Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ivorybills revisited

I want to believe!

I remember the exact moment I heard the news report that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been discovered by a team from Cornell in Arkansas. Usually when people say, "I remember exactly what I was doing when...", they are referring to something traumatic. Presidential assassinations. Terrorist attacks. Exploding spacecraft.

But we all need some good news from time to time. And for me, the hope that the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird so impressive that it was colloquially known as the "Lord God Bird," might not be extinct after all was cause for jubilation. Or, more precisely, for jumping up and down in my pajamas with Sunwiggy, crying out, "They're not dead! They're not dead!"

After that, well, almost a decade of nothing. Other people came out and said they weren't even convinced. The woodpecker mania slowly seemed to fade away.

Recently I read a book about a search for a different extinct woodpecker (Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher), which got me into ivory-bill mode, and so I dusted off my copies of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (2005: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Tim Gallagher and Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness (2007: Oxford University Press) by Geoffrey E. Hill.

Gallagher's The Grail Bird begins with a discussion of several earlier ivory-bill sightings, none of which were taken very seriously. Ornithologist George Lowery presented some rough photos of ivory bills perched on tree trunks taken in Louisiana, given to him by an anonymous source, which was disputed by the American Ornithologists' Union. Some people even claimed that the photographer must have shimmied up two separate trees, placed a taxidermied ivory bill specimen forty feet up, then shimmied back down to take the photos. Respected ornithologist John Dennis reported ivory-bill findings in the Big Thicket area of Texas in the 1960s, but his report, too, was not investigated very thoroughly.

As Gallagher presents it, one of the problem with verifying ivory-bill sightings is that no one takes seriously reports of seeing an extinct bird. I mean, what if I told you I saw a passenger pigeon in my backyard? Or Big Foot in central Illinois? (Don't laugh at that last one...someone really claimed to see Big Foot at Funk's Grove in Mclean County. I hope you are not surprised that local scientists were skeptical about that sighting.) At least pre-big news from the Big Woods of Arkansas, respected birders and ornithologists might have kept a possible ivory-bill sighting to themselves out of fear of ridicule.

Gallagher, on the other hand, does an admirable job in tracking down people who have claimed to see ivory-bills, including the mystery man from Louisiana, and he seems predisposed to believe their accounts, or at least consider them with an open mind. His optimism is understandable, as he and friend Bobby Ray Harrison took to the Arkansas swamps to attempt to verify a possible sighting, and soon saw the magnificent woodpecker for themselves. A veritable team of birders and researchers from Cornell descended on the area, and obtained enough sightings, sound recordings, and even a video, that they felt confident going public with their findings.

The Grail Bird, even after so many years since that initial excitement has waned, is still an entertaining read. Gallagher is a good writer, vividly describing the landscapes he explores and the colorful people who are part of the ivorybill's saga. Gallagher describes people I would want to meet, in places I could imagine visiting, which is definitely part of the book's charm.

Shortly thereafter, a biology professor from Alabama, Geoffrey Hill, and some of his students, began their own search for ivory bills in the swamps of northern Florida, as described in Ivorybill Hunters. As the state's resident bird expert, Hill would occasionally get calls from people claiming to have seen an ivory bill, but he never knew what to do about them. After the Cornell hoopla, he realized that his neck of the woods had a lot of potential territory as well, and after a few outings, like the Cornell crew, he and his students hit pay dirt.

They had sightings and sound recordings of the woodpecker's distinctive double-knocks and kent calls, but virtually no budget to speak of for an extended project, and he didn't want to risk Cornell's getting wind of it and possibly trying to take over. Despite their limited money and manpower, the Alabama team seemed to get the same type of results--a lot of interesting evidence, including an inconclusive video, but ultimately no conclusive proof of the birds' survival.

Hill also has a good knack for narrative, and I enjoyed my vicarious trips with him to the murky swamps of northern Florida. He presents some compelling arguments for how ivory bills could have persisted in these remote areas for decades without anyone knowing about it--this is wild and difficult terrain, often impassible without a boat. One of the strengths of his book is the details about nuts-and-bolts aspects of the search, from trying to keep their equipment dry to the long hours involved in analyzing sound recordings. I certainly came away from his story with a new appreciation for the drudgery inherent in this sort of field work.

Unlike Gallagher's book, occasionally I found the tone of Ivorybill Hunters to be a bit problematic. While I can appreciate professional rivalry, in some passages, especially the chapter "Good Science, Bad Science, or No Science at All?", I felt like he was indulging in a bit of Cornell-bashing, with a bit of a lecture to the rest of us about what is or is not "science" or "evidence." Likewise, at times, his descriptions seemed a bit condescending, such as a passage where one of the students imitates an elderly local man as they sit around their camp or how they often seem worried that they will soon be forced to re-enact certain scenes from Deliverance as they navigate the swamps. I'm not saying that he's actually rude about people (he isn't), and except for that one chapter, it wasn't a large part of the book. I only mention it because, if these woodpeckers do still exist, we will need collaboration, both among research and conservation groups, and with local, rural communities, in order to protect them.

All of this leads to the million dollar question: were there ivory billed woodpeckers in either Arkansas or Florida, or did inefficient and/or understaffed teams simply convince themselves they were there? The resounding lack of follow-up evidence in both cases does not look promising. But even so, reading these books again almost a decade later, I am still convinced that they did find ivory bills.

In neither case did the evidence rest on only one or two sightings, but multiple reports from multiple witnesses, along with interesting sound recordings and inconclusive video. The conditions were challenging, and sure, there were mistakes made along the way -- Hill especially is candid about some things that his team could have done better. I have no reason to suspect the sincerity or qualifications of anyone involved. We're not talking about beginning birders or cryptozoology aficionados. All of that, taken together, leads me to believe that if they thought they saw ivory-bills, it's because they did.

As to the problem of why there have not been further sightings? Well, all of the challenges involved -- the vast and difficult terrain, the limited amount of time and money, the elusiveness of the birds, the fact that any claim is swiftly dismissed -- are still present. Especially in the Florida case, only a very small portion of possible territory was actually explored.

please don't be extinct!

But finally, I will admit that--although this falls under the heading of "no science at all"--I believe that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist because it would just suck too much if they didn't.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, how I hope that "The Lord God Bird" is still with us on the Earth! Although I must say that your idea of the two of us venturing into some bug, snake, and alligator infested swampy hell to search for them turns my thoughts to a new eco-lodge in Costa Rica or Trinidad! MOM