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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, January 21, 2006



"I have long believed that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers could have survived into the late 20th and early 21st centuries..." -- J.Jackson (The Auk, Jan. 2006)

...for obvious reasons, a much longer than usual blog entry today:

Dr. Jerome Jackson's Jan. "Auk" article is, as could be expected, a wonderful addition to the Ivory-bill literature, both as a good, terse summary of several key events/claims/'sightings' from the latter 20th century, as well as a commentary on the current AR. controversy that will make fine reading well into the future. Moreover, it drums home once again the incredible Rorschach nature of the 50 years worth of evidence that is out there open to individual interpretation.

Before addressing a few of his main points, I'll just mention 2 things we totally agree on:

1) In his opening remarks Jackson tells the story of the 1986 Gov't. Advisory Committee he served on whose function was to "officially" declare the IBWO extinct. Naysayer Jackson argued then that it was "unreasonable to declare the species extinct without ever making a serious effort to find it." NOTHING has changed in the 20 years hence, except that 2 locales (Pearl River and Cache River) out of millions of acres of possible Ivory-bill habitat finally received some 'serious' attention.
2) Another line of agreement comes on page 11 when Jackson writes simply, "There are so many things we do not know." -- THIS is the crux, and it is for this reason that we MUST err on the side of the species' existence, not because of what we know with certainty, but precisely because there is so much we don't know with any certainty; better to look for the bird 100 years beyond its extinction date than presume it extinct 50 years prior to the last wild individual actually expiring.

With that said, on to other points, as best I can touch upon them in a blog blurb:

After reviewing some Ivory-bill history Jackson starts off with 2 sections addressing why Ivory-bills 1)"should not" or 2)"should" be in Eastern Arkansas. The first section opens with, "There are many reasons why eastern Arkansas seems an unlikely place for IBWOs to have survived undetected for nearly 100 years." -- But NO ONE, to my knowledge, seriously proposes that the birds must have been there for 100 years. Any IBWOs existing there today may have arrived 2 years ago, 5 years ago, or 25 years ago, and are not necessarily the result of 100 years of continuous occupation. He goes on to talk of the many people who would have visited or utilized the area of interest in AR. over the years and yet never reported Ivory-bills (of course this line of argument holds for most potential IBWO haunts). Again, with no systematic or large-scale organized searches carried out it is difficult to know how meaningful the off-and-on presence of some humans over time really is, NOR does everyone who thinks they see an IBWO necessarily report it to any official agency OR get taken seriously, if they do. Moreover, in the very next section Jackson does make mention of a few anecdotal reports of IBWO presence over that time period; oddly though he leaves out any mention of a report, noted in his book, of 2 Ivory-bills in the area in 1986 (turned into Douglas James). In short, the section on why IBWOs "should" be in AR. seems to largely negate the very arguments he puts forth in his "should not" section.

Jackson makes some mention of the various suspicious changes/discrepancies/embellishments that occur in the AR. Ivory-bill story as it has been repeatedly re-told over time. Anyone who has re-told a story over and over again however knows how easily details inadvertantly get changed, and moreover anyone who has ever been interviewed by a reporter knows how routinely misquotes and inaccuracies occur. I have never been much concerned about these often pointed-to discrepancies which are inevitable in a press-infatuated story (Jackson himself calls it a "media frenzy"), nor does Jackson overly dwell on them himself, except to use them to feed into his notion that the AR. events are a case of "bad science" being used to promote a good cause (conservation). He talks much of the "attendant publicity and aura of authority" associated with the Cornell Lab and The Nature Conservancy (one can't help but wonder if there is a hint of jealousy that his own past Ivory-bill pursuits/writing didn't generate such press attention). He talks much as well of the large conservation funding resulting from the news and is justly worried what sort of backlash may occur if the IBWO is never confirmed in AR. -- at one point wondering aloud how much funding there would have been if Cornell had announced that "there might be IBWOs out there" instead of stating claims with such certitude -- with the evidence Cornell had at hand I believe such an announcement would still have generated enormous funding (such is the 'charisma' of this species) even if less than the total finally achieved. The implication that funding considerations played any significant role in the nature of Cornell's evidence presentation I think is misdirected, although other subtle peer pressures may well have had some effect. For me the funding issue is quite separate from the 'quality of evidence' issues, but Jackson paints them as linked, the former possibly driving the 'bad science' of the latter.

It is somewhat ironic that in a paper chastising Cornell for writing with such certainty about data that is ambiguous, Jackson goes on to state with great certainty his own belief that the bird in the Luneau clip is a normal Pileated. He believes the initial shot of it behind a tree shows a bird already in flight with a "vertical" underwing exposed flashing the large white patch of a PIWO. I do not understand the position of the bird that would allow for such a posture -- in flight, moving away from tree, vertical outstretched underwing showing? (I do understand how the wing could be horizontal, but then the patch as seen would not match either a PIWO or IBWO), and although he mentions having a figure demonstrating the proposed view, it unfortunately is not included in this paper (it may be in a future paper). The Luneau video is simply too ambiguous to say much definitively (to this day I'm still NOT 100% convinced that the bird filmed must even be a woodpecker, though likely it is). Oddly, Jackson does NOT address the size estimates and wingbeat calculations Cornell made from the film clip and which are quite crucial to supporting their interpretation (these arguments too may be addressed in another paper) -- in a more general way, Jackson does mention at a later point that IBWO flight pattern can not be used to conclusively distinguish between IBWOs and PIWOs, and I concur with that.

Of some side interest, Jackson has seen the Bobby Harrison video clip which dropped off the radar screen after being initially announced, and as expected it is wholly inconclusive as well.
Further, Jackson finds the acoustic evidence from the Big Woods inconclusive, as do I. As another side note though, I find it peculiar that Jackson, like Cornell, only mentions Blue Jays and White-breasted Nuthatches as having similar calls to IBWOs, when in fact it is RED-BREASTED Nuthatches that Tanner noted as having the most similar (though less loud) call to IBWOs. And he does not go into any detail regarding Cornell's technical acoustic analyses.

Speaking of the Ivory-bill AR. sightings Jackson writes, "I do not question the sincerity, integrity, or passion of these observers." These sorts of statements appear often from skeptics, and of course what they are leaving out is "competency," because THAT is exactly what IS being questioned. The bottom-line, is a matter of trust. Either you trust the competency/judgments of some or all of the people making these claims and those who interrogated them, or you don't. As I've written previously, if these sightings were equally brief but the names attached to them were, Sibley, Kaufman, Dunne, Ehrlich, Sutton..., instead of Sparling, Gallagher, Harrison...., does anyone seriously believe we would be having this discussion today? It would be over, signed and sealed. I think there is a bit of disingenuity (or maybe just politeness) when skeptics say they question the quality of the sightings, but at heart, rightly or wrongly, are questioning the quality of sighters. In a similar vein, Kulivan's 1999 Pearl River sighting WAS hands-down an EXCELLENT sighting (close-up, lengthy amount of time, clear view, TWO birds accurately described); it is only the quality/competency of the sighter (as a non-birder) that could be called into question at all.

Finally, Jackson argues that the size differential between IBWOs and PIWOs is not great enough to be easily discernible -- I think he is missing the point here -- if you see a large black-and-white woodpecker at a significant distance and size DOES NOT jump out at you, THEN, yes, size means nothing (it could be PIWO or IBWO), but IF you are accustomed to seeing Pileateds and in viewing such a distant (or close) black-and-white woodpecker you ARE IMMEDIATELY struck by it's unusual large size or bulk then yes, that does potentially mean something -- size is not a reliable indicator, that can always be discerned, BUT WHEN DISCERNED it may well have meaning. In a similar way, where I live, if you see a large dark raptor in the distance it might or might not be a bald eagle if size doesn't jump out at you; but if size instantly jumps out at you (and you're experienced) it greatly increases the likelihood that the bird being seen is an eagle and not a vulture, osprey, red-tailed hawk, or other alternative.

Before concluding, one last topic must be broached: the elephant in the living room as it were -- much chatter has been expended in various circles on the notion of "sour grapes" -- Cornell stealing Jackson's thunder, and any jealousies/resentments/friction resulting therefrom. Jackson may assume the role of objective scientist, but he is first and foremost a human being, and it seems only human that the situation that has transpired, could result in some conflicted feelings (and certain aspects of this whole situation probably even far pre-date the Arkansas circumstances). I don't wish to dwell too much on this topic, but nor do I think it can be ignored, and indeed others will raise it whether I do or don't here. Whether Jackson is significantly more critical of Cornell's work than he would've been had he been directly involved from the start (and the evidence been exactly the same), is a question no one can truly answer... and thusly a question that won't entirely go away. Does this make his arguments any less important or valid -- not necessarily; but it does toss a cloud over his ultimate scientific objectivity on this particular matter (...just as the objectivity of the Cornell team itself has been called into question -- indeed true scientific objectivity is a rare commodity under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances). I don't write this in any way to fault him, but simply to say that at root we are all of us more human than we are scientists, and subject to human foibles and sensibilities.

I'll end with but one last thought: Does anybody seriously believe that in his (Jackson's) gut, and in his heart-of-hearts, when the scientific rectitude is laid aside, the necessary academic demeanor dropped, the procedural proprieties and rigor cast away, that Jerry Jackson really has any doubts but that IBWOs likely exist!??? I know what my answer is to that question, and I genuinely hope that Jerry finds the birds, this winter, several of them in fact, nest and all, tooting loudly, in Florida, his home state, where there could easily be 5 to 10 times the number in Arkansas... and moreover, I'm pretty certain Fox Muldaur would want him to find them there too, because as so many of us believe, not only is the truth out there, but it has been out there gloriously double-rapping away for 60+ years. . . .

You took the words out of my mouth after reading Jackson's manuscript in the Auk. Tom Nelson is feeling good this week knowing that many birders are going to read this manuscript and many of these birders are going to see that Tom Nelson contributed to this manuscript! I guess a over night Ivory-billed Woodpecker is born! LOL God save us!

Mike Hendrickson
Duluth, Mn
OOOps A "Ivory-billed Woodpecker "EXPERT" is born! GOD save us!
You hit the nail on the head in that last paragraph, I laughed out loud. I can almost hear the X-files theme song.

Thanks cyber, I really enjoy your blog,

Scott Piper
Let's just hope there are IBWOs in Florida as several people have claimed . But then the skeptics will say if IBWOS are found there ...no they never said there were NO IBWOs, only that they weren't in Arkansas... or only that the evidence wasn't convincing. I think while we are at it, on the way into the swamp, lets keep our ears Open in March for a Bachman's Warbler. Remember someone a few years back discovered Bison clover in West Virginia.
Long thought extinct (dependent on Bison)!.

Paul Sutera, New Paltz, NY
Nice review. I think the only reason that competancy and egos are so involved with this whole scene is because the evidence supporting IBWOs in AR is so weak. I wholeheartedly agree that what is needed, and hopefully this latest excitement will stimulate, is a thorough search of all potential IBWO habitat by teams of capable observers--which as you note, but for lack of political will, should have been done in the 80s. Sure hope somebody, somewhere, can pin down a nesting pair of IBWO on territory. In the meantime, we're left with all this whoopla, that luckily has avoided flaring into a full-blown media circus.
Hey Cyberthrush,

Thanks for your good work in keeping us all up-to-date--and for your thoughts. I especially appreciate your assessment of JJ as a true believer--which he has always been--but a careful, skeptical one. It simply matters too much to Jerry for him to accept it on faith, heresay, or even a blurry video. People shouldn't lose sight of that truth. Keep up the great work.
I believe I may have spotted an Ivory-billed in the Mineola Nature Preserve in East Texas. I have seen numerous pileated woodpeckers and this was similar in size but different markings. I was very excited but I was very deep in the forest and couldn't keep up with it on foot. Just wanted to keep up the hope that they are still out there somewhere!
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