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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.
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"....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






Monday, March 02, 2009

 

-- Stepping Lightly --

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Feel like I walk a tightrope a bit when I post these days. From emails I get it's clear that many people either think I'm too pessimistic, or think I'm being cryptic and know a major piece of news as yet unreleased. The truth is in-between; I'm optimistic that some IBWOs persist, pessimistic that conclusive (to everyone) evidence will arise this season... and even more pessimistic that even if it did, there's much chance of saving the species (though the chance at salvaging some fantastic habitat remains a strong impetus). Again, NONE of the things I'm aware of publicly/privately seem (to me) any more compelling than what has come before. While there's always a chance of some well-kept secret that could alter everything, recent history consistently suggests that a paucity of news from official sources usually reflects a paucity of information worth telling, NOT some conspiracy of silence (unreleased news usually being 'more-of-the-same,' and not 'game-changing').

Skeptics have won the immediate battle... verbal claims, pictures of cavities, foraging sign, intriguing habitat, recorded sounds, fuzzy video analysis, are all of interest and must be compiled/analyzed, but they simply won't be enough. Even DNA or a sighting and accompanying drawing by David Sibley could be debated. For good or for ill, critics have set the bar that establishes clear, indisputable photography/video as the required standard of evidence in this case; for a sparse, quick-moving bird of thick forest, it is a high bar. And if that standard is ever achieved, those in a position to do so will need to thoroughly analyze what worked and what didn't, to try and insure that we never again require this amount of time to attain that standard in any future analogous situation.
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Comments:
No one has won the immediate, or long-term "battle," it is as Bill Pulliam has stated, a stalemate.

The AOU and USFWS have not declared the species extinct (and they respectively represent the ultimate authorities in the discipline of ornithology in the Western Hemisphere and in implementing Endangered Species conservation). Although this is not a matter for "public" opinion polls, many in the Birding community (as well as among scientists) aren't satisfied with the evidence to date that they persist either. Stalemate.

The cumulative evidence points to the species' continued persistence (sorry skeptics). While this evidence is not conclusive it is enough for the USFWS to continue supporting official searches and finalizing a recovery plan for the species at least one more year. However, there are also some very valid and serious reasons for doubt (sorry, true believers) on the species' persistence. While some of the doubt relies on the non-scientific notion of "common sense," there are also serious theoretical questions about how could it be that a very rare, widely occurring species could persist without unquestioned documentation for 70+ years. Yes, there have been a couple of very important advancements on theory published this year on minimum population size and detectability for very rare species. These peer-reviewed publications explain that persistence is possible consistent with the patterns that have been "observed" over the last 70 years of Ivory-bill reports, etc. However, whether the assumptions involved are valid is yet to be determined in the case of this species. Stalemate.

Regarding the "common sense," aspect of this, my understanding is that it is based on the tried and true notion that for any very rare and resident species once one or more individuals are found they should be reliably refound and thoroughly documented. Makes "sense" to me that this should generally be true. So if Ivory-bills still persist, they appear to do so in ways that are different from most or all other rare, resident species (at least birds) in this regard.

The application of science to address evidence contrary to what is considered "common sense," is how our knowledge of the world advances, by addressing the unexpected and determining whether existing paradigms should be renewed or should be tossed onto the scrap heap of history. The balance of evidence points towards "common sense" not being applicable in the case of the Ivory-bill (perhaps that is an understatement, regardless of whether one is a true believer, a skeptic, or a skeptical believer)

On the other hand, all the search efforts (both official and independent) have "proven" one thing thus far. Even if Ivory-bills persist, there apparently is no good way to document them either through stealth or brute force of numbers and technology. We have reached the point where we ("society") can no longer afford to apply limited public (or private) resources needed to document this species' occurrence or absence in any one location.

So, as a society, do we assume that the species could be present and manage resources accordingly (if different than what we would promote for other co-occurring vulnerable species) or do we ignore the possibility of persistence and assume that if they are present that what we are doing for other species is good enough for Ivory-bills? Stalemate.
 
It is a "stalemate" in the sense that it is scientifically unsettled, with continued arguments from both sides, but I was speaking in terms of the arena of public opinion, or more specifically the birding community --- where it is abundantly clear that the number of believers in IBWO persistence has decreased substantially in the last couple years while the number of believers in extinction has increased, largely due to skeptics setting the agenda of what does or does not constitute adequate evidence.
As to the last point, I don't believe what we are doing for other creatures (in many cases) is even adequate for them, let alone adequate for IBWOs... but, practically speaking, it may be the best we can do.
 
"We have reached the point where we ("society") can no longer afford to apply limited public (or private) resources needed to document this species' occurrence or absence in any one location."

But we don't live in a socialist society in which spending of private resources is dictated by a centralized government.
 
the number of believers in extinction has increased, largely due to skeptics setting the agenda of what does or does not constitute adequate evidence.

Again it's blaming the skeptics. The problem is no conclusive evidence has been produced for decades.

The cumulative evidence points to the species' continued persistence

It most certainly does not. The fact that no one can ever produce conclusive evidence trumps the largest mountain of suggestive evidence that can be produced. This is not a magic bird. People can and do see things that they want to see, even if those things don't exist.

There will be believers for as long as people want to believe, but the ranks of skeptics will continue to grow, as they should.
 
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