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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

Sunday, October 08, 2006


-- Another Blast From the Past --

For today, again I'll just re-run a post from one year ago:

"People often don't realize how many sightings of Ivory-bills have been turned in over the decades. Some folks have the impression there are but a couple of unverified reports over the last 60 years and that's it (...no wonder they buy into a notion of IBWO extinction). Most IBWO literature mentions at most just a couple dozen Ivory-bill claims since the mid-40's that have some credibility, but the actual number of reports in that time (that could not be quickly dismissed as hoaxes or mis-identifications) are many times that number -- only the MOST credible ones make their way into the literature. On-the-other-hand, so far as I'm aware the Ivory-bill's contemporary, the Passenger Pigeon, has had virtually no credible reports since the 1930's (indeed few since it's supposed extinction in 1914), while reports of Ivory-bills are a regular occurrence during that time. If mistaken identifications are such a common occurrence one must wonder why have there not been dozens of reports of Passenger Pigeons over the decades, a species with a far wider-ranging habitat than the IBWO and one that could easily be confused with various other birds given a quick glance? Yet P. Pigeon sightings lie dormant while IBWOs show up again and again and again...

BUUUT... what has always intrigued this writer most is NOT the many IBWO sightings turned in over time, but the likely dozens more sightings NEVER turned in at all. They fall into the following categories:

1. Birders who believe they have seen Ivory-bills but never reported it for fear of the scoffing, jeering, or intimidation they would face.

2. Birders who believe they have seen Ivory-bills (might even have photographic proof), but who believe it UNethical to report such a finding, for fear of the potential havoc brought upon the birds.

3. Birders who have had fleeting 'low-qualiity' glances at big black-and-white woodpeckers in woods and automatically shrugged it off as Pileateds, when in fact they had observed IBWOs.

4. Hunters, fisherman, backwoodsmen, who have seen IBWOs, but didn't have a clue what they were seeing (nor care) and so never reported it.

5. Hunters, fishermen, etc. who have seen IBWOs, and knew EXACTLY what they were seeing, and deliberately chose NOT to report it for fear of Government intervention and tight regulation of the land involved.

My guess is we would be stunned if we knew the actual number of human-Ivorybill encounters in the last 60 years, and it would leave little doubt but that the species survives today in remote corners of the American Southeast.
Has any other bird species EVER generated so many reports over a 60-year period and still been written off as extinct by so many? I doubt it."
In a couple months birders will assiduously fan out to cover their (easily-accessible) local areas in the most methodical organized birding that regularly takes place, called Christmas counts. For all those efforts, the data generated will be some of the most weak, loose, imprecise, nonvalid, questionable, and unverified data that gets routinely published in the scientific world. As yearly data it is virtually meaningless and uninterpretable (only by looking over 10-20 year 'trends' can meaning sometimes be teased from it). And the search for the Ivory-bill has never even met that level of effort. When all the bottomland/swampland areas of the South have been thoroughly searched (as well as certain other forest tracts) then folks can pass some reasonable judgment on the survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ahead of that time skeptics are just wildly speculating, without any good basis, that a bird that keeps getting reported is no longer with us. Ohhh, and please keep those Passenger Pigeon reports rolling in as well...

I have always been intrigued by your point that there are many reports of Ivory-bills, but none of the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk, and Labrador Duck. I may have an explanation for some of the differential, let's call it the IBWO/PAPI (Passenger Pigeon) report ratio.

I recently have been buying used field guides for the bookshelf of a young aspiring (I hope) naturalist--you will know who that is. I found a nice copy of the paperback edition (1st edition, 1966) of Robbins' Birds of North America. I noted that the Ivory-bill is depicted on a color plate with the Pileated. There are no illustrations of the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk, and Labrador Duck. Interestingly, one of my first bird guides, Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds (east), 2nd edition (originally 1947, mine was the 35th printing, purchased circa 1967 by my parents) did not have the Ivory-bill on the color plate--just a sketch in the text. Peterson's eastern guide, 4th edition (1980), what I still call "new Peterson" has a full color plate of the Ivory-bill but small head-only portraits of the Passenger Pigeon, etc., noting their extinction.

Robbins' guide was very popular from the 1960's to the present day. (I like it!) The problem is, some beginning birders identify birds based on a very quick glance at their field guide, and their sighting quickly takes on the field marks of the bird as illustrated. I was guilty of this in my youth, and sometimes to this very day if I am not careful--one reason I only carry a sketch pad and/or camera on bird counts and the like these days--forces me to pay attention to the bird at hand.

I think the presence of a color plate of the Ivory-bill in Robbins' guide could explain some of the IBWO/PAPI report ratio. I stress the some--I agree that your other points about fear of ridicule, federal intervention, etc. may be valid. But I think some of the IBWO reports over the years have been due to enthusiastic, but inexperienced, beginners. That they have never reported Passenger Pigeons or Carolina Parakeets is due, I think, to the absence of those species from the field guides.
a good, valid point, especially for more recent times, though I would add this: growing up in the 50's I believe my first Peterson guide did include full profile views of both the Passenger Pigeon and C. Parakeet as well as the IBWO -- my memory could be faulty on this though; having had an interest in 'extinct' birds early on I do recall there being much more (non-field guide) information, including pics readily available at that time on the other 2 species in popular press than on the IBWO. I'm guessing the interest in the IBWO took off after John Dennis's claims in the late 60's. I believe there were some semi-credible reports of P. Pigeons in the 1930s, well past their supposed extinction date, and the question remains, I think, why, with the large varieties and numbers of pigeons and doves present in the country, there weren't more such claims from the 30's through 50's (or were there and they failed to make their way into the literature?). There could be many factors involved in the continuous reports of IBWOs over the yrs. versus the lack of claims for other 'extinct' species; given the number of credible people involved though, I just happen to believe one of the factors is that some of those reports are real!
I believe you are incorrect about your Peterson's, unless you had a first edition, and that was different. You are only a few years older than me, and it was the second edition (orig. published 1947) that was current during your youth, as during mine--it was reprinted at least through the 1960's--mine was purchased new in 1968 or so. I am looking at it right now. The Passenger Pigeon is not illustrated, only briefly described under the description of the Mourning Dove. The Carolina Parakeet was described, but not illustrated. The IBWO was illustrated in the body of the text--black-and-white. (Pough's Audubon Land Bird Guide, and Audubon Water Bird Guide, published 1946-1951, and reprinted to at least the 1980's, did illustrate the Pass. Pigeon, Parakeet, and IBWO. Perhaps that's what you remember?)

Well, some IBWO reports since the 1940's have been somewhat credible, and some have been less so. I found Kullivan's report from 1999 to be the most credible of the recent reports--he is the only one claiming to have studied the birds at length--something missing from the Arkansas and Florida sightings. Time will tell, I guess.

You've read Cokinos' Hope is the Thing with Feathers, correct? He has accounts of some late possible sightings of Passenger Pigeons--I think they were around 1905. He talks about the possible sightings of Parakeets in the Santee-Cooper area in the 1930's as well.

Incidentally, I think people have been too harsh on the Audubon Society, esp. Griscom and Peterson, about the Parakeet reports--they did investigate, but could not confirm in a reasonable amount of time. Conservationists were trying to stop the imminent extinction of the Great Egret, Common Egret, Golden Plover, Wood Duck, etc., at that time. That we see some of these species today is a credit to their work. They did not have time to make heroic attempts to save everyghing. At any rate, there was no way the feds were not going to flood the area back then, without an Endangered Species Act to stop them. Of course, National Audubon did work hard to save the Singer Tract Ivory-bills, but the political climate was not with them, and they probably did not understand the habitat needs--esp. role of pine stands--correctly. The state of the art in biological conservation was a bit primitive at the time. That things are better today is due to the work of those pioneers, who, unfortunately, were not prescient.
Pat is no doubt correct on these items and I am probably confusing my memory of the P.Pigeon & C.Parakeet in Peterson with some other bird book or guide I owned at that time. I still think the general literature of that day placed more emphasis on the Pigeon and the Parakeet then on the IBWO (as far as rare birds went) 'til the late 60s, even if they were being left out of field guides (Pat may be able to prove me wrong on that as well though!, or else he can simply argue what was in field guides is what would have the greatest impact on reports being turned in. Also, in a quick check of some references I have at arm's length I only find references to reports of C. Parakeets reaching into the 30's and NOT P.Pigeons, as Pat so indicated.
Regarding "credibility" this is where people simply won't agree. For some, credibility requires a second sighter, or film, or high quality lengthy sighting with good notes, etc. A 'credible' sighting to me is much simpler -- it involves an individual who knows what IBWOs are and has extended experience seeing PIWOs and reporting a bird that he/she believes must be the former not the latter. In short, if a sighting can't be ruled out in a few minutes of questioning and description as a likely misidentification or hoax (MOST reports CAN be quickly ruled out), then it is credible until shown otherwise, and there are LOTS of such reports in the literature and no doubt MANY more that never made it into the literature. Again the emphasis ought be on erring on the side of the creature even if later proved wrong, not risking erring on the side of skeptics and finding later they were wrong.
Finally, in regards to efforts on behalf of the IBWO by Audubon Society and others, my only beef is not with them, but with folks who use any such limited and failed efforts as evidence that the IBWO must be extinct. Tanner might claim he did a thorough survey of all the pertinent locales (although I don't believe he could have), but certainly no one else has ever claimed an adequate search of all potential habitat has been done -- and even Tanner believed there were IBWOs left in 2 areas (SC & Fla.) despite being unable himself to find them there. If IBWOs are found/confirmed there will be much joy among birders... but what there should be is shame and offense that the birds were so utterly failed through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and a resolve to never let it happen again. And if they are never found I don't know that all these efforts/debates are of any significant consequence anyway.
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