[Tweeters] Fwd: 3 Biologists Question Evidence in Sighting of Rare Woodpecker

Dawn Bailey dawnsdog at rainierconnect.com
Wed Jul 20 20:49:34 PDT 2005

in case you cannot access the NY times here is the article and also 
Devorah's blog url:


3 Biologists Question Evidence in Sighting of Rare Woodpecker
Published: July 21, 2005
Three biologists are questioning the evidence used by a team of bird experts 
who made the electrifying claim in April that they had sighted an 
ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird presumed to have vanished from the United 
States more than 60 years ago, in the swampy forests of southeast Arkansas.

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A sketch from 2004 of what was believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker.

If the challenge holds up, it would undermine not only a scientific 
triumph - the rediscovery of a resplendent bird that had been exhaustively 
sought for years - but also significant new conservation expenditures in the 

The paper questioning the discovery has been provisionally accepted by a 
peer-reviewed journal, which could post the analysis online within a few 
weeks. But the paper will be accompanied by a fierce rebuttal by the team 
that announced the discovery, and a response to that rebuttal by the 

The expected publication of the paper and the rebuttal was confirmed in 
interviews and e-mail exchanges with two authors of the challenge, Richard 
O. Prum and Mark B. Robbins, ornithologists at Yale and the University of 
Kansas, as well as with two members of the team that reported finding the 

The third author of the new paper is Jerome A. Jackson, a zoologist at 
Florida Gulf Coast University and the author of the book, "In Search of the 
Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," published in 2004.

"In my opinion," Mr. Jackson wrote in an e-mail message on Wednesday, "the 
data presented thus far do no more than suggest the possibility of the 
presence of an ivory-billed woodpecker. I am most certainly not saying that 
ivory-billed woodpeckers are not out there. I truly hope that the birds do 
exist in Arkansas or elsewhere and have been championing this idea for a 
long time."

Both groups of scientists declined to name the journal or to discuss the 
details of the challenge and the response until they were published.

But they made it clear that the debate revolves around four seconds of fuzzy 
videotape that, by chance, captured a bird with sweeping white-and-black 
wings as it darted from its perch on the far side of a tupelo tree in April 
2004 and flicked over swampy waters before vanishing in the trees 11 wing 
beats later.

That video clip was just one piece in a pile of drawings, recordings and 
other evidence collected in more than a year of searching and deploying 
cameras and listening devices across the vast swampy reaches of the Cache 
River National Wildlife Refuge.

Altogether, the original research team, led by scientists from Cornell 
University and the Nature Conservancy, compiled seven sightings, including 
the video, as well as recordings of a "double knock" sound typical of the 
ivory-billed bird.

But only the video was potentially solid enough to confirm for the wider 
ornithological community the existence of the bird, the authors said in 
various statements at the time.

Everyone agrees that the bird that appears on the tape is either an 
ivory-billed woodpecker or a pileated woodpecker, a slightly smaller bird 
that is relatively common. Both species have a mix of white and black 
plumage. However, the ivory-billed woodpecker has a white trailing edge to 
its wings while the pileated woodpecker has a black trailing edge.

The team that conducted the original search for the bird ran extensive 
tests, including recreating the scene captured in video using flapping, 
hand-held models of the two types of woodpecker. They concluded that the 
plumage patterns seen in the grainy image could only be that of the 
ivory-billed woodpecker.

The authors of the new paper disagree.

Only extended scientific discussion - or new pictures of the bird from 
additional searches - will determine whose view will prevail. Another 
intensive scientific search of the region is scheduled to begin in November, 
Cornell officials said.

"The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got an 
ivory-billed woodpecker," Dr. Robbins said in an interview. Determining if a 
species has crossed the threshold of extinction often requires decades of 
observation to ensure that no stray individuals have found a reclusive 

Supposedly extinct species have been rediscovered with some frequency over 
the last century. One famed example is the coelacanth, a huge fish known 
only from fossils for generations but then caught by African anglers.

In the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a magnificent bird with a 
30-inch wingspan and a red crest, determining that it has not become extinct 
has proved equally daunting. Individual birds were widely dispersed, and the 
woodpecker shared habits and habitat with the pileated woodpecker.
Van Remsen of Louisiana State University, an expert on the woodpecker and a 
member of the team that reported finding the ivory-billed species, said he 
remained confident of the discovery.

"We can counter everything," he said. "We stick to our guns."

The announcement of the bird's apparent discovery came on April 28, when the 
scientists' findings were published in the online version of the journal 

The announcement thrilled conservationists, who saw the bird as the perfect 
symbol around which to build an invigorated protection plan for woodland 
habitat in the Southeast, which harbors a rich array of wildlife and plants.

The Bush administration used the reported sightings in Arkansas to promote 
its "cooperative conservation" philosophy. The day the rediscovery was 
publicized, the administration announced a variety of initiatives, including 
a plan to pay more than $13 million to landowners within the region's 
floodplains who plant and maintain forests.

John W. Fitzpatrick, the co-leader of the search for the bird and director 
of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, said it was normal for 
scientists to disagree about evidence of this sort, especially because in 
this case the video in question was "pretty crummy."

But he said that extensive analysis was done and redone to eliminate the 
possibility that the bird was a pileated woodpecker.

Dr. Fitzpatrick added that there was "significant additional evidence right 
now" that would be published in coming months.

He declined to comment on the challengers' assertions, saying any discussion 
could jeopardize publication of the exchange of papers on the video.

Dawn Bailey
Eatonville, WA
mailto:dawnsdog at rainierconnect.com

If you were arrested for being kind, would there be enough evidence to 
convict you? 
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