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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, June 21, 2007


-- Paradigm Shifts, Sightings, Field Marks, Oh My --

a restful 3 days off from blogging turned into 6 --- anyway, loooong post... mostly stuff covered in the past:

Can't say I've ever
been a huge fan of Thomas Kuhn's work, but I would acknowledge that in a squishy, philosophical way, his idea of "paradigm shifts" does apply to some aspects of science history. If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is eventually documented to everyone's satisfaction maybe what we'll need is a sort of paradigm shift in ornithology. Initially, there will be amazement voiced at the IBWO's persistence; words like "incredible," "unbelievable," and "miracle" being carelessly tossed about, especially by prior skeptics attempting to cover their own posteriors on the subject. BUUUUT again... there is nothing amazing in a creature adapted to remote swampland hanging on for 60 years in small numbers under the radar of Man's lackluster attention; though scientific hubris may make it seem so; nothing 'amazing' in recognizing that our knowledge and abilities are imperfect, and that needles in haystacks can be hard to find (let alone photograph).

"Extinction" is an extraordinary event, and IT requires extraordinary evidence, above-and-beyond conjecture.
Never again should the passing of 60 years without a photo constitute evidence for extinction of a species known to use such poorly-traversed habitat. Skeptics continue to knitpick the weakest data out there (sounds, foraging sign, cavities...), because it is easy to do, and I s'pose the more vocally critical they are the more untenable they think the IBWO's existence sounds (like focussing intensely on all the weak points/gaps/uncertainties in evolution in order to conclude that evolutionary theory is unsustainable). But what we have across all the decades are sightings, sightings, SIGHTINGS by individuals who are very familiar with Pileated Woodpeckers, yet who say they've seen Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. And sightings are the essence of birding.

A recent, widely-cited Audubon study reports huge declines in several US bird species over the last 40 years, yet it is based largely on BRIEF, UNDOCUMENTED, UNVALIDATED, NONREPLICATED sightings (from count reports), comparing data that is four decades apart!! The variables are immense and hugely uncontrolled. Scientifically speaking, one might make the case that this data is simply "crap," despite all the statistical manipulation they've done to it (...still impossible to weed out lies and mistakes from true and accurate sightings in count datapoints) --- but in truth, looked at broadly enough and with enough caution, count data over time often turns out to be quite good data, accurately reflecting identifications in the field, since, in general, birders are not liars! So a study that could be taken to task by knitpickers, will not be, and need not be, especially since it jives with what common sense, personal experience, and intuitions already told most birders beforehand. Unfortunately, in the Ivory-bill arena, common sense, personal experience, and intuition, lead different people to completely opposing conclusions.

Despite the emphasis often placed on "field marks" MOST bird identification is the result of 'jizz' or gestalt appearance, and always has been. Field marks came along as a nifty way to introduce birding to greater numbers of people and are certainly useful in cases of difficult IDs, but the typical bird identification in the field does not include running through a checklist of field marks --- and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker IS NOT a difficult ID for an experienced birder in any event. I would advise those who believe that "brief" sightings are soooo unacceptable to please eliminate them from your future count reports (since clearly you believe other possibilities cannot be ruled out under such circumstances) --- and this will greatly help out count compilers too, by eliminating probably 50+% of all reports they must sort through : - ). Here's a thought experiment:

You walk into a room of 30 people and scanning faces quickly locate your best friend; pretty easily done. But could you now write a description of that person's face good enough to allow a total stranger to walk into the same room, and by scanning faces alone, also pick out your friend? Assuming no defining characteristic (6" scar on left cheek, patch over right eye, 4 inch purple nose ring), I doubt it. In writing a "description" of your friend you are in essence writing "field marks" for identification, but your own recognition of the friend is based on a 'gestalt' recognition of that individual's appearance. What you can do in a moment by 'jizz' as it were, a stranger will have great difficulty doing using your 'field marks' and likely end up with several possible choices (because field marks are often LESS-defining than 'jizz' in many instances). Some recent bird volumes have re-focussed attention on the overriding importance of gestalt features in bird identification, because field marks, while crucial on occasion and wonderful as an initial learning tool, are, in the grand scheme of things vastly overrated and only occasionally employed in bird identification --- some might argue that they ARE routinely employed, but at a less than conscious level, but that merely reduces them to further gestalt qualities when they operate below consciousness.
Or some will counter that it doesn't matter if field marks are rarely used in bird identification because they ARE used in cases of rare or unusual sightings. But here's the rub: experienced birders usually know (or can look up) the key field marks for an unusual sighting. You either do or don't trust a fellow birder --- when they report such key field marks after-the-fact they can easily lie (or simply be the victim of false memory) --- IF you believe such a recitation, then you might just as well believe their ID'ing of the bird in the first place without the recitation; the case of the IBWO is illustrative: those reporting Ivory-bills but noting few field marks are told their sighting isn't valid, and those who report field marks are told they must be mistaken or lying, so tautological are the skeptics' biases (...essentially, boiled down, 'you couldn't have seen an IBWO because it is extinct, and we know it's extinct because no one has seen one').

Personally, I'm immediately suspicious of past IBWO sighting claims that include a litany of 'field marks' (as are many IBWO investigators) --- it is too easy to regurgitate these from a field guide or other source after-the-fact; so easy that such recitation becomes almost meaningless; yet in today's atmosphere just such a recitation is required, especially of any novice birder. No, what impresses me more (in general) are sightings by experienced birders, who say they saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and they knew it in a flash (before they even thought about field marks), because THAT is what the reality would almost certainly be, given the uniqueness of this species. THAT is the norm in bird identification. The 'jizz' and total context is primary; field marks secondary.

And it is not enough for skeptics to say that "everyone makes mistakes from time to time." Any scientific claim can be challenged in such a loose manner. Maybe this, maybe that, maybe, maybe... of course alternative explanations are always possible, but they too must be given credence, not hoisted out of thin air. Believers are told they must produce a photograph for their case, but skeptics too then must demonstrate that experienced birders who make Ivory-bill claims either have a history of lying or pattern of rash, mistaken claims; skeptics can't be allowed to simply conveniently write off these lone instances as ad hoc "mistakes" (occurring over and over)
if there is no history or pattern of such for a given individual.

So keep your eye on the ball --- sightings --- and don't get distracted by incessant blather over sounds, signs, blurry video, and other peripheral, even extraneous subject matter. Keep in mind too, that only a single sighting need be real for the Ivory-bill to be extant; whereas 100% of all sightings must be false, for the skeptics' case to hold forth (I like those odds :-). In the meantime there's a lot of habitat to check out (might even take more than a couple of weekends to do it), and waaaaay too early to throw in the towel in yet another rush to judgment on this species, thought extinct and re-found at least twice before in its history. IF the bird is indeed extinct searchers will simply keep building the case for skeptics (who should be eternally thankful for the assistance :-)).

I think I'll close with these famous words from Donald Rumsfeld, just for-what-it's-worth:
"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
....here's hoping for a long, restful summer, and maybe a paradigm shift sometime next year. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
unverified sightings are the essence of stringing
and they are the essence of bird counts, breeding censuses, and much published field work
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