Monday, December 12, 2005

My Ivory Tower

Like most birders I was thrilled to learn that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been re-found in the US after nearly 60 years. I read the accounts from the Cornell Lab teams and watched the now-famous Luneau video, all 10 seconds of it. I pretty much took everything I read at face value, and was reassured by the authoritative voice coming from CLO.

But I've recently come across a few blogs and other statements expressing some concerned skepticism towards the identifications, and the subsequent efforts toward conserving the believed habitat of the remaining Ivory-bills. I admit that I was a little surprised to discover this skepticism, but after reading about the basis of it, I've had to rethink my own ideas on the whole matter.

I've only read up on the Ivory-bill marginally, and I make no pretense at expertise. I will say however that while I consider the video to be compelling evidence, I don't consider it definitive, unassailable proof of the existence of the species. For such an extraordinary claim, it just isn't extraordinary evidence. Not yet.

Now, the Luneau video shows a large black woodpecker with a remarkable amount of white in the wings - way more than any Pileated I've ever seen. But the video is grainy and I've also now heard of stories of 'abnormal Pileateds', which presumably can have much more white in them than usual. I've not investigated those claims, and I need to. In either case though, there is just no prima facie logical basis for claiming this bird is either a Pileated or an Ivory-bill.

All this motivates me to read up more on the "controversy", because in the absence of any clear photography showing this bird, we may well be stuck in this limbo state of having to treat the actual scant data as a Rorschach test that ends up saying more about our own standards of evidence and desire to believe than it does about the bird we all want to save. Because so much in the way of public and private resources are about to be committed here, there needs to be transparency and honesty as to what has actually been observed.



Tom said...

Thanks for the link.

I think the Luneau video almost certainly shows an ordinary Pileated. Note the large amount of white shown
here .

Eric said...

You're welcome.

I'm off to Florida to visit my Dad for the next few days. He gets Pileateds in his retirement community area every so often, so I'll definitely be paying close attention to them if I see them.

When I get back I'll study the issue more closely. I guess I'm still a little on the fence as far as the Luneau tape, but I can understand your skepticism. Even if it is an Ivory-bill (which I am inclined to think), it's not the kind of evidence that blows me away.

Like you I want to believe that these birds are there, and am not as impressed as I'd like to be by the evidence made available to the public. I guess I tend to defer to authorities a lot, and still do - but I am glad to see some rational skepticism (as opposed to the knee-jerk variety) being voiced on this matter.