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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

Saturday, November 14, 2009


-- Up To The Task??? --


A little more background before explaining the point of yesterday's 'story'. Through the 60s, 70s, 80s I thought Ivory-bills existed and a major systematic, concerted, organized search, throughout the Southeast, if done, would easily demonstrate it within a couple years. The small size and paucity of previous searches was the principal reason for failure to document Ivory-bills in my mind. Fast forward to 2005, Cornell's announcement, and finally a real intention and plan to do just such a widespread, methodical search... my wish come true. Fast forward four more years. Still, no rock-solid documentation of the species' persistence. Not only has the IBWO not been confirmed, my faith in a large-scale, methodical, team approach has also not been confirmed (...though I still believe in it). If Ivory-bills exist (as I also still believe) what could've gone wrong???

Some think the methods/protocols employed were poorly designed or deeply-flawed. I've thought long about that, and concluded that despite weaknesses and flaws (expected in any such large scale project), they were sufficient enough, and even quite good in many respects; good enough to expect positive results. But if the planning and methods were adequate the only thing left is the execution, and really that means the searchers themselves.

This isn't meant as a slam at the 100's of dedicated volunteers and staff who spent so much time and energy in the swamps, but I do wonder how many were up to the task. In short, what percentage of IBWO searchers were, in reference to yesterday's 'story,' essentially "9th" choices (or 4th, 5th, 6th... choices)?

Early in the search, a few volunteers in the Big Woods even emailed me with remarks like, "I'm not sure what half these people are doing here; they're really not cut out for this," or "most of these folks aren't up to the task at-hand," or "the quality of searchers isn't really what it ought to be".

Is it possible that IBWO searches largely attracted people with the interest, time, and money to do so (and maybe a sense of adventure), but NOT the best, most experienced, keen-eyed, sharp-eared, intuitive, skilled backwoods birders in the country, as needed (even just being stationed in a spot and asked to watch a certain quadrant of forest for the next 8 hours takes skills and attention not everyone has). In addition to all those qualities, the searchers needed to be good photographers with other technical skills, and have great backwoods instincts about them. Ultimately, that is a tough combination to come by. And once found, those people then must have the time and money to part from family or job for the endeavor.
In short, I can't help but wonder whether most of the highest caliber candidates for this 4-year effort never even took part? And the leaders who were highly-qualified couldn't pull this off by themselves; the support staff was crucial.
I'm not asserting that the bulk of searchers lacked the competencies most needed... just saying I don't know what percentage did; it remains a question in my mind --- were search techniques that appeared adequate on paper, compromised by a shortage of outstanding practitioners to carry them out?
The Arkansas search, with by far the most volunteers, would've been the most affected by any potential shortage of qualified people; other search areas may simply not have had enough people period, whether qualified or not. (Time, money, and job precluded my own participation, but more importantly I recognize my own limits, and know I'm not the least bit qualified for this work, despite birding off-and-on for 45 years; but I wonder how many people of my ilk did take part for the thrill of a lifetime.)

That is the best I can do to account for the negative or questionable results after four years, other than simply reverting to the notion that we are looking for lone, quick-moving needles in immense haystacks and it requires more time (a notion that I think is getting stretched thin by now). This is not a satisfying answer... but then there is little at this point that is satisfying.

ADDENDUM: having received a few emails now in response to the above I've moved the discussion over to the new "Permanent Open Thread" to try and kickstart things there, if anyone cares to add to it...
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