tags: faith-based birding, mass hysteria, endangered species, extinct species, conservation, politics, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, IBWO, ornithology, birds, researchblogging.org,peer-reviewed research, peer-reviewed paper
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has posted a reward of $50,000
to be given to anyone who can provide “video, photographic, or
other compelling information and lead a project scientist to a
living wild Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”
Mass hysteria is that strange psychological phenomenon where a group of people experience the same hallucination at the same time. Such hallucinations include observing statues or paintings of the Virgin Mary either bleeding or crying at certain times of the year. But mass hysteria is not limited to religious fanatics. During the past five years, there has been a marked increase in what I refer to as “faith-based birding,” where groups of people believe they’ve seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, a large bird that has been extinct in the US for more than 50 years.
Ever since a small group of birders and ornithologists from Cornell University published their very controversial claim in Science in 2004 that they captured this extinct species on video, the number of other people who have likewise “seen” the Ivory-billed Woodpecker have increased. Unfortunately, many of these so-called sightings are based on manufactured photographic evidence.
Apparently unable to distinguish reality from hysteria, Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology has only added fuel to this fire by advertising a $50,000 reward to anyone who can provide “video, photographic, or other compelling information and lead a project scientist to a living wild Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” Why would the “Lab of O” even get involved in this when they should be devoting their precious time and resources to avian research? Why not admit that their original video ID was mistaken and move on already? (my hypothesis: testosterone poisoning)
Further, if they are really serious about finding this species, why wouldn’t they refocus their energies from their sensationalist “wanted dead or alive” advertising campaign (above) to one where they educate the public by showing them how to distinguish this bird from other, similar species (below)?
Worse, some so-called birders, such as landscaper and gambler Daniel Rainsong, who claims to have photographed the bird, resort to harassment to assert their claims to this $50,000 prize. According to the current kerfuffle on the intert00bz, Rainsong apparently refuses to allow anyone to see his December 2009 photographs of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker until his “right of claim” (huh?) for this discovery is established (huh??). But despite the self-imposed veil of secrecy surrounding his supposed photographs, Rainsong is allegedly harassing professional ornithologists by filing “formal complaints” against them because (he claims) they refuse to accompany him on an extended search in the Sabine River basin in east Texas to “prove” the validity of his photograph(s). Which he won’t permit them to examine.
But the furor has reached far beyond the machinations of a few self-important fortune-seekers: it has even infected the US government. During the past five years, hysterical public officials redirected $14 million of precious conservation funds into developing the Ivory-billed Woodpecker recovery plan — never mind the fact that this species has not been seen in more than 50 years and is extinct in the USA. But this raises the question; why not spend that $14 million on implementing recovery plans for endangered species that actually exist and that we have a chance of recovering?
Further, after five years of fruitless searching, even some ornithologists at the Lab of O have given up all hope by deciding the bird is either extinct or hopelessly irrecoverable.
“We don’t believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists,” said Ron Rohrbaugh, a conservation biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who headed the original search team.
Dalton, R. (2010). Still looking for that woodpecker. Nature, 463 (7282), 718-719 DOI: 10.1038/463718a
Addendum: an opposing point of view.