Thursday, August 25, 2005

Interesting Comments Regarding the IBWO

This message was posted to the Birdwatching list, BirdChat. I think it makes several interesting points that might interest my readers, although I would have written it in a milder tone. His letter appears here in its entirety, with his permission. My comments and edits appear in brackets. I also provide a link to a dissenting opinion at the end.

Bob and all,

I have to say, that I'm amazed as well, NOT by the people reporting these birds but by the people still doubting they could be anything but true. I understand that some in the academic/scientific community want to disprove it, because some of these individuals have been so adament over the years stating very surely that the bird is extinct. In fact the loud public ridicule by some in this community has indeed destroyed careers, and public standing for those brave enough to suggest they have seen these birds. For individuals guilty of this, I somewhat understand the reluctance to flip/flop, it would be horribly embarrassing. In fact this sentiment became so rampant that some in the professional scientific community didn't dare follow up on some decent sounding reports in past years (and there have been many) for fear that they too would be destroyed professionally and viewed as a ghost hunter.

It is this mentality, driven by a fear of being labelled, that has so many people in sheer disbelief today because so many icons, people we trusted explicitly, told us with such certainty that this bird wasn't possibly still in existence. As such, many of us have been brain washed and we just can't admit it can be true. How could so many be so wrong, how could these birds have been missed?

We'll get to that later though, but first let [me] address the ridiculous questions of field marks and really analyze the situation. First off, I'd like to address a quote in Tim Gallagher's, Grail Bird (a great read by the way, I highly recommend it) in his recounting of Nancy Tanner's commentary, it was interesting to note that she says it was the eye that stood out to her, not so much the bill. Surely few (no?!?) people living at the time of Tim's writing of this book had more experience with living Ivory-billed [woodpecker]s than she as she tripped through the Singer tract with her husband, Jim [Tanner, an IBWO expert, now deceased]. Thinking about that, I actually have seen similar things with Yellow-billed Loons, a bird with far more color in its bill than an Ivory-billed should show. Indeed at times when viewing Yellow-billed Loons the bird's signature mark is almost invisible. It certainly doesn't stand out. So at any rate, I'm not personally troubled by the white bill not being visible.

Regarding the other lack of field marks noted on these sightings, if you are any sort of birder and not simply someone who reads about birds on a computer, then you must realize that there are many aspects of bird ID beyond simple "field marks". In many cases, there are birds that are superficially similar in markings but don't look anything like one another when seen in life. Take for example an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk and an immature Northern Goshawk; the two are very similarly marked and if you saw one vs. the other with no experience of either, the ID is difficult. Often I've seen people try to turn a young sharpie into a Gos, but when a large stocky Gos finally shoots by, these people "know" instantly they have seen an enormous bird fly by and never consider Sharp-shinned as a possibility.

Similarly, I remember in my early years of birding scanning meticulously through winter flocks of Cedar Waxwings in upstate NY, looking for the tell tale red undertail coverts that would cinch my first Bohemian Waxwing sighting. Then after two years of searching I saw my first Bohemian and wanted to kick myself in the head for wasting so much time! I spotted it with my naked eye, driving at 70 mph down a highway. I pulled off to glass and sure enough this behemoth dark bird that looked closer to a starling in this flock of Cedar [waxwing]s was as obvious as anything had ever been. Sure, in the [field guide], they are marked very similarly, and they are only an inch or less apart in length, but in life the two are so different that when together there is no mistaking them, regardless of field marks.

Want another example? ... struggle with a yellowlegs for hours, "Lesser or Greater [yellowlegs]? hmmmm!!!" (C'mon, you know you've done it!) Then you find a mixed flock .... oh man, the two birds are so different! It is SO obvious!

Now take that lesson and apply it to the current situation. Here you have trained, professional biologists spending weeks at a time surrounded by Pileated Woodpeckers that they are intently studying to ensure that they aren't missing their quarry. If you actually look at the details of the reports, most observers "knew" they were seeing something different in their gut before noting a single mark. We are talking about an extremely different bird here. Sure, they are marked similarly, but an Ivory-billed [woodpecker] absolutely dwarfs a Pileated [woodpecker] in mass, it's a much bulkier bird, with a different wingshape, it is said to have an entirely different flight style, and a different silhouette and shape.

If these were amateurs, backyard birders at a feeder, not [scientists who are] infinitely familiar with Pileated Woodpeckers, then I'd agree with the skepticism. But the fact is that these are trained professional observers, many are career researchers and scientists with hard earned reputations with families and no other career to fall back on. These folks have nothing to gain and everything to lose by admitting to seeing one of these mythical creatures. I guarantee you, none of these folks are going to go off on a whim and risk their very careers, their reputations, and the livelihoods that their families depend on. Especially, not in a very skeptical community! They wouldn't admit they had seen something without being 100% sure (they have far more to lose than any one of us). I'd bet my very existence on it. I think the arm chair quarterbacks of the [birding] community need to think more about all of this before spouting jibberish about reflections or an abarrent Pileated. To these folks, those other field characters (not [just] the field marks) will scream out, "I am NO PILEATED!"

I would bet that everyone in that swamp has looked harder at Pileated Woodpeckers than nearly any one of us on this list and moreover, have seen more of these birds in a week (perhaps in a day) than others reading have in a lifetime of birding. I'd bet they could go into lengths about features, behaviors, and flight characteristics that most of us have never even dreamed of considering. The reason, a Pileated [woodpecker] ID is a slam dunk, nothing like it (or so we have been led to believe). We really never had to consider these features as ID characters, because our mentors have told us our entire birding careers that Ivory-billed [woodpecker]s were gone, right?

Now to the argument, why hasn't anyone seen one? Well, it's not true. Many have been seen, but a vicious community virtually ate up and spit out every "FOOL" brazen enough to admit they had seen one and the rumors were quickly snuffed (and likely, many others were never reported).

In the scientific community, where absolutes are the rule (always dangerous when dealing with a living system, too easy to wind up with egg on your face!), lack of concrete proof has to be considered as hypothetical or undocumented, I fully understand and agree with this. However, in the case of the Ivory-billed [woodpecker], something else happened... something very unscientific. It was a human condition, driven by ego, cruelty, whatever.... [where] the unconfirmed [report] became untrue or a lie, it became a laughing matter, a point of ridicule and disdain. This is not a part of the scientific process, this is an unfortunate side of human nature, fed by fear and insecurity.

Indeed, the long string of reports over the past 4 decades or so were summarily dismissed for the most part. I won't speak for all, but I'm a bit mad about this. I wish just once in my twenty years of birding I'd run into a few people who had said, ".. they're out there, there have been reports, but so few go looking!" In my twenties when I was a crazed field biologist, "bins for hire", I wish someone would have come and asked me, "You want to spend months traipsing through southern swamps looking for Ivory-billeds?" I would have jumped at an adventure like that, but unfortunately in my decade and half of doing that sort of thing, no one dared speak of such craziness! It was absurd, insane even.

I'm also mad that I bought into the hype, and never even considered trying to look because I was led to believe there was no hope! It was pointless, right? I feel like I was deprived of that opportunity. So many were so sure, the many I believed and trusted. Remember the days when the world was believed [to be] flat?

Why weren't they seen? Lack of effort, for one [reason]. How many of us can actually say that we've ever even tried reaching the depths of a primeval swamp, filled with poisonous snakes, mosquitos, where you have to canoe and then portage through waist deep mud. If this has been the Ivory-billed's sanctuary over the past decades, I don't find it surprising at all it hasn't been documented. Without a boardwalk, I think it is safe to assume most birders would [never] attempt this (especially if you believed the "Lord of God bird" was [extinct]). Without that allure, as one interested in seeing birds, a swamp is a spot with very limited bird diversity, and all of the few species within (except maybe one) are easily seen at the edges of this habitat and in a wide variety of other habitats. Generally speaking, bird diversity in a deep swamp or forest gets less interesting the further into the depths you go. There is more activity along the edges, more exciting to bird.

At any rate, I am convinced that in time, more proof will come and then the only ones doubting will be those who are convinced that the whole thing is a giant hoax, a conspiracy maybe. Given human nature, I'm also certain that these "hold outs" will be viewed as lunatics and become the center of ridicule themselves. I do hope though that once all are satisfied, that we learn from our mistakes and learn that maybe, just maybe unconfirmed does not always mean "crazy", "liar", or "even incorrect." That is not supposed to be the way it works (as I understand it) in the scientific process, it is only unconfirmed, inconclusive, or hypothetical. [italics mine]

Good birding,

Jeff Bouton
Port Charlotte, FL

However, here is a dissenting opinion.

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