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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, February 08, 2016


-- Intermission --


One quick 'housekeeping' note:
I don't mind anonymous or pseudonymous commenters, but would prefer if folks adopted a consistent identifying sign-off (fake name, initials, whatever), just so we can keep track of which anonymous comments hang together from the same individual, and which are new/different commenters.
But otherwise continue the comment discussions below, and meanwhile, enjoy a video:


Thursday, February 04, 2016


-- Explaining the Inexplicable... --


"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool."
-- Richard Feynman

[There's ongoing discussion for readers to follow, in the comments to the prior post (which I'm trying to stay out of!), but I will here further explain my own speculations a bit...]

Whenever I've asked participants in Cornell's Big Woods search whether they thought the search was adequate or suffered major problems, I've received a similar answer: the effort had issues/flaws, but nothing that any large, similar project wouldn't experience. Generally, most felt the search was good enough that IF the birds were there they would've been found and documented -- of course Cornell didn't survey the entire Big Woods area, but did cover what they felt were the most promising areas. (It's even slimly possible that, as Cornell always acknowledged, the one IBWO initially reported, was the very last of its kind and deceased by the time the major search was underway.)

Similarly, Auburn's organized Choctawhatchee search began with high confidence and ended unsuccessfully, despite a lengthy, systematic effort.  David Kulivan's rather astounding 1999 claim for the Pearl (La.) was followed (after some delay) with an extensive search of those woods, unable to verify his claim. And I've lost count of how many missives I've received over the years from people telling me, 'Ohhh, that woodpecker, I know where they are; I'll get the proof, it'll be easy; those other bumpkins just don't know where to look.' And of course none of these folks EVER get back to me. None, NONE, NONE, NONE, ZIPPPPPO....

So I well understand why almost every individual I knew growing up who seriously believed there was a chance of IBWO survival no longer thinks so. The exasperation is palpable. We don't need reams of evidence for this bird, or pages of info, or 100s of hints or claims or recordings, nor DNA evidence, nor even a nice video... we just need ONE clear, indisputable photo in 70+ years to get this story out of the starting gate, and nobody can do it... even in a day of excellent, lightweight, prolific, easy-to-operate, point-and-shoot cameras, not a single individual has been able to pull it off, even... one... friggin'... time.  Probably no other woodland bird in the history of the planet (certainly not of this size, loudness, distinctiveness) has EVER proven this elusive to so many searchers. There has to be an explanation for such an outcome.

For decades I presumed the difficulty of proof was a reflection of the bird's scarcity and remote habitat. But following the Kulivan, Big Woods, and Choctaw searches (in combination with all the smaller searches over time) I find that, while not impossible, increasingly implausible -- it requires a remarkably fine balancing act for there to be enough Ivory-bills continuously reproducing successfully over 7 decades, yet so few as to be undetectable or little encountered. The bird gets seen, but then rarely re-seen; it is heard, but then rarely found; its sign is observed, but it doesn't return to it; it is spotted by a single individual, but virtually never by a group, nor remote camera -- this species either does NOT exist in the places we are looking for it, or, if present, it is essentially invisible to human eyes... and of course it can't be literally invisible -- my speculation (prior post) is merely a means to explain such "invisibility."

Either the photos taken by Fielding Lewis in the early 70's, with a Brownie camera no less, within yards of an Ivory-bill, (and in the presence of dogs no less), are absolute frauds (stuffed specimen), or remaining Ivory-bills have markedly changed their behavior since then. My outside-the-box view is simply that few of the habits, behaviors, requirements recorded for prior IBWOs (which are based on an exceedingly small sample anyway) can be assumed to hold true today for any birds remaining. Loud, mobile Ivory-bills, scaling downed dead trees are a creature of the past, replaced by relatively quiet, reclusive, canopy-dwelling denizens (so I'm hypothesizing, until someone can persuade me of a better alternative). (It all reminds me a tad of white-tailed deer evolving nocturnal habits as a sheer survival mechanism... and yet, when a herd is hunted repeatedly at night, they will switch back to daytime activity; animals continuously adapt for survival.)

Millions of dollars spent, 1000s of man-hours expended, yet we seem no closer to finding Ivory-bills today than we were 10 years ago. The failure is STUNNING! One goal I expected that even a failed Cornell effort would accomplish was to delimit the search for IBWOs to perhaps no more than 3 states and a few locales. Instead, we remain stuck with at least 7 states (perhaps more) and dozens of tracts that might be home to the species... little has been ruled in or out, and paltry little established with certainty after all this time and money.

Having said this, I STILL believe IBWOs ARE out there (and likely in multiple states) -- but the near inexplicable situation we have cries out for an explanation (other than as skeptics wish to explain it). My own belief (in persistence) rests almost entirely on the tiny trickle of good sightings of this almost unmistakable bird that have transpired over the years; beyond that I see no strong evidence for the species (though there are intriguing bits in association with some of those sightings). Many disagree, and regard the sightings themselves as very weak evidence (if the IBWO is ever confirmed, a serious, clarifying discussion of the crucial nature of sightings and field-identification ought occur) -- for now, my engagement with this topic is so deep it's difficult, any longer, to even judge my own objectivity on those few pieces of evidence I'm relying on. We need always keep Feynman's admonition fresh in mind, for we most risk being fooled... by ourselves.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016


-- Speculatin' --


I hear from skeptical sorts from time-to-time who clearly think (without saying it out loud ;-) that I'm a misguided idiot for keeping this blog going, and maintaining hope that IBWOs could possibly still persist.
Oddly... I beg to disagree ;-)  (even as my confidence declines each passing year).

...Certain things though DO have to be accounted for, if Ivory-bills persist... and two I find particularly troubling are:

1)  Why, after soooo many searches, over decades, as well as birders' repeated recreational presence in suitable areas, have there been so few direct encounters with Ivory-bills, especially close or lengthy such encounters? Even when birders flood into an area relatively quickly after a sighting, repeat sightings are rare???

2)  Why, despite 100s of attempts (and millions of snapshots), has not a single clear Ivory-bill been captured on film by remote, automatic cameras trained on cavities and foraging sites deemed Ivory-bill-like? Even if humans can't encounter an IBWO, surely by now a robotic, automatic, non-tiring camera should've?

In the past I've offered two potential explanations to account for these dilemma and I'll re-state them here:

1)  Possibly the vast majority of IBWO sightings are young, dispersing birds (or otherwise nomadic birds searching for new food sources) that don't actually reside in the territory where they are spotted. They are just passing through an area, but actually settling 25-100 miles away.  And so, even if searchers flood into a locale following a sighting, they are simply searching the wrong place. While this might account for a lot of search failures, though, I'm doubtful it can account for all over the years.

2)  My pet theory for awhile now is that remaining Ivory-bills have, through self-selection over decades, grown very wary of human activity. Both Noel Snyder and myself have hypothesized that it was hunting, and not habitat destruction, that finally drove IBWOs to near-extinction in their latter years, and the birds that survived would be those that learned to avoid humans.
The way to avoid humans is not only to inhabit remote woodland (which still gets visited by humans on occasion), but to occupy the most out-of-reach levels of that woodland -- the upper seasonally-leafy canopies of hardwoods; perhaps even spending more time inside cavities than was historically the case -- essentially out-of-sight of ground dwelling humans, who can, by the way, be kept under surveillance at great distance from such heights.
The birds might still visit ground-level for brief water or food excursions, but not to spend extensive time scaling bark, at a level that leaves them highly vulnerable, when perched. A lot of searches may simply be focusing on forest levels too low for where IBWOs spend perhaps 80-90% of their time (and the higher reaches are barely accessible to humans). There are several bird species that specialize in either upper or lower stories of forest habitat; why not the IBWO. (I previously had hopes for Mike Collins' novel tree-scaling methodology in the Pearl, but of course one individual can only cover a limited tract of area at any given time... and still can't see that well into leafed-out canopy). (...A separate, further problem, by the way, has been the frequent unreliability of most of the automatic camera systems deployed, even if we could actually recognize IBWO sign.)

It is always hugely speculative to hypothesize behavior changes in a species over time, but I think it also logical, and to-be-expected that any Ivory-bills remaining today, MUST have evolved changes from their early 20th century counterparts, or those few that Tanner witnessed at the Singer Tract. If they did not adapt such behaviors than I expect they are indeed extinct right now. (Even Tanner's Ivory-bills had likely evolved different behaviors from IBWOs populating North America a century or two earlier.)

If Ivory-bills are ever documented, the frustrated cry arising from the ornithology community will be, "How could this possibly be? HOW could we have missed them along the way!?" But some relatively small assumptions (about behavior and habitat requirements) can account for it... Nature is subtle, but persistent; humans on-the-other-hand are rarely as competent as we think we are. (Of course, if Ivory-bills are never indisputably documented, then yes, we "believers" will go down in history resembling 'misguided idiots.')

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