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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

Monday, December 26, 2011


-- Closing Out the Year --


Another appearance by Tim Gallagher on NPR last week re-telling his quest for the Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico:


As most active birders out there have by now heard, some weeks ago a Hooded Crane (Asian species) was discovered co-mingling with Sandhill Cranes in Tennessee:



Obviously one wonders how an exotic large bird ended up plopped down in the corner of Tennessee having not been spotted anywhere along the way of whatever route it took to get there? Given that on any given day (or week, or month) very very very very very very very very very little of this country actually gets birded to any significant extant it's not entirely unexpected. At any given point in time there are probably 100's of rarities scattered across the country going unreported (granted, not all as rare as a species potentially from halfway around the globe).
Many presume this apparently non-banded, non-pinioned Tennessee bird is nonetheless an escapee from a holding facility (a few escaped in Idaho back in 2006), but even if that is the case the question remains how such a large distinguishable bird has managed to evade detection so much of its time (there being just two other sightings of Hooded Crane in US since those escapes)? But then maybe spotting a single Hooded Crane in a forest of Sandhills ain't so easy (or probabilistic), especially in out-of-the-way places.

Finally, a reader sends me a positive note about Daniel Kahneman's new book "Thinking, Fast and Slow," and what it may have to say about the Ivory-billed debate. This long-awaited volume has received outstanding reviews (including making it onto every 'Top 10 non-fiction booklist of 2011' I've seen), and Kahneman is regarded by many as one of the most important research psychologists of modern times (interestingly, he won his Nobel Prize in economics). I suspect his views can actually be used to cut both ways in the Ivory-bill dispute, but I haven't read the book yet (hopefully sometime in 2012):


Thursday, December 15, 2011


-- The Unknown... --

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know." ....Donald Rumsfeld

Major ho
axes have, luckily, been few-and-far-between in the Ivory-bill saga, though they have occurred, and may again. Steve Sheridan's 2009 hoax was the one well-established (admitted) hoax of recent times, and most presume the Dan Rainsong and Florida "magic guy" (William Smith) story-lines to have also been hoaxes (though never admitted). A few folks may yet believe David Kulivan's 1999 claims to have been bogus, though almost all informed folks lean toward either honest mistake or true sighting for that one.

In earlier years of this blog I occasionally had transparent, bumbling hoaxes sent to me via email. Most were lame attempts, easy to see through, even if it takes extra effort to confirm them as concocted. Most who contrive such stories simply lack the knowledge/skills to pull it off, especially with today's means of scrutiny. Still, I've always believed that a well-executed, difficult-to-unravel hoax is possible by someone ornithologically and technologically knowledgeable enough, and with the patience/desire to do so.

It's barely even relevant to the question of whether Ivory-bills persist today, but possibly the most contested hoax/no hoax(?) case is that of Fielding Lewis's tale from 1971. Tim Gallagher detailed the unresolved story in his book "The Grail Bird" (Chapter 7, entitled "The Boxer"); available for free on the Web from Google books:


Over the years a few folks who either had direct knowledge of the story or knew Lewis personally, have emailed me to voice its authenticity or Lewis's veracity… still, I've never felt confident taking either side on this one --- leaning toward authenticity, but only by a slim margin. [ -- For anyone not acquainted with the storyline, Lewis, a prominent Louisiana outdoorsman, presented George Lowery, one of Louisiana's premier ornithologists, with photos of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on a tree trunk taken near Franklin, La. with a Brownie instant camera. The bird pictured IS clearly an Ivory-bill, the only question never resolved being whether it was living or a stuffed specimen placed on the tree.] One of the Lewis photos was used in a 2001 edition of "Birding" magazine, opening an article by Jim Williams:


It is amazing that even this instance of clearcut photos only takes us down yet another 40-year dead-end of unsettled controversy. Was the bird dead or alive, breathing or stuffed? Only Fielding Lewis knew for sure, and in the realm of the Ivory-bill, one witness is never enough (Lewis died in 2008; Lowery, by the way, died 30 years earlier, his reputation sullied by his trust in Lewis's claim).
Often people will ask what possible motive could Lewis have had for such a prank, if that it be, but the motivations of hoaxers can be many, and need not include money, material gain, nor fame. So I don't doubt that he could've had a motive, but to his death Lewis never recanted his claims (and, so far as I know, no further relics/evidence either backing or detracting from his story were unveiled following his demise).

Like the Luneau video, different people can view the Lewis photos and interpret them differently. Did a Brownie camera in 1971 accomplish what 1000's of dollars-worth of photographic equipment since then has failed to accomplish? Ultimately, in regards to the question of Ivory-bill persistence today, it is a somewhat moot point whether or not Lewis photographed an IBWO 40 years ago. Still, one wishes the Lewis story could be laid to rest, one way or the other, once-and-for-all… but like the Kulivan claims, the Sparling-Gallagher-Harrison claims, Tyler Hicks' report, etc. etc., apparently it cannot. It remains in the over-flowing dustbin of the curious, the tantalizing, the frustrating, the aggravating, the likely forever-unknown, that so enshroud this ornithological quagmire.

Monday, December 12, 2011


-- Can the Ivory-bill Be Far Behind? ;-) --


As one website says, "By all indications, Tuesday is going to be a big day." ...For physics that is, not ornithology. Tomorrow, according to well-circulated rumors, CERN will claim evidence that the elusive Higgs boson has been found.

In honor of that likely pronouncement, I repeat below (only slightly modified) a post I did earlier this year:

The analo
gy to 'Schrodinger's cat' has been made repeatedly in the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Another, more-current analogy one might make though is to the Higgs boson. I'm not competent to describe the technicalities of the Higgs, but simply put, years and years of tangential evidence has indicated its likely existence, yet no proof of it has been forthcoming -- one of the major goals of the much-publicized Large Hadron Collider is to establish the presence of this elementary particle (known popularly as "the God particle"... hmmm, echoes of "the Lord God Bird"). Both the LHC and its rival, the Tevatron collider in the US, have recently found rumored evidence (still being analyzed) for the Higgs, after decades of theorizing and failed searches. Hints, glimpses, findings, calculations, debates... but still awaiting proof (sound familiar?).

I'll confess my bias: Schrodinger's cat is mostly an abstract thought exercise... I suppose I prefer an analogy to the Higgs, because so many of those in the know feel sure it is really there, and just a matter of time before that is patiently demonstrated... may it still be so for the Ivory-bill... not Schrodinger's Woodpecker, but Higgs.

Of course, any announcement from CERN will have no real bearing on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Still… one may hope.

Apologies to any who are bored with all the Higgs hoopla, but a quick update:

Higgs rumors had been circulating for weeks on popular science sites with the hype feeding on itself in increasing anticipation of today's announcement. And while some do find today's news release quite persuasive, the bottom-line is more cautious, continuing to take a wait-and-see approach (for something more definitive)… in a sense, physicists have heard some double-knocks and kent sounds and had a brief glance of a putative Higgs, but nothing that can be called "proof." They're now predicting 2012 as the year that final confirmation may come --- uhhh, how 'bout we make that a twofer!


Friday, December 09, 2011


-- Weekend Reading --


This long, older, Jack Hitt piece from the NY Times is possibly worth a re-read:


And the Don Moser 1972 Life Magazine write-up on the Ivory-bill, which is alluded to in the article, is available on the Web from Google books here (starts pg. 52):



Sunday, December 04, 2011


-- And Back to the Pearl --


his somewhat trademark fashion, Mike Collins has once more re-visited some prior video footage (in this instance from the Choctawhatchee in 2007), to again discover the possible presence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Read his report here:


Per usual, the video is not of a nature/quality that would sway any skeptics nor move the debate -- it's not clear to me if Mike seriously thinks this quality of 'evidence' would alter mindsets. And it is almost embarrassing that he keeps pushing such footage on the Frontiers of Identification listserv where most participants are likely to roll their eyes at it (...at the Frontiers site it is not unusual to have a vigorous debate over the identity of a bird even when given perfectly good and clear photographs!... which Mike's frames are not).

There are, as usual, some frames I find mildly interesting, but nothing at all persuasive to my eyes overall. A nice-sounding double-knock is included in one video, though I have certain qualms with it as well, which are probably unresolvable and not worth getting into. Still, I do encourage anyone with the patience left to do so, to slowly, methodically work through the various clips for anything you can glean from them (...though it may not be much). I suspect the clips viewers might find most interesting are those labelled, "climb knock.mp4" and "jasa_movie1mp4".

For sheer perseverance, perhaps no one deserves the glory of eventually documenting the Ivory-bill any more than Mike does; plus, he has the luxury, afforded to few, of a job that allows him more consistent time and opportunity to look for the species in viable habitat. And if he is ever able to obtain video of a quality that confirms the presence of Ivory-bills in the Pearl to everyone's satisfaction, Mike will, in a flash, become one of the most celebrated, renowned birders in the long history of American ornithology (his various techniques, likely to become standard fare in graduate textbooks)… but, unless or until that happens, the verdict on his work seems, alas, far less promising...

For any who may be relatively new to the IBWO saga, and unaware of some of the history for the Pearl River area, preceding Mike's claims, here are a few older background pieces focusing mainly on David Kulivan's story or the Zeiss search that followed it in 2002 (unfortunately, so far as I can tell, the official Zeiss summary pages for their 2002 search are no longer available on the Web -- hmmm, is this because Zeiss now finds it too embarrassing to be associated with IBWO searches, or what gives???):






...and finally, brief, general info about the Pearl River WMA here:


[Pearl River area pic above via Wikimedia Commons]

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