterate that the case for mistaken identity simply decreases in probability as the numbers of reporters goes up. Of course individuals can make mistakes, and so can groups or multiples of people, but as the numbers go up, such examples pulled out of the literature are the EXCEPTION, NOT the rule. All one can do is play the probabilities, and while it is possible for every single sighting since 1944, or every sighting at Big Woods to be in error, the probability, I think, becomes fleetingly small.
As far as the Pearl River search, I wouldn't be so harsh on that (and am sorry if my post seemed harsh) -- I honestly think they did a decent job given the 30 days they had to work with; at least relative to efforts put forth previously -- that is what made the results so disappointing. But the 2 birds Kulivan saw in 1999 and any of their brethren could've been long gone by the time of the 2002 search.
do you know of any recent excellent
views of the IBWO that lasted
for more than several seconds?

I have heard that many
people have seen it as you state, but has anyone gotten a great look?
Dave Kullivan apparently
had an excellent look and
that was exciting. However
I found it strange in the
Grail Bird that he refused
to talk with Tim Gallagher.
Maybe just tired of being

Anyway, has there been
any other good sightings
that have 100 percent credibility?
In the Grailbird I was disappointed that for all of the
sightings, the observers
were 80 to 95 percent confident.
That was disturbing to me.

I have heard that Mary Scott
had a good look...but at one time she confused the red headed woodpecker with the IBWO and seemed to see the IBWO "everywhere" as
quoted in the Grailbird. I just have to discount her sightings like others have. Maybe she will be the lucky one and
get a real photo...that would vindicate her credibility.

Anyway, I like your blog...but
I remain unconvinced. I think it is intriguing...and there is a possibility it still exists...
but that is it. Dr. Jerome Jackson's take on it is very discouraging. I am reading his book which is more scientific concerning the birds and he is the true expert on the IBWO. Why they did not invite him on the original search is beyond me.
keep up the nice work on this blog.
quick answers to some of the above -- there are reports that claim longer views, but primarily from people whose credibility either isn't good or simply can't be ascertained -- in general, I prefer brief looks from experienced birders who have previously seen lots of Pileateds, over long looks from people of unknown credibility or background.
Kulivan gave up responding to inquiries long ago -- sick of the intrusion and the skepticism -- as I understand it, his politics is pretty conservative (he works for the NRA); a lot of birders have a liberal tilt, and I suspect he didn't care for their attention either.
No 100% credible sightings (or we wouldn't be having this discussion) just a multitude of "maybes" over the years, that when combined with other evidence, add up.
I certainly can't speak for him, but I strongly suspect Jackson still wholly believes in the survival of Ivory-bills; why he is so harsh on the Cornell findings I don't care to speculate about here.

thanks. Interesting comment on
Kulivan. There are two things in particular that keep me hopeful.

1) contrary to what some have maintained, the recent kent recordings are very tantalizing to me. I have heard many discount them, but when I heard them for the first time compared to the 1935(recording at a distance of
142 m)...I was excited. However, many say that Blue Jays can make the same sounds. So that is the fly in the ointment. I have heard the blue key kent calls and they really didn't sound that similar to me. But who am I, just a life long birder...no ornithlogical background. I do know the sounds and calls of every eastern bird though.

2) I live near Cornell and have been visiting Sapsucker Woods and the Lab of Ornithology since I was in 1st grade. I remember the stuffed IBWOs on display and that is how I became so entralled with this magnificent species. Now, these specimens reside at the Tensas Refuge. I can't believe that the world's foremost ornithological institution would put their reputation on the line if they really didn't believe it existed. Some say they are after the funding(Dr J.), I just can't believe this is the motivating factor. They really want the IBWO to exist like everyone else. If one can prove otherwise, then their credibility definitely goes south.

I, like you, am still waiting for the photo or convicing evidence. Yes, patience will be needed by all. That is fine. I am looking forward to the NOVA showdown between Dr J and Fitz. That is going to be cool.

Thanks for your comments and keep up this blog...nice work.
cyberthrush wrote:
The talk of aberrant Pileateds has been somewhat confused and inconsistent -- if they are present why has no one (out of all the excellent birders that have been there) simply stated, "I saw something that looked like an Ivory-bill at first, but turned out to be a leucistic Pileated."

Actually, I think this snippet from an Arkansas Times article (updated 6/9/2005) is a pretty close match to your statement above:
Arkansas State University professor of wildlife ecology Jim Bednarz has seen several pileated woodpeckers with an abnormal amount of white wing feathers in the Cache River refuge. With Team Elvis, he pursued three birds that showed a flash of white in flight and white on their backs as they were perched. All were pileated.
I would like to discuss the kent call issue as I have learned more of late.

Initially, after listening to the Cornell recordings of the "kent" calls, they did sound very much like the 1935 Allen/Kellogg recordings especially when heard from a distance of 142 m away. I consider myself a pretty good birder by ear and it did strike me. My first thought was that the ARU picked up a playback of the 1935 recordings. They maintain that the recordings were not played those days. But the quote from Cornell's Russell Charif "However, one issue that we are particularly concerned about is that several observers from our field teams have reported hearing and seeing blue jays making sounds very much like this in this area."

That puts this evidence on very shaky ground now for me at least.

I have tried hard to look at every view point of this debate and evaluate the evidence myself and that audio was my best hope....but that is fading too. This quote is pretty cut and dry.
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