Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Ornithologist and Ivory-billed Woodpecker expert, Dr. Jerome Jackson, who has an impressive list of professional accomplishments, including the excellent book, In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Amazon (2004), has finally spoken out about the rediscovery of the IBWO in a peer-reviewed paper [free PDF] that was recently published in one of the most respected ornithological journals in the world, The Auk.

In this 15-page paper, Jackson asserts that the evidence put forward by the search party participants simply doesn’t rise to the level of scientifically valid “proof” as portrayed by the media. Basically, this rediscovery relies heavily on audio data to back up mere seconds of poor-quality video of an individual bird in flight, a bird that may or may not be an IBWO. Further, the sound data may not be credible: several other bird species found in the same area, as well as individual humans, are known to make calls or sounds that are remarkably similar to those produced by the IBWO.

But beyond that, the potential rediscovery of the IBWO is sadly illuminating because it reveals disturbing truths about our current government’s environmental policies — policies that gravely threaten the continued existence of more and more species, just as the IBWO was endangered by previous policies, if it even survives. Policies that we, as a nation, support. If the IBWO is a metaphor or icon that captures our cultural attitude towards nature in general, I ask; how many more IBWOs are in our future? Read more about it in this well-written commentary.


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  1. #1 pablo
    January 23, 2006

    But this is a good thing, right? I’d much rather have an important assertion like this subjected to the rigors of the scientific method than to allow it to be trumpted without real backing by a sensation-seeking media. And, frankly, I think this possible re-discovery is sexy enuf to actually attract the attention of even Joe Sixpack. Perhaps that will lead to more good.

  2. #2 cyberthrush
    January 23, 2006

    for another take on Jackson’s “Auk” article you may wish to look at my blog post of 1/21/06:

  3. #3 GrrlScientist
    January 23, 2006

    Pablo; i agree with everything that you say. i absolutely agree that this sighting should be verified using the best modern technology that we have available (i am still waiting for someone to find a moulted feather or a woodpecker poop that we can use for DNA fingerprinting, as a way to identify and track individuals of this population, if they do indeed, exist). as much as i’d love to believe this bird still exists, belief without substantial scientific proof remains the subject of mythology.

    i also love knowing that “joe sixpack” is nearly as interested in this bird as i am!

    thanks for the link, Cyberthrush.

  4. #4 Ocellated
    January 26, 2006


    I might have little to say on this topic…

    I’ve been a birder for some 13 years now, and am a guide down in South Texas at their birding festival. This last year, Tim Gallagher, one of the lead proponents of the rediscovery, gave the keynote speech at the event.

    He presented a couple of things that I found to be very convincing.

    1) There were two areas that had yielded visual sightings, and all of them strongly correlated with locations that these sounds were recorded at. I found that quite a coincidence. They had recording devices setup all over the place, yet the only places they were getting recording that sounded like IBWO were from the two areas where sightings occured.

    2) I found the video evidence quite persuading, especially presented uncompressed, on an auditorum screen. The small, compressed versions we’ve seen on the internet don’t quite capture the giz of the bird. Gallagher went into some detail talking about the video and their analysis of it.

    So, I note that Dr. Jackson’s critique was that the level of evidence didn’t rise to a high enough standard. Basically, this claim is like the rest, just that the reporters have impeccable credentials. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps we need more evidence from a scientific standpoint for confirmation. (I simply cannot wait for a freaking amazing picture of an IBWO to show up.)

    But I found the video to be support their claims, and at the meeting, Gallagher reported seven definite sightings, with more probable sightings. I also trust the experience of the observers.

    Now I completely understand that in science, we don’t “trust people” with their findings. But in birding, we often do, especially when the observers are the brightest and best we have. Birding is a game built on trust.

    So if the level of evidence needs to rise, okay. But to believe this whole thing is a hoax rises to the level of vast conspiracy theory, one that’s uncalled for.

    And, I couldn’t agree more with your (and others) comments on our environmental policy… We stick our head in the sand until the last minute, and then when our conservation efforts fail, “oh well, we tried.”

  5. #5 GrrlScientist
    January 26, 2006

    Ocellated; thanks for your comments. i found them interesting.

    in my rush to bring up two topics (IBWO rediscovery and environmental policies espoused by the white house gang) that seemed to be related in my mind, i guess i didn’t made myself clear. i am a scientist, so i seek proof for things. however, i am also a birder, so i also recognize the difficulty associated with providing that proof, especially with incredibly rare (extinct?) species, such as the IBWO. do i think this rediscovery is a conspiracy or a hoax, as some people loudly proclaim? no. do i want more proof? yes. like you, i can hardly wait for a great photograph of the bird.

    despite the fact that the IBWO is amazing and beautiful, the IBWO is special, it is more than “just a bird”. the IBWO is an icon representing all those precious species, irretrievably lost, suddenly found. the IBWO symbolizes those rare second chances, mercifully appearing in our lives, absolutely undeserved. .. a breath of fresh air to a weary world dying from its own largesse.

    more proof is a good thing, for all of us, for so many reasons.

  6. #6 Ocellated
    January 26, 2006

    Thanks GrrlScientist.

    I think I know where you’re coming from, as both a scientist and a birder. I definitely qualify as the latter, but I just began grad school in hopes of becoming the former.

    I’ve known a few birders that really push the conspiracy theory aspects of it all, but wasn’t trying to imply that’s what you were after.

    I think that the rediscoverers of the bird had enough evidence to build a case. And if they really saw the birds, which they unequivically say they did, then it seems reasonable enough that they would make their case.

    The fact that the media (and most of the birding community for that matter) would wet themselves in excitement is both understandable and also predictable.

    Science will do what it always does — not get swept up in th emotion and keep trying to confirm other’s findings.

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