Ornithological miracle! (?)

| 57 Comments

This morning, NPR is reporting that the legendary Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, has been rediscovered in Arkansas (see photo of a model reconstructing the event at left, hosted in the CNN story). NPR did a detailed radio expedition story and interviewed the players. These are a large number of seasoned, professional birders, well aware of the bigfoot phenomenon and the similar woodpecker species, the pilleated woodpecker, and they think they’ve found it. Evidently this has been cooking for several months, but the word recently leaked out, and a paper has been rushed to the online edition of Science.

It would be great if this were true. I want it to be true. Several independent professional observers say it is true. But I gotta say, I just read the paper (Fitzpatrick et al. “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America, free online”), looked at the supplementary material, and watched the video, and I’ve got a bad feeling that hopes are going to be dashed again. What they’ve put up in terms of data is scans of field notes and a detailed analysis of one very short video that is being interpreted right at the limits of its resolution. They don’t have audio recordings, and the digital photo they have is a photo of model in a “reconstruction” of the video observation. Hopefully my utterly amateur opinion is wrong, and the professionals are right, but with this much psychic energy pushing for the existence of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, it pays to be extra-careful.

57 Comments

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Harvard of birding, also has has an extensive website on “New Hope for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, plus the video, in the context of the history. They are quite serious and quite confident.

Nick (Matzke) Wrote:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Harvard of birding

Methinks you give those Crimson wannabees too much credit. The world-renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology is at Cornell University, also known as “The Cornell of Space Science” and frequently known as “The collegiate polo champions”. As for that other university you mention, do they teach classes in amphibian identification?

Maybe the video is fake, it could be a bigfoot dressed in an ivory-billed woodpecker costume.

This has been going on for years, hasn’t it?

I seem to recall some report a decade ago or so about some bird watcher claiming that he was near certain that he heard the bird.

Why in the world would someone distribute photos of a “model” of a sighting of a bird for which (if I’m not mistaken) photos and pictures exist? That is more than a bit odd, if you ask me.

I’m normally a lurker, but I had two comments

As a kid growing up in Florida I used to DREAM about seeing an Ivory bill. Every pileated woodpecker had that moment of hope & then disappointment. The possibility that there might be some still out there has me near tears. Dorky huh.

I think the photo of the model is to show a comparison of the size of a scale model of the ivory bill to show that the blurry bird in the video is the same size. The supporting documentation mentions that they had a scale model of the pileated too.

Anyway, my fingers are crossed.

The only way we’ll know for sure if any exist is to kill one. And then the only way we’ll know if there are more of them is to kill them too. Only that will vindicate our hopes. ;)

Great White Wonder, many birds can be identified by the noises they make (songs, calls, tree-drumming, etc.)

Steve Reuland Wrote:

The only way we’ll know for sure if any exist is to kill one. And then the only way we’ll know if there are more of them is to kill them too. Only that will vindicate our hopes. ;)

C’mon, this is the 21st century. I would be satisfied with a higher quality video. It should also be possible to collect biological specimens (feather?) for DNA comparison to museum samples. Have DNA analyses of museum samples been done?

Oh man, I want this to be real sooooooo bad.

Another possibility occurs to me, though. if the sighting of ivory-billed woodpeckers in Cuba are reliable, then it seems possible, but unlikely, that the sightings in Alabama are a single bird that has strayed from the Caribbean, and not evidence of a breeding population in the US.

Fyi, CNNOnline reports this as a done deal

Ivory-billed woodpecker not extinct, as feared

“The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker. Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives,” said a statement from John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, The Associated Press reported.

Oh, and there’s this, too:

there are plans to use federal money to preserve the bird’s habitat.

That’ll warm the heart of every Arkansan, I’m sure.

It would be nice if Fitzpatrick or whoever decided to make a big stink about this had a bit more patience. Because if he’s wrong, it’ll end up being just another example of you-know-what.

There’s no point in adding more “methane signatures” to the creationist campfire …

Bah, the glued-on model looks nice, but do ivory-billed woodpeckers normally rest on tree trunks? It looks like another darwinist conspiracy to me… ;-)

Anyone who looks at the video (not the still pictures) and who has seen a lot of pileated woodpeckers will immediately understand the significance of the video - the bird is certainly not a pileated, and therefore can’t be anything but an ivory-billed woodpecker. Posting the picture of the model makes too much of it - the sole purpose of the model was for a visual comparison with the image on the stills from the video with respect to size and color pattern. Watch the video yourself - it is convincing. The sound data are ambiguous - the drumming could be an Ivory-billed or a pileated. As for DNA samples, that’s a bit premature. It has taken 60 years just to see this elusive bird.

populus wrote

Anyone who looks at the video (not the still pictures) and who has seen a lot of pileated woodpeckers will immediately understand the significance of the video - the bird is certainly not a pileated, and therefore can’t be anything but an ivory-billed woodpecker.

I watched the video, and then immediately went outside (we have pileated woodpeckers here) specifically to watch one fly for more or less immediate comparison. The bird in the video is definitely not a pileated.

RBH

How long until the Discovery Institute and Wells complain about staged pictures?

Re “do ivory-billed woodpeckers normally rest on tree trunks? “

Maybe it wasn’t resting. Maybe it was pecking holes in the theory that it’s extinct?

:)

This is so strange. My partner’s mom has some property in Arkansas near the White River, and one day when we were down there, I saw a funny looking bird with a white bill, and he said it looked like a woodpecker. You don’t think…?

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“Maybe it wasn’t resting. “

nah, it wasn’t resting, it was pinin’ for the fjords. i hear if you try to cage the things, they bend the bars and “voom”!

I’ve also heard they enjoy kippin’ on their backs.

beautiful plumage, tho.

Can someone help me out here?

Did the Fweep-Fweep Bird belong to Mr. Twiddles or Mr. Peebles?

I’m guessing the former.

GWW’s comment is silly. This video was made by a team including the leading scientists in their field. What I meant (and I think I was clear) is that there is no other bird of the size, coloration and behavior of the ivory-billed woodpecker in those forests other than the pileated woodpecker. Any reasonably competent birder knows that. Therefore, ruling out the pileated woodpecker by the color patterns of the wings, clearly shown in the video, leaves the ivory-billed woodpecker as the only reasonable alternative. References to silliness like bigfoot notwithstanding, the evidence for this being the ivory-billed woodpecker is convincing and compelling. In addition to the video, a look at the Cornell press release video shows that two leading ornithologists made separate sightings in the same location, and there was no doubt in their minds what bird this was.

Populus

ruling out the pileated woodpecker by the color patterns of the wings, clearly shown in the video

You know, I have eyeballs. Two of them. They work fine.

I know what ivory billed woodpecker looks like. And I know what a crappy video looks like.

There are no “clearly shown” color “patterns” in the wings of the bird in that video.

there is no other bird of the size, coloration and behavior of the ivory-billed woodpecker in those forests

Either that, or the ivory billed woodpecker – long believed to be extinct – is extinct at least one “similar looking bird” is currently flying around in those forests.

My point is only that for the purposes of a major news announcement, the evidence is crap – like the Patterson film was always crap.

So what species does Woody Woodpecker belong to? (I’m still getting over learning - here in the UK - that road runners are real. Now, where did I put that Acme catalog?)

I think that we won’t know the bird is an ivory-billed woodpecker until after we know how it tastes deep fried.

“So what species does Woody Woodpecker belong to?”

well, since he was created in Hollywood, I would guess they modeled if after an acorn woodpecker.

Re “I’m still getting over learning - here in the UK - that road runners are real.”

Yep. Close relatives of cuckoos .

Henry

Well, there certainly is a well-organized campaign going: http://www.ivorybill.org/ . I do hope they are right.

I was very underwhelmed by the video, I guess I was expecting something like the 1935 video taken close-up. I can see the white and I understand the argument, but with a blurry video, variable lighting, and variable birds, almost anything can happen. Several of the confirming sightings were at distances of over 100 meters, this too did not inspire confidence.

A reaction to the last round of excitement in 2002, that exactly captures my sense of foreboding, is here: Seeking the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Nick, that is simply one of the best articles on skepticism and evidence I have ever read – period!

Skeptics are neither cynics nor spoilsports. They do not carry stunted genes for wonder and awe. We are awash in wonder and awe. It is just that we prefer being awed by the truly awesome and to wonder at the truly wonderful. We aren’t interested in wasting our time on the artificial, the phony, and the illusory. The defining characteristic of skeptics, the diagnostic field mark, is not the absence of wonder and awe, it is the refusal to go off half-cocked.

I also liked the silly bigfoot analogy. ;)

this appeared in my home town paper today. Ivory Bill

also: Toads

and again: ZebraDonkey

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The 2002 search never turned up any visual sightings, by anyone. That is a far cry from the latest search, which turned up 15 sightings, 7 strong enough to be included in the Science paper, and a video (imperfect as it may be).

As for the comment above that Fitzpatrick and others “should show more patience”: they have already been sitting on this for over a year, launching a large, secret confirmation effort.

Woody Woodpecker was, at least in his early iterations, a loudmouthed Pileated.

As for the bird, GWW, here you have a bunch of people who do essentially nothing but look at birds. If they were pilots looking at a film of comparable quality, they could certainly see the more-subtle differences between an F-15 and an F-18 or an L1011 and an A300. As with airplanes, there just are not a lot of birds that large in that area, and none but the Ivory-billed has that coloration.

Moreover, the descriptions – particularly the field notes in the Supplemental Materials at Science.org – offer much more detail than the video does. These pretty convincingly eliminate all possibilities but three: the Ivory-billed, or – just as spectacularly – a big new bird never before seen, with similar coloration to the Ivory-billed. Of course it’s also possible that they’re wrong. But I don’t think that this is nearly as likely as you say it is.

Faith-based anti-evolutionists should take note of Nick Matzke’s comment:

Hopefully my utterly amateur opinion is wrong, and the professionals are right, but with this much psychic energy pushing for the existence of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, it pays to be extra-careful.

Real scientists are always trying to avoid being blinded by their desires. The more they wish that something is true, the more careful they are to rule out their own biases.

Faith-based believers, ont the other hand, will grab onto anything, no matter how tenuous, that seems to support their preconceptions.

The Bigfoot analogy is incorrect. There has never been any solid evidence of Bigfoot. It’s an established scientific fact that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker did exist at one time. The last verified sightings were only decades ago (as opposed to the last sightings of the Dodo bird, for example). Therefore the possibility that the Ivory-Billed woodpecker still survives is much less improbable than the purported existence of Bigfoot.

BTW all the folks I’ve talked to who are excited by this announcement do realize it could turn out to be nothing more than false hopes. I personally hope it’s true, but I also weigh the uncertainties involved and won’t equivocally say “Yes, the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct after all” until firmer evidence is provided.

So there are only two birds that live in that forest? I’m sorry but a video that is “not a pileated woodpecker” does not prove anything. The irony of relying on such a video in the digital age is inescapable.

Are you a moron?

What else could it be? Some species nobody’s ever heard of?

Would that be more likely, or less exciting?

I frankly don’t see what all this soul-searching and nay-saying is about. We have some footage - low quality, sure, but not uninterpretable-, some recordings, and a few reasonable reports of sightings. This is the kind of evidence one would expect for an extremely rare bird living in a vast and largely uninhabited area. A bunch of well-regarded ornithologists are willing to vouch for the identification, none (that I know of) say it’s complete b.s.; Science reviewers agree it is at the very least plausible. In no way, shape or form this case parallels the Patterson Bigfoot movie.

I am not an ornithologist or even an expert birdwatcher to be able to judge the matter on its merits, and I have not read so far of any substantive objection to the available evidence, stating alternative interpretations for both the footage and the recordings that have not been considered and discarded by the paper’s authors. I don’t see any problem therefore in taking the (provisional and cautious) position that indeed a small number of ivory-bills may in fact still exist. At the very least, the current evidence warrants further systematic investigation (which, pragmatically, would be unlikely to be funded without this publication and the resulting publicity).

Skepticism in general is undoubtedly a healthy position, but skepticism also requires some form of rational and/or evidentiary support. Otherwise, it’s no different than creationists stating that until we see flies turn into rats, there is no evidence for evolution.

We must take into account the possibility that the Ivory-bill was truly extinct, and that this is a case of Special Creation by an Intelligent Agent! ;)

As for the comment above that Fitzpatrick and others “should show more patience”: they have already been sitting on this for over a year, launching a large, secret confirmation effort.

Which obviously failed.

Again, I urge you to read the link

In no way, shape or form this case parallels the Patterson Bigfoot movie.

It parallels the Bigfoot movie because the Bigfoot movie is an example where “the best evidence” for something that many many many many people claim to have seen is still piss poor.

Are you a moron?

What else could it be? Some species nobody’s ever heard of?

Or some species that everybody’s heard of that hasn’t previously been documented in that forest.

Or are you claiming that the video rules out ANY other bird species in the eastern US?

All I’m saying is: I’ll hold off until I see a picture or until they find a feather and do some DNA tests. Something besides a bunch of hearsay and a blurry video of some bird’s ass.

Don’t you find it odd that so many people are looking for this thing for more than half a century AND that a bunch of “experts” claim to have seen it but NOBODY has managed to take a decent frigging picture?

There’s something really fishy about that. But I suppose you’ll tell me that I don’t appreciate how “vast” the wilderness is out there.

Sorta like Oregon.

GWW, the essay at Bird Watcher’s Digest that you link to is out of date. It appears to have been written in 2002, prior to all the recent sightings by experts.

Also, the author (unfortunately now deceased) sounds a bit over-confident in the ability of a small search team to cover huge amounts of group in a thorough fashion.

GWW, the essay at Bird Watcher’s Digest that you link to is out of date. It appears to have been written in 2002, prior to all the recent sightings by experts.

You mean the recent sitings by “experts” who, for some reason, didn’t have a decent camera on them?

Also, the author (unfortunately now deceased) sounds a bit over-confident in the ability of a small search team to cover huge amounts of group in a thorough fashion.

As I predicted …

JM Wrote:

So what species does Woody Woodpecker belong to?

Considering the era in which the specimen originated, it is most likely to be a close relative of the Double-Breasted Seersucker.

I’m going to side with GWW on this one. Competent birders have been searching very deliberately for this bird, just where it is now alleged to have been seen, for six decades, producing no more than a very infrequent false alarm (devoid of any documentation).

The proposal that Ivory Bills still live in Cuba, and one was blown here, seem just barely more plausible. As a former birder myself, I know that locating a specific bird in a large territory is mostly luck, but some moreso than others. The Ivory Bill is a big, showy, noisy bird. If it’s real, it should be solidly documented Real Soon Now, by a cast of at least hundreds.

As for the bird, GWW, here you have a bunch of people who do essentially nothing but look at birds. If they were pilots looking at a film of comparable quality, they could certainly see the more-subtle differences between an F-15 and an F-18 or an L1011 and an A300.

I suppose I’ll have to reconsider all those flying saucer accounts written by pilots.

Gosh, GWW, I had not realized that there were a bunch of old, dead aliens in the specimen drawers at the American Museum of Natural History. I guess they’re right next to the yeti skeletons, yes?

Man, if I tried to publish in an anthropology journal with the quality of “data” represented by the video, I would be laughted at. (Note mind-you, I could publish about any article in about any anthropology journal by claiming that anyone demanding any reliable data is facist, racist, sexist and mean).

oh fer cryin’ out loud! That evidence is not high quality, but it isn’t of insufficient quality for a reasonable preliminary conclusion either.

Basically, there are three possibilities: 1. The movie and the details in the observations reported are genuine, and their interpretation is correct. 2. The movie and the observations are genuine, but the interpretation is wrong: a number of very expert birdwatchers and professional ornithologists with decades of collective field and academic experience, plus the Science reviewers, forgot that some other known bird species (“that everyone’s heard of”, in GWW’s words) could be mistaken for the ivory-billed woodpecker. 3. The movie and the observations are all fakes and/or the product of group delusion (sounds familiar?).

Now, if the observations and movie are kosher, the bird is certainly a woodpecker because of its features, such as perching position, size, flight pattern. If it’s a woodpecker, according to the paper’s authors it can be either an ivory billed or a pileated, and they go to some lengths to explain why they think it is the former. I honestly doubt that they would put their careers and reputations on the line, and deliberately ignore some obvious alternative explanation that any Joe armed with a Sibley guide could could come up with. Thus, the onus is on those who say that the interpretation is incorrect to provide a reasonable alternative (not just “some species”, but which species). Perhaps we’ll start hearing about these other interpretations in the next few days, but so far I don’t know of any.

Or, one can say that the the movie is just a hoax and the observations either faked or the product of delusion. I guess the movie could be tested for signs of doctoring. Whether this is more or less far-fetched than the survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker, is anyone’s pick. It certainly would not be the first time that a species long believed extinct is found.

Again, as an outsider with no independent knowledge or insight, I might be credulous but I tentatively side with the experts. This doesn’t mean that if tomorrow it was found that this was just a false alarm, I would be particularly surprised, or crushed - this is just a first preliminary report, and all scientific conclusions are provisional. But if anyone likes the idea of a big, shady conspiracy, or of totally incompetent scientists, better, I guess they are entitled to their opinion.

Oh you doubters! Now that the Ivory-billed woodpecker has been officially rediscovered, reports of additional sightings are pouring in!

Is that picture at the top of this thread part of the video taken in the Arkansas forest in question? ‘Cuz as a long-time birder, I can tell you that that picture is of an Ivory-billed woodpecker, no ifs, ands, or buts. Period. Its plumage unequivocally is *not* that of a Pileated woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers do not have white on their wings like that. And, uh, YES, woodpeckers hang on tree trunks all the time. It’s ‘what they do’.

And there is no other bird in North America that looks ANYTHING like that.

So if that picture is authentic and not photoshopped or something, the bird does indeed still exist. This is not anything subject to doubt, guys. Don’t make the creationists’ mistake of passing judgement on another scientific discipline (here, ornithology) when you have no training in said discipline.

Arden: the figure is just a reconstruction, not a real picture of the bird. The original Science report is here. Note that most of the evidence, including the footage, can be found following the “Supporting online material” link on the right.

“Is that picture at the top of this thread part of the video taken in the Arkansas forest in question?”

It appears to be a photo of a model, not the real bird.

No, I am not an ornithologist…just a moderately-experienced birder who has seen a lot of pileated. With respect to the video, it’s unfortunate they couldn’t get a shot of the bird’s back when on the trunk…the white on the folded wings would probably be the biggest diagnostic feature in telling it from pileated. In flight, the pileated has white only on the leading edge of the wing. It’s difficult to tell on the video whether the white is leading or trailing. My impression is that it’s trailing (which would indicate its not a pileated), and that the white is quite a bit more extensive than on a pileated…but this doesn’t quite seem a good enough view to say for sure. But the field reports in the online supplement,if they can be believed, do indeed indicate extensive white on the trailing edge when viewed in flight, and on the bottom half of the folded wing when standing.

Given these are professionals, I’m inclined to believe them; I think they’ve got a legit ivory-billed sighting…I just don’t know if there’s enough data here for a paper.

“Perhaps we’ll start hearing about these other interpretations in the next few days, but so far I don’t know of any.”

Yes, it would be nice to hear some other ornithologists sound off on this. The paper was reviewed, so no doubt some knowledgeable person was happy with the evidence presented. I find it hard to simply dismiss the sightings as “bigfoot phenomenon” without hearing a more principled alternative of what’s on that video and what was seen in the field. “man in a bigfoot costume” is, after all, a principled alternative to “actual bigfoot.”

From Bayesians’ link

Hobbs feels bad about letting the potential bird enthusiasts down. So she cushions the blow, like a mom explaining to a child why second place is still a prize.

She tells them the pileated woodpecker they have seen is still a fantastic find.

“It is a magnificent bird. And wonderful to see,” Hobbs said. “I encourage them.”

There are about 900,000 pileated woodpeckers in the country.

Still, Bottrill didn’t quite seem convinced that she hadn’t seen the rare ivory-billed bird.

“I’ll take a picture next time,” she said.

Please freaking do.

I’m not saying GWW is wrong. But doesn’t he belong at Little Green Footballs or somewhere? His style is familiar.

Well, I watched the video, murky as it is, and read the supporting online material, and while it isn’t as slam-dunk as one might want, it looks pretty convincing. The ONLY bird that an Ivory-bill can be confused with is a Pileated, and that bird in the video seemed to me to have way too much white in its wings to be a Pileated.

(“Therefore, if it weighs the same as a duck, it’s made of wood. And therefore…”)

It’s also significant that it’s in Arkansas that they found it. All the previous searches for this bird over the last 50 years that I’d heard of were in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana.

The wave of ‘new’ sightings in the wake of the announcement remind me of how UFO sightings spiked like crazy in the 1950’s once the idea of UFO’s was first put in people’s heads. But the Ivory bill *never* lived in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or New York, where these dubious sightings seem to be happening.

Comment # 27470

John Emerson Wrote:

Comment #27470 Posted by John Emerson on April 30, 2005 03:41 PM (e) (s) I’m not saying GWW is wrong. But doesn’t he belong at Little Green Footballs or somewhere? His style is familiar.

GWW is a “she”

And for these bird sighting…I’ll never underdstand it.….they are birds.…sheesh.

Now if someone wins that $1,000,000 for finding a living Thylacine…I’ll get excited about that.

Oh you doubters! Now that the Ivory-billed woodpecker has been officially rediscovered, reports of additional sightings are pouring in!

Hundreds tell Cornell: I saw that ‘extinct’ bird! Researchers assure callers the birds spotted only look like ivory-billed woodpecker. Saturday, April 30, 2005 By Marnie Eisenstadt

The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct until scientists announced its rediscovery this week.

But on Friday, people reported seeing it everywhere - in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, even in Jeanne Bottrill’s Syracuse back yard.

Bottrill was almost positive the massive bird in her tree was the ivory-billed she had seen in Friday’s Post-Standard.

But here comes the letdown: It’s not. And the hundreds of others seen by people across the Northeast aren’t, either.

“I’ve created a canned response for people who think they’ve seen it,” said Anne Hobbs, who works at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. She tells the ones from the Northeast that they’ve probably seen the similar looking pileated woodpecker.

Human psychology is a fascinating thing…

My prediction: by May 3, 2006, there will be zero new photographs or films of a living ivory-billed woodpecker (i.e., the situation will be the same as today).

The scientists who claim to have seen the bird will begin to publicly wonder if the bird they saw was the “last” ivory-billed woodpecker and they will hypothesize that it died.

Meanwhile, unconfirmed ivory-billed woodpecker sightings will continue to soar.

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Three Snails Thought Extinct Discovered ‘Extinct’ seaweed found by scientists ‘Extinct’ sable found in abandoned reserve Clearly G– excuse me, the Intelligent Designer, is calling back all of his creations in preparation for the apocalypse.

Dinosaurs are next. Dr. Dino is already on the hunt.

The Southern Crypto Conference will be held Saturday June 18 in Conroe, TX. It will feature seminars and clincs on Bigfoot creature research, the search for giant catfish and other intriguing natural mysteries subjects. … Dr. Kent Hovind (Living Dinosaurs/Dinosaurs in the Bible): He will present information presented concerning dinosaurs in the Bible reflecting his extensive study in the field of cryptozoology and that there may still be some living dinosaurs in remote corners of the world.

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Matzke published on April 28, 2005 11:12 AM.

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