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Wednesday, 27 September 2006 00:00

Ivory-billed redux?

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Here we go again

Grail bird’s back in town again

 

We’ll see the smack again

One more time

Here we go again

Bloggers will blog again

Will we be fooled again

One more time

We’ve been there before

They’ll try it again

Kent calls and blurry video

There’s no way to win

Here we go again

The ivory-billed lives again

Is it just in the heart again

One more time

— With apologies to the late Ray Charles


The story’s been floating around in the blogosphere for a month or so and is now making it’s way to birding listservs. Rumor has it that there will be an ivory-billed announcement at the Oct. 3-7 meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Veracruz, Mexico.

According to the rumor mill, Auburn University graduate student(s?) have found one or more — up to 9 — pairs of ivory-billed woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida’s panhandle. And, of course, the sightings occurred perhaps a year or so ago but have been kept under wraps to aid in land acquisition projects — anyone get a sense of déja vu reading that?

And in the realm of coincidences, the sighting(s?) occurred on public lands adjacent a highly environmentally questionable mega development — a proposed airport. Of course, no one would think of filing suit to stop such a project on behalf of a yet-to-be, irrefutably substantiated endangered species, like, say an ivory-billed woodpecker. Oh, wait — that has been done.

I know statements like those above will likely get me listed on some blogs as one of those spouse-beating, puppy-kicking, anti-environmental, anti-conservation, anti-preservation, pro-development, ne’re-do-wells — but tain’t so. As populations increase and the desire for acquiring wealth increases and natural resources dwindle, the challenge to protect those resources and preserve wild and scenic landscapes as well as environmentally and ecologically sensitive ecosystems is going to increase exponentially. The energy, diligence and commitment that will be required from my children and their children to protect those natural resources and preserve the ever-shrinking wild landscape will also rise exponentially. We don’t need to saddle them with ready-made epithets like “those environmental-whackos that wanted to save that extinct woodpecker.”

When Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced, in 2005, the re-discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker I, like most birders, was initially thrilled. As I began to review the evidence, I became skeptical. As time passed — it’s been almost three years since that kayaker deep in the impenetrable Arkansas swamp allegedly saw the grail bird — I became more skeptical. Now I am cynically skeptical of CLO’s evidence and their modus operandi.

Because of column space limitations I will list only one of CLO’s glaring faux pauxs. In response to David Sibley et al’s paper in Science questioning CLO’s interpretation of the four-second, Bigfoot-quality video, used to substantiate the existence of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, Fitzpatrick (of CLO) et al stated, “After studying the evidence at length, the Bird Records Committee of the Arkansas Audubon Society voted unanimously to accept the documentation of ivory-billed woodpecker.”

The actual vote was 4-1 with Mike Mlodinow objecting. What was Mlodinow’s response to the video? “You can barely tell it’s a bird.”

The statement was, at best, a simple proofing error. At worst, it was a deliberate attempt to mislead.

If this has become some kind of academic ivory-billed one-upmanship then I guess nine pair beats one-of-a-kind. The next great institute of higher learning will have to wait for a flock of ivory-billeds. Stay tuned.

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

Update:

Auburn University had a website up Monday, Sept. 25, but quickly pulled it. They are supposed to be back up by the time this issue comes out. Quite extraordinary claims, but no photos.

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