Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery is wishful thinking
New wave of claims delays federal decision on extinction.
Anyone who’s seen our biggest local woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, can attest to the thrill of observing this crow-sized bird, with a flaming red crest and bold white stripes.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were even bigger, though, and nicknamed the Lord God bird, because their striking appearance led folks to cry out “Lord God, what a bird.”
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, birds of the forested swamps of the Southeast, were thought to be extinct for several decades. Then in 2005, Cornell Lab of Ornithology set off a frenzy when it reported that an Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been seen in a swamp in the Big Woods of Arkansas. To most birders, Cornell’s word is the truth, which is what made subsequent months and years so confounding. A massive team of researchers and some of the nation’s top birders were dispatched to the Big Woods for many months. Equipped with parabola mics and canoe-mounted camcorders, trail cameras, and much more they tried and tried but couldn’t verify any re-sightings. The façade began to crack when eminent ornithologists like Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley reviewed the meager video evidence—really just a few blurry frames—and concluded that the bird was a Pileated Woodpecker.
Author Tim Gallagher’s popular book, “The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” fanned the flames and attempted to put a positive spin on what was mostly a fruitless search.
It’s hard to believe that Gallagher’s and other claims in the early 2000s were based in reality. The images that do exist wouldn’t pass muster with most any reviewer I know, at least in Chicagoland. As time went on, Cornell had less and less of a role in Arkansas and eventually pulled its search crews out altogether. It was saddening for Ivory-billed fans and everyone who’d gotten their hopes up.
Then about a year ago along came another wave of claims that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was still around. These claims might have been even more specious than the 2005 claims. Though perhaps reflecting the conspiratorial mood of the times, a Facebook page called Ivory-billed Rediscovered quickly accumulated 6,200 members.
This came to a head recently when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delayed its decision by six months before listing the Ivory-billed as extinct. Maybe those who’ve claimed sightings and believe in the bird’s existence weren’t all that wrong. The Ivory-billed “believers” came out in force against extinction, with little resistance from the non-believers.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is sort of the third rail of birding—it’s an issue many people don’t want to touch for the powerful emotions it evokes on both sides. Former Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick, who led the 2005 searches with Gallagher and a photography professor named Bobby Harrison, says that only an image worthy of the cover of Time magazine will suffice as proof.
There are more than enough capable bird photographers with good equipment out in the field that “a clear, unambiguous photo of an Ivory-bill is what everyone expects for full, conclusive proof.” Fitzpatrick asserts that he is by no means ready to declare the Ivory-bill extinct.
I watched this 53-minute video of Harrison dissecting his recent video of a possible Ivory-billed sighting in October 2020. He shared his evidence and reasoning with Birdwatching, going frame by frame and providing a variety of maps and charts. I respect the depth of analysis, but again the clip likely wouldn’t be accepted by a local reviewer. It isn’t at the Time level cited above.
Dear readers, I can assure you that if the bird was there it would have been found. These woods and swamps don’t go on forever and are a shadow of what they once were. In winter, the trees are bare and one can see (and hear) for great distances. Imagine the best birders in the country spending months and months in one relatively small section of Arkansas and looking for a very conspicuous bird and coming up empty.
All that said, I would love to be proved wrong. But until indisputable evidence emerges the Ivory-billed Woodpecker likely has gone the way of the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Great Auk, other species that Western society has fallen far short of preserving.
I have never heard of this issue before but it reminds me of other situations where the null-hypothesis (no birds exist) can only be disproved (a photo is produced) never proved.
Because it can’t be shown absolutely no bird exists, it’s free to simply believe one may still be out there. No individual ever need to commit to the statement.
But reason demands we draw a line. People may argue about this Woodpecker, but they likely wouldn’t argue about the carrier pigeon and definitely wouldn’t argue that the Giant sloth still roams the earth. At some point the evidence becomes overwhelming.
This is pure Bayesian reasoning, as I understand it. Someone has to introduce the logical claim as something like, “we say with 90% confidence that these birds are gone.” Every year or decade that goes by will increase that number until it’s 99.9%, or one day, miraculously, it will go to 0%.
Since someone has to do it, it falls to the journals of science. The individual scientists may believe there’s still a chance, but it’s rational to make the claim, set the date with high-certainty and move on. As unfortunate as it is, it sounds like good science.
Nice article, thanks! Any birds I should look out for in Eastern Appalachia?
It's obvious you likely know very little of the historical literature on the Ivory-billed. You also show no actual understanding or even knowing of the Ivory-billed evidence from 1999 to this year. Therefore you have no ability to accurately comment on that evidence which you are ignorant of.
I propose a one question-response by question-response live debate here or elsewhere on an agreed date to expose you.