Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
- – Carl Sagan
A trio of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Campephilus principalis.
Adult male (left) and female (lower right).
Painting by John James Audubon (1785-1851).
With every day that passes, the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker looks more like an apparition or, more likely, a case of mistaken identity. Bird artist and ID expert, David Sibley, and several of his colleagues, Louis Bevier, Michael Patten, and Chris Elphick, published a rebuttal that was released today at 2pm EST by the top-tier journal, Science (this rebuttal should be accessible by the public here or I can email the PDFs to you).
In his short paper, Sibley analyzes the Cornell team’s 4.5 seconds of blurry video, frame-by-frame, and concludes that the bird captured in the video is actually a case of mistaken identity; the bird is a pileated woodpecker (PIWO). This, based primarily on the black and white patterns on the bird’s wings, which he says differ significantly from an ivory-billed woodpecker.
An accompanying response, also published in Science, by John Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, Martjan Lammertink, David Luneau, Tim Gallagher and Kenneth Rosenberg, counter Sibley et al.‘s assertions by stating, among other things, that Sibley’s field guide depictions of the wing markings of the pileated woodpecker are incorrect. They also tried to prove that the wing patterns were still visible, despite the poor quality of the original video. To do this, they made cardboard models of both bird species and photographed them under similar circumstances to when the original video was made. They found that the trailing black edge of the wing in the pileated woodpecker was still distinguishable.
Basically, this debate has deteriorated into a battle over pixels.
I am disappointed, but not surprised, by this confusion over the bird’s identity. Considering the poor quality of the video, which is the strongest evidence arguing for the existence of the IBWO, I was surprised that the original paper was actually published by Science. But like almost everyone, I wanted to believe that somehow, this remarkable bird has escaped extinction. I want to believe that somewhere, this bird clings to life because by doing so, it redeems humanity, just a little bit.
But I want to believe that this bird lives only if it truly does. This bird’s existence becomes less credible, more tenuous, with every passing day. True, the surviving birds are probably terrified of humans, and yes, there are a very very few individuals out there to be seen, if they exist, but the fact remains that armies of highly trained and very experienced birders, hunters and fishermen have invested countless thousands of hours combing the region for this bird for two years. They have used every advantage available to them, every sort of cutting-edge recording device, from digital video cameras to sound recording equipment; they have set up remote cameras and tape recorders throughout the woods where this bird was seen and in other locations where the bird might still be found, yet nothing definitive has been recovered. This, after two years of diligent, dedicated looking.
Let me repeat; they have found nothing.
At this point, the search for the IBWO, which was almost prophetically nicknamed the “Lord God Bird”, is becoming something uncomfortably close to a religious pilgrimage. The intense arguments over fuzzy phantoms, double raps and “kent” calls, numerous ad hominum attacks between “the believers” and “the skeptics”, combined with an obvious evangelical fervor displayed by extremists on both sides, is depressing to watch. Daily, believers and skeptics alike congregate in a murky swamp to peer hopefully into leafy cathedrals towering over the Pearl River, blind to all its many wonders in their pursuit of That One Great Wonder that they seek, sometimes desperately. Lord God, where are you?
Is the bird there? Does the IBWO exist anywhere on this breathtaking, but incompletely seen and so poorly known world? It doesn’t appear likely. The bird’s silence is deafening.
I am not saying that we should give up seeking evidence for the continued existence of the IBWO. As much as anyone, I long for the return of that magical June morning last year when the IBWO flashed into glorious life from the shadows of extinction. I want very much to believe that this bird lives; that we are being given a second — completely undeserved — chance to right our wrongs by protecting this bird from our worst selves. But it appears that this will not come to pass. We, as a species, are not going to be emancipated by the IBWO. We were too efficient the first time.
But even in extinction, the IBWO continues to give generously to others. This bird has captured the imagination of the public like no other, thereby serving to sensitize us to the needs of creatures around us. The IBWO has motivated some of us to take action. As a result, previously unprotected regions of the Pearl River are now under the care of the Nature Conservancy and other organizations. Perhaps the best legacy that this ghost bird can provide is increased appreciation and protection for its former, mostly abused, home — something that should have occurred 100 years ago, when our intervention might actually have made a difference for this bird species.
But I refuse to believe in a ghost. I want tangible evidence: a decent photograph, a feather, an egg shell, or (dare I say it?) a body.
And to stir the pot a little, David Luneau writes cryptically on his website, “That black trailing half of the PIWO wing just won’t go away no matter how hard you hypothesize.”
Indeed. But my bird is not made of cardboard.
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