"....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.”
"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, October 25, 2007
First, as a sidebar, please take note that David Luneau has published a few corrections to a prior (skeptical) Science article at his website here:
In a long, passionate (or some might argue dispassionate) post at his blog David Sibley summarizes the skeptical view of Ivory-bill persistence and the dollars requested by the Federal Draft Recovery Plan:
Obviously, I disagree with several things he says, but there is nothing new here (though it is a fine summation) and it would be redundant to respond yet again to every single point of disagreement. But a few things... The bottom line as I've said before, has to do with which error one is most willing to risk making: looking for a bird that turns out to be long gone, or giving up on a bird that turns out to be hanging by a thread. David thinks evidence for the Ivory-bill's existence is inconclusive (and so do I), and settles on the default conclusion that it is extinct. I think evidence for extinction is itself hugely inconclusive, and remains so until a thorough, systematic, coordinated search of Southeastern habitat is concluded (David thinks it's been largely done already; I don't view it as even close to accomplished).
In the early 1900's it was the Mason Spencers of the time who said Ivory-bills existed and the David Sibleys of that time who persistently said 'no, you're mistaken.' 100 years later, deja vu. David fails to recognize that those in his kind of position (who routinely review a lot of mis-identifications) can themselves develop a natural or jaded bias against unusual reports, just as strong and prejudicial as the 'wishful thinking' bias others may have favoring such reports. David is willing to discount all sight records that are brief, and risk throwing in the IBWO towel early --- I do wish skeptics would at least be consistent and request that ALL "brief" sightings, if they are deemed so UNreliable, be disallowed from yearly bird counts and reports --- you can't have it both ways, routinely accepting thousands of such reports for more common birds, assuming them accurate and including them in databases, and then just as routinely dismissing any such IBWO reports based on brevity.)
The sightings and sounds continue, few and far between, just as would be expected of a rare species, but, for lack of a photograph naysayers choose to give up on a creature that can fly on a whim, perch in dense canopies, or invisibly reside inside cavities. Hubris, not science, sustains the belief that such a creature could never have eluded cameras for this length of time. In the skeptical view, repeated sightings over decades are all highly fallible, but human camera skills over time apparently are deemed infallible.
We are still awaiting the Cornell and Auburn summaries from last season, further study in South Carolina, and hopefully organized exploration of other key areas, but David and others cast the game as over, based upon current limited evidence. They see the last few years as conclusive; I see it as a beginning. Nor do I accept that "millions" of people have somehow spent significant time in Ivory-bill habitat looking for this bird over 60 years. In my own 40 years of off-and-on birding I've only known a small handful of birders who ever spent any significant elapsed time in the heart of IBWO-like habitat; adjacent or peripheral areas sometimes, but not the real core habitat (and many of them weren't specifically looking for IBWOs).
Loggers, hunters, collectors of the 20th century drove the Ivory-bill toward extinction with their actions, but they were merely doing their jobs as defined by the times. Those who really began pounding the final nails in the IBWO's coffin, were the ornithologists/birders of the day who failed early-on to work toward saving the species, as only they might've been expected to do (there were good reasons they failed, but they failed nonetheless). David and others, I fear, are continuing in that tradition, and right or wrong, I wouldn't risk joining them, until more, much more, is known, and sightings abate (or actual evidence of lying, pathology, or lack of competency of each of the sighters is demonstrated --- I may talk about competency in an upcoming post, since David dances around it --- there is no way to doubt ALL IBWO claims without doubting the competency of those making the claims; to simply say 'birders make mistakes' is courteously glib and timid). The belief in extinction rests upon a scaffold of conjecture about the species' needs, behavior, and habitat; a scaffold that could turn out to be solid, but also that a single photo could bring down.
No doubt David has thought about it much, sincerely believes what he writes, and thinks he is siding with the best scientific judgment. He sounds like the voice of reason, but he also sounds like the voice of Arthur Allen (a premier ornithologist of his day) who repeatedly thought the IBWO extinct until taken to them. David is an artist and field birder, not a scientist (not that scientists don't make plenty of errors themselves), and he professed his belief in IBWO extinction long before the Cornell announcement, so he does not enter the fray necessarily as a neutral source, but views matters through his own prism of belief. Yet if he is rushing to judgment, he will, by force of his reputation, drag others with him. David's contributions to birding and his general civility are enormous, and I wish on that basis alone, I could have more faith in his judgment here. But again, I'll risk erring on the side of the Ivory-bill and its numerous reports, before I'll risk erring on the side of any given individual, until due diligence is done.
It is somewhat ironic that shortly prior to his Ivory-bill post David had another post which links to an odd story of the unlikely, and purportedly first-time ever, link-up of two Greater Flamingos in Louisiana --- do such rare events in nature only happen when they are captured on film by humans, or would this improbable story have still been believable and reportable if the sightings had been brief and unaccompanied by photos???
Similarly, some say that if a tree falls in the forest, and there are no humans present, the tree makes no sound --- it seems fairer to say the tree does make a sound (heard by other creatures), but humans can't be in all places at all times, and thus can't always hear trees... nor photograph Ivory-billed Woodpeckers when they would like. How long we try or how much money we spend in the process remains for now a point upon which many of us can only agree to disagree....
...Ohhh, and speaking of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, this current solicitation from Cornell :
-- Ivory-billed Woodpecker Search Team Leader --
"The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is seeking an experienced and motivated team leader to guide Ivory-billed Woodpecker surveys in Arkansas from 11/19/2007 – 4/30/2008. The work will involve applying avian survey techniques while camping in remote areas of the Cache and White River basins. Most excursions will include 2-5 days of camping while surveying for the presence of IBWOs and other bottomland birds. Lodging and transportation will be provided between camping surveys. Leader will direct 4-6 field biologists. Required Qualifications: excellent organizational skills; strong (proven) leaderships skills; ability to design day-to-day search strategies and make decisions; past field experience conducting bird surveys; good bird identification skills; technical experience with computers including Word, Excel, and some familiarity with ArcGIS and GPS downloading is preferred; previous camping experience and ability to withstand difficult field/living conditions; good communications skills and ability to occasionally represent Cornell at meetings with agencies/partners (TNC, USFWS, Arkansas Game & Fish, and others). Position includes $1,400 semimonthly ($2,800/month) and benefits.
To apply please send cover letter and resume with 3 references to: Martin Piorkowski (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) 159 Sapsucker Wood Road, Ithaca, NY 14850. Email submission of applications is preferred. Apply ASAP."
ADDENDUM: just discovered this additional Cornell solicitation for field techs on another listserv:
Arkansas Field Biologist, Ivory-billed Woodpecker Search Team:
Arkansas Duration: 12/1/2007 - 4/30/2008; Required Qualifications:
Excellent bird identification and observational skills; Must have good
working knowledge of general field biology techniques and data
collection methods; Good work ethic; Willingness to tent camp in remote
locations for up to 5 days; Ability to hike through difficult terrain in
flooded, bottomland hardwood forests; Ability to follow directions and
survey protocols. Other Qualifications: Good paddling and canoeing
skills are preferred; Ability to use and understand GPS unit and
navigation skills; General knowledge of camcorders and cameras (however
specific details will be taught). This position will be contracted at
If you are interested, please e-mail your resume and contact information
for 3 references to cwrideout AT agfc.state.ar.us or by mail to:
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
2 Natural Resources Drive
Little, Rock, AR 72205
cwrideout AT agfc.state.ar.us
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