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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 28, 2007


-- Mistakes --


===> First, excuse the redundancy, but for a few posts I'm going to repeat the site to order Noel Snyder's new monograph, "An Alternative Hypothesis for the Cause of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Decline," because I think it so important (despite the high price, $25) (see prior Oct. 26 post if you missed it) :


"Birders make mistakes"... comes the constant, polite, catchall refrain from Sibley et.al. And how true it is... all birders make mistakes, ID'ing one gull for another, one sparrow for another, one fall warbler for another, a Northern Cardinal as a Summer Tanager, and on and on. BUUUUT... how many of us, in an entire lifetime of birding, will EVER walk in from the outside and say we just saw an extinct, or nearly extinct bird? or, in a more qualified version, even say we 'think' we may have seen such a bird? Very, verrry, verrrrrry paltry few of us I suspect, because, if wrong, we recognize the magnitude of such an error. Most experienced birders will only voice such a sighting if they have a very heightened level of certainty. In fact, given the cautionary nature of experienced birders there might well be far more actual rare birds going UNreported, due to fear of ridicule or inability to validate, than those getting reported inaccurately. But, of course not all IBWO reports come from "experienced birders," so lets start there:

Over the years, probably 75+% of the IBWO reports I've heard/read appeared NON-credible from the get-go with but a few questions asked and little investigation; mostly mistaken identifications, and a few outright hoaxes. The vast majority of the 75% are NOT from experienced birders, and often from people with limited, if any, experience with Pileated Woodpeckers. Those are the easy cases. And these are folks who honestly do 'make mistakes' in the Sibley sense; having read or heard something about the Ivory-bill and jumping to sincere but erroneous conclusions upon seeing a Pileated --- and they make mistakes BECAUSE their competency level for such identifications is low. But one CANNOT generalize from those 70 or 80 or even 90% of cases to ALL cases (no matter how tempting it is to do so) --- each case requires separate, individual review.
I fully agree that the vast majority of IBWO claims reflect mistaken identifications; the problem is that 100% of them MUST BE such for the IBWO to be extinct, and that is not so likely. Only a small percentage of claims fall into the seriously credible category from knowledgeable, capable people (who are familiar with PIWOs and IBWO field marks), in suitable circumstances with details that fit and no obvious flaw; and finally, the remaining 20+% of claims (I hear) fall into the amorphous, possibly-credible-but-not-as-fully-credible-as-I'd-like category, in need of further information and checking.

Ideally, one wants to hear an IBWO report from an active, knowledgeable birder with plenty of experience in the woods with Pileateds. If such an individual (who recognizes the significance of their claim) says they are confident they saw an Ivory-bill, even briefly, you are now beyond the arena of simple errors. It may qualify as a mere "mistake" when someone having no full recognition of the import or gravity of such a claim inaccurately reports an Ivory-bill, but it borders on foolishness or incompetency to do so when you are fully aware of that gravity. Saying you saw a bird that 'might have been' or 'looked kinda like' an Ivory-bill is one thing and reasonable. But to say "I know I saw an Ivory-bill" or "I'm virtually certain I saw an Ivory-bill" is quite another, and if it comes from someone with a previous history of seemingly accurate, knowledgeable, accepted reports then it becomes the BURDEN of skeptics, to not just blythely write-off the claims as "mistaken ID," but truly demonstrate that the specific sighter is either NOT knowledgeable, NOT competent, NOT experienced, NOT honest, or has a previous DEMONSTRABLE pattern/tendency toward hasty or wish-driven IDs. Without such an explanation how is one to account for a lifetime of reasonable bird claims that have been routinely accepted, followed by a sudden, lone report of this magnitude that is dismissively labeled "mistake" merely because it falls outside some PRECONCEIVED boundary of expectations? --- Questioning an ID that is unaccompanied by a photograph, and that clashes with preconceptions, is just tooooooo incredibly easy. And going on to assume that conjectured alternative explanations must automatically be true just compounds the problem. This does not mean that we tear down birders' reputations, it means simply that we try to review their individual tendencies and competencies better if we are going to pass harsh judgment on their claims, rather than simply assuming that Person A is in error based on our own prejudiced expectations, or on Person's B, C, or D's flawed history.

Yes, it is always 'possible' that every single birder with experience and knowledge, who report Ivorybills are 'mistaken' in their bold claims, JUST AS it's similarly possible that some of the 1000's of Pileateds
reported on bird counts every year are in actuality Ivory-bills, MIS-identified during brief looks (...and no I'm not kidding). Nor do I buy the notion that under all circumstances the Ivory-billed and Pileated (let alone other species) are easily confused in brief views; they are markedly different birds, not as easily/automatically confused by a birder well experienced with normal Pileateds as endlessly implied. Moreover, skeptics continue to work circularly from the unvalidated assumption that IBWOs are extinct, through alternative concocted explanations and overgeneralizations (from a few specifics to ALL), back to their initial assumption; how convenient. Throw out the initial assumption and all considerations change.

Skeptics are fond of noting the many false manias, fads, and hysterias, that have dotted the landscape of science, while failing to note the other many instances of 'unconventional' individuals and views which, given enough time, became standard (a fellow named Einstein for one), once the intransigency of the dominant paradigm gave way to further evidence --- happens all the time in the history of science.

In the past, a few folks speculated that James Tanner was harsh with John Dennis and other claimants because at some subconscious level Tanner wanted to go to his grave as the last person to have closely studied Ivory-bills. I'm doubtful that's true, but I do recognize that many current skeptics have painted themselves into very tight corners now, not only presuming the Ivory-bill extinct, but proclaiming it gone for 60+ years. The more forcefully they state these positions the greater stake they have, for the sake of their own reputation/credibility, in NOT having the species confirmed, and disparaging any evidence toward such confirmation (I'm sorry, but I DO NOT believe the refrain that every birder would be delighted to have this species documented at this point; some, a small group to be sure, will be ashamed and embarrassed).

The Ivory-bill debate has long ceased being just the story of a bird, and become a story of scientific process and thought; and if the debate is ever resolved, we may yet see who most mis-construed the science. So yes, it is certainly true that people make mistakes, and I'd even venture that, overall, biologists make MORE mistakes than any other scientific group, and just maybe, in the current prevailing IBWO orthodoxy, they've made a real doozy.


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