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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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008


-- End Of Year --


Wheeeeeeww... glad to kiss this year good-bye.... ;-)

And by way of yearly wrap-up, at this time of top ten lists, a rough slate of my own 10 semi-favorite Ivory-bill posts from the year just passed:

1. Close Encounters of the Bird Kind (from April)
2. Tanner Redux (May)
3. Say What? ( Jan.)
4. Population Stasis (July)
5. Sunday Contemplation (Dec.)
6. Thangs That Be a Buggin' Me ( June)
7. The Natives Are Restless (July)
8. Schrodinger's Cat (Feb.)
9. Birder's World Compendium ( Jan.)
10. Dogness ( April)

And a couple of NON-Ivory-bill-related posts I also enjoyed:

Obama Victorious... You Betcha
Science At The Edge (Jill Bolte Taylor)

Happy, Healthy, Brighter
2009 Everyone!.....


Tuesday, December 30, 2008


-- "On Being Certain" --


Epistemologists long ago explained why it's impossible to be certain about the nature of reality... then physicists explained why uncertainty underlies all science... and now a neurologist, Dr. Robert Burton, explains, in terms of brain chemistry, why certainty is a mirage:



Monday, December 29, 2008


-- 'nuther Center of Controversy Goes To Grave --


Colorful Fielding Lewis, whose claims of Ivory-bill encounters in Louisiana in the 1970s could never be confirmed nor disproven died a week ago at age 78. Lewis persuaded premier ornithologist George Lowery Jr. of the reality of Ivory-bills in Louisiana in 1971, only to taint Lowery's reputation in the process.
Tim Gallagher devoted one chapter ("The Boxer") of his book "The Grail Bird" to the Louisiana character here (courtesy of Google).

One of Lewis's famous controversial photos of an Ivory-bill near the Atchafalaya leads off (and is colorized) this Dec. 2001 Birding Magazine article by birder Jim Williams.

Lewis's own book "Tales of a Louisiana Duck Hunter," which includes some of his Ivory-bill accounts, is available here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


-- I Digress --


Infinity, Cantor, and the Continuum:

...and for those who can hardly wait for more, the second part of this video is here:


Friday, December 26, 2008


-- New and Improved? --


David Luneau reports that a newly-fashioned "peeper-cam" (essentially a camera at the end of a pole) has been devised for use in the Arkansas IBWO search, checking out prospective woodpecker cavities.

Geoff Hill will be using newly-designed vibration-triggered cameras from National Geographic in the Florida search to better, and more selectively, capture images at prospective woodpecker sites in the Choctawhatchee.

And Bobby Harrison reports he will be setting up both still and animated (head-moving) IBWO decoys in January in his pursuit of Ivory-bills in Arkansas.

Finally, I believe Alan Mueller's ARK. team will be making greater use of recordings and double-knock sounds than was done in the past to try and attract the elusive quarry.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


-- Just More Holiday Fare --

Just a couple more seasonal offerings today:

Some more seasonal music for the Holiday...:
(George Winston's "The Holly and the Ivy" arrangement)

And another blogger has posted this old 25-min."Twilight Zone" Christmas episode (it's 50's-ish schmaltzy, but so-be-it, still classic).
(P.S. -- if you're a Rod Serling fan, most all the old Twilight Zone episodes are available on the Web, for free, at various sites.)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008


-- Peace On Earth, Goodwill To All --


May it someday be so. . . .

Merry Christmas and a Bright New Year to all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


-- An Old Joke --


(...that just might have some bearing):

A scientist and his wife are driving out in the countryside. The wife turns to her husband and says, "Oh look over there... those sheep have been shorn."
To which the scientist-husband replies: "Why yes, on this side."

Monday, December 22, 2008


-- Scott Crocker Talks About Film --


Scott Crocker, producer of the independent documentary film, "Ghost Bird," is interviewed on a local NPR station here.

[ A few folks have emailed to ask what's up with IBWO Researchers Forum website, which seems to be down... I don't know, so if anyone can shed light on that feel free to send a comment here, or maybe it'll be back up before most of you read this post (Addendum: it's back up now.). (Oddly, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Foundation website also went down for about 24 hrs. a couple days back.) There have been a number of general internet glitches in the last week, so possibly it relates to that??? ]


-- Places To Look --


I've been trying to encourage USFWS's Bob Russell to send me an updated list of his top places to look for Ivory-bills, since Mary Scott's website, which previously included such a list, was taken down. He hasn't had time to do that as yet, but with a new search season getting underway, folks might enjoy perusing his old Top Ten list (2006) which I located at Mary's former site using the internet "wayback machine," and can be viewed here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


-- Mary Scott on Tape --


Mary Scott interview excerpt from the "Ghost Bird" documentary movie now available here:


Mary is the rather non-conventional/controversial Ivory-bill searcher who many credit with actually instigating in many ways the widespread interest in modern searches for the species (she formerly ran the popular BirdingAmerica website, which she has since taken down). Tim Gallagher devoted a chapter of his book, "The Grail Bird," to her. The "Bob" she repeatedly refers to in the film clip is "Bob Russell" of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and another long-time Ivory-bill researcher.

Addendum: well, leave it to Google; just discovered parts of "The Grail Bird" are online, including the chapter on Mary, here.


-- Biding Time --


While we await for news from what could be the last large scale season of searching for the Ivory-bill, here's a relatively recent YouTube addition pertaining to the search in Arkansas:

The nearly 2-hr. original Cornell rendition of this story presented to the AOU back in 2005 that started it all is available on YouTube as well:

On a different note, I continue to get some comments/emails asking about the fate of Mike Collins' IBWO paper: I have no special information, and presume Mike will post at his site if/when he has further specific details worth mentioning (I'm guessing there may be some resolution with the possibility of publication within the next 3 weeks, but that's STRICTLY a guess on my part). In the meantime, for any who missed it at the time, here an interview Mike did with another blogger a year ago:


Thursday, December 18, 2008


-- Irrigation Project Back On Tap --


The irrigation plan (from the White River) for Arkansas farmland is back on track after a lawsuit stalling it (largely due to Ivory-bill concerns) has finally been dismissed. The legal doings are actually a bit convoluted and hard-to-follow, but story here.

Meanwhile, Cornell plans to start its new search season in early January (this is separate from Alan Mueller's USFW effort in Arkansas -- already underway).

Finally, if you haven't read the comments to the prior post, I believe the gist is that Mike Collins' 'flight dynamics' paper may yet be published by PLoS afterall; time will tell (if I am misconstruing things, or someone knows otherwise, please correct me).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


-- No Collins Paper --


Well, nothing is ever simple in the Ivory-bill world... Mike Collins is announcing that his paper, "Flight Mechanics of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker," has been "pulled" from publication at PLoS. His brief explanation is at his website (12/16 entry).
I'd heard about certain problems that had arisen, and that publication would be delayed at least a minimum of two-to-three weeks from last Friday, and I could take an educated guess about some of what transpired, but since I don't know with certainty, won't speculate here. Nothing in this arena much surprises anymore.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


-- Having It Both Ways --


What the prior article on population dynamics calls to mind is the most trenchant argument skeptics make in the Ivory-bill debate. Can a creature have relatively few sightings over 60 years, with no sightings followed up by photographic documentation or definitive confirmation, and in fact still exist... OR, can a creature at very low population density successfully carry on reproductively for decades?... (The answer to both questions, singly, is indubitably yes.)
But the rub comes in combining the two questions (or as skeptics would say, 'trying to have it both ways' --- can there BOTH be so few IBWOs that they're rarely encountered, and yet enough to be reproductively viable for 60 years) --- the numbers of Ivory-bills must be just great enough (whatever that threshold is) to have at least maintained population stasis over decades (more recently they could be either increasing, or decreasing), and yet scarce enough to help account for the overall paucity of sightings and difficulty of photography. It is a somewhat fine line and balancing act, but yet once again, given the habitat and habits and history of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (an upper canopy and cavity-dwelling flying creature of deep forest) it is much more plausible with this species than it would be for many others --- indeed, it is easily as plausible, as the notion of every single sighting since 1950 being written off as a 'mistake.' And it is funny how often in nature if something is possible, it occurs (sort of the inverse of 'Murphy's Law').

Finally, in another "stay-tuned" story, Mark Bailey sends along this report of supposedly-extirpated pumas in Alabama.

Addendum: Mark seems to have taken this story down; I assume this means its authenticity (which he was trying to check on) did not check out; or if he re-posts it, I'll mention it again here.
Addendum II : Mark confirms now he has determined picture and story to be a hoax.
He now has this explanatory post up on the matter.


-- A View To The Past --


Speculative, but interesting post here, from a more paleontological viewpoint, about causes of extinction/decline in various species (including the Ivory-bill, which may have been "doomed 12,000 years ago").

Saturday, December 13, 2008


-- IBWO Population Dynamics --


Here an open-access published paper using population dynamics/stochastics to argue for how a small population of Ivory-bills or certain other large woodpeckers could persist for many years with few human encounters.

The variables in such an analysis will always be difficult to precisely define or measure (which goes for most ecology/field biology work) and such a study must be viewed with a grain of salt --- I'm sure skeptics will find much to quibble with, including certain assumptions made. And I'm certainly not competent to judge the specific technical mathematics involved, but I don't think there's anything overly profound in the general conclusions reached here, part of which read as follows:
"...based on our model, an initial population size of 5 females would have ensured likely persistence through modern times if annual demographic rates remained at least moderate, i.e., ≥ 1.1 recruited females/adult female and an adult survival rate ≥ 0.8, and their variances remained at most moderate, i.e., ≤ 0.04 for recruited females per adult female and ≤ 0.016 for adult survival rate, (Appendices 2–4). Second, if there were 30 or more females, then the population would likely have persisted despite a relatively strong Allee effect, as long as variance in survival was at most moderate and either survival or fecundity was high (i.e., 1.65 recruited females per adult female or an adult survival rate of 0.9; Appendices 2–4)."

Many years ago I did some simple common-sense paper-and-pencil calculations based on about 24 Ivory-bills starting in the 1940's (at the upper end of Tanner's estimate for the population then, but several folks think Tanner was too conservative), which convinced me that that number of IBWOs could easily have achieved population stasis for many decades (and still be with us), prior to either increasing in numbers or dying out.

In a similar vein, a related blog-post here 3 years back, started with an initial population of just 16 birds to make some points:


The simple point being, under a variety of circumstances, small populations of vertebrate creatures can hang on for a very long time (not growing in numbers substantially, but not dying out either) if certain minimal conditions are met.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


-- IBWO Miscellany --


'nuther article on the Arkansas search, headed up by Alan Mueller, getting underway this Saturday.
Still have heard no official details on at least 3 other states where I assume there will be searches this winter. And (somewhat incredibly) still no official release of a summary report from USFW for last search season.
Cornell lists their 2008-9 Search/Recovery Team here (mostly familiar names/faces from past searches, but also a few new names added).

In the entertainment category, a fictionalized play based on the the Ivory-bill wins a competition here.
And trailer for Scott Crocker's "Ghost Bird" documentary movie (January release) here.

Not expecting much in the way of news for at least next few of weeks.
While skeptics continue to await a photo or video of a bird that can be definitively ID'd as an Ivory-bill, I on-the-other-hand, continue to await photos or video of a leucistic Pileated with white dorsal wing patches that truly mimic the wings of an Ivory-bill, as the only really likely explication for skeptics to hang their hat on for many of the IBWO claims over decades....

Monday, December 08, 2008


-- Sufjan Stevens Song --


Sufjan Stevens' song, "Lord God Bird" put to video on YouTube:


Sunday, December 07, 2008


-- Sunday Contemplation --


The actual probability that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker exists is 100%... OR... 0%, since it either does or it doesn't. When I tell folks I view the probability of its survival somewhere around 70-80%, I invariably hear from some who say they've seen it and that I am WRONG because they know with 100% probability it does; and of course I hear from skeptical others, who scold me for voicing such hope, proclaiming, equally assuredly, the probability is 0% (for now I'll stick with my own numbers). Unfortunately, even if the species does survive, the probability that they will be documented definitively to the satisfaction of all is yet some other number. And then there's always the thorny issue of whether documenting them is even in the birds' best interest or not. In rummaging through my files I find more words I wrote (a tad dramatically) back in 2002 following the unsuccessful Van Remsen search in Louisiana:

"...The forest holds her secrets well. And we humans, despite vaunted wisdom and technology, are really ‘babes in the woods’ when we enter the domains of other creatures. In remote woodland we are bumbling clods while any remaining Ivorybills, having honed their woodsy intelligence over millenia, likely bear a genius I.Q. So I'm not surprised that hundreds have failed to find the bird; nor even that the most organized and strategized search of all time in Jan.-Feb. of this year came up empty-handed. The 2002 Zeiss-sponsored expedition planned for months before sending 6 highly qualified searchers and modern equipment into Pearl River for 30 days to seek out the birds. They received widespread news coverage, from "The Wall Street Journal " and "New York Times" to NPR, but in the end could only report the same sorts of ‘possible signs’ of the birds that others had glimpsed/heard.

Christopher Cokinos spent ten years researching and writing about six bird species wiped out by Man, including the Ivorybill, for his 2000 book "Hope Is The Thing With Feathers." The subject matter drove him to major depression. What humans have done, and continue to do, to other species, is a sorrowful tale. I do not wish to proceed on false hope, but am even less willing to give up too easily on a creature as grand as the Ivorybill.

If the Ivorybill is ever found thousands may stampede to view it, and managing such a ‘mob’ of birders, biologists, naturalists, photographers, newsmen, curiosity-seekers, could be an insurmountable task. So for its own sake, in my more rational moments, I often hope the bird is NOT found, lest it be hounded to death by humans, after having made it this far. But I must admit in my ideal dream-world, the Ivorybill IS found... by ME! --- a pair... with a nest!! They raise young. I watch them for weeks and take hundreds of photos before they depart. Then I show the world my pictures and prove to the naysayers that the species survives after-all; that only ignorance and naivete allowed “experts” to prematurely write the species off; that our science and academia lacks deep understanding of the natural world. We have sacrificed intuition for cold rationality; replaced respect for nature with exploitation of her. Wake up I say and listen to the world out there; listen to the forest’s pleas... Listen... to the forests... please!
And then I die, never breathing a word of where I found the birds or when or how; nary a hint; leaving behind me a trail of wide-eyed seekers, achingly frustrated, panting in my dust, pleading for information. I die giving the Ivorybills the last full ounce of my respect. And though I know it is too little too late, they and their kind deserve nothing less."

And that is the real dilemma... any Ivory-bills (and many other creatures) that hang on, need more than we as a species, are likely able or willing, to bestow them. In the short-run, with concerted effort, we can temporarily postpone certain outcomes, preserve patches of habitat, do some feel-good conservation, even captively breed California Condors and the like... but long-term... well, I don't even like to think about it.

(However, one of the greatest scholars in this arena, E.O. Wilson, is far more optimistic than I about the future.)

Monday, December 01, 2008


-- '08-'09 Arkansas Search Commencing --


Article here (or here) on the upcoming scaled-back search for Ivory-bills in Arkansas this winter, headed up by wildlife biologist Alan Mueller of previous endeavors. Happily surprised to read there will be 26 volunteers and 3 "expert field biologists" involved --- didn't actually expect that many participants this go-around. (And presumably there will also be a 'Mobile Team' afoot as well, mostly outside Arkansas.) As reported earlier, a $50,000 reward potentially awaits some lucky claimant...

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