Monday, August 29, 2005

COM: Jackson's word on Ivory-bills

Ivory Bill or Not? The Proof Flits Tantalizingly Out of Sight
By JAMES GORMAN, The New York Times, August 30, 2005


SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Aug. 26 - When a four-second snippet of video showing a black and white blur in flight was shown to an auditorium full of ornithologists here on Thursday night, it drew a collective Ahhh! - a murmur of awe seldom heard at scientific meetings.

But this wasn't just any blurry video. This "ornithological Zapruder film," as one researcher called it, gives a glimpse of the much mythologized ivory-billed woodpecker, thought extinct, sought after for a half century, and - just in the past two years - rediscovered, doubted and accepted again.

Or else it doesn't.

John Fitzpatrick and colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and elsewhere who reported the rediscovery last April, say the blur is an ivory bill. The video is central to their paper, published in the journal Science last April, which claimed the bird was alive in Arkansas, and they came to the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, to present their findings to their professional peers.

Although the public mood at the presentations ranged from awe-struck to friendly, there was no unanimity about the evidence.

Earlier this summer, three ornithologists had prepared, and then withdrawn, a research paper disputing the evidence presented in Science. Two of the three had been convinced by audio recordings that the ivory bill did survive in Arkansas.

But, said Richard Prum, a Yale ornithologist and one of the three, while he found the audio convincing it did not change his opinion that the bird in the video is a pileated woodpecker. A co-author, Mark Robbins of the University of Kansas, said only that he found the audio compelling. Jerome A. Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University was out of the country when the paper was withdrawn. He still does not accept the video or the audio evidence. All three were at the meeting here.

It is enough to make someone trying to follow the ivory bill case feel like Wile E. Coyote, with the woodpecker playing the role of the Road Runner.

Does the bird live or does it not? Is it time to start wearing an ivory bill T-shirt (one version says, "found!") or should the celebration wait? Is the $10 million for preservation of the bird's habitat going to explode?

With luck, the questions will be answered with a renewed search in the Cache River and White River National Wildlife Refuges in Arkansas this fall and winter. And everyone is hoping that it will produce the glossy close-up that even a nonbirder will recognize.

Russell A. Charif of the Cornell Lab, who presented the audio recordings of bird calls and rapping on wood in public for the first time here on Wednesday, said, "What we need, what we need is a photo."

And the coming field season is crucial, Mr. Charif said. "It's make or break, I think."

He added, "Right now we're sort of the heroes, but if we come back next year and don't have something, that's going to be awkward."

On the other hand, obsession with the ivory bill has survived setbacks before.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was, or is, the largest American woodpecker, 20 inches tall, with stark black and white markings and a tufted red crest on the male.

It was a favorite of John James Audubon and other early observers when its range covered the Southeastern forests, particularly swamps and bottomland.

As the forests were cut, the woodpecker population decreased. The last accepted sighting of the bird in the United States was in 1944, and in Cuba in the late 1980's.

Over the last half century, many sightings in this country have been reported, some credible, none confirmed. That was until Feb. 11, 2004, when Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, Ark., saw what he thought might be an ivory bill while kayaking in Bayou de View in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, published by the Cornell Lab, and Bobby Harrison, a professor of photography at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., each a passionate birder but neither an academically trained ornithologist, pursued Mr. Sparling's lead. On Feb. 27, they said they saw the bird fly in front of their canoe.

After a year of secret research and several more sightings, but no clear photos, a group led by the Cornell Lab, and including the Nature Conservancy and state and federal officials, announced the rediscovery of the ivory bill on April 28, to near universal rejoicing.

But dissent bubbled beneath the surface in the closely linked worlds of academic ornithology and passionate bird watching.

Earlier this summer, Dr. Prum, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Robbins had a paper that was critical of the evidence submitted to the Public Library of Science. They were joined in their skepticism by some birders, like David Sibley, the author of "Sibley's Guide to Birds."

But the Cornell Lab headed them off by providing audio recordings of the call of the ivory bill - a tooting, known as a "kent," that resembles the sound of a toy trumpet - and the bird's characteristic double rap. Dr. Prum and Dr. Robbins were convinced - not that the video was valid, but that there was an ivory bill there somewhere. They withdrew the paper, saying it was not wrong but moot.

Mr. Charif presented the audio evidence that had convinced the two skeptics at a scientific session here.

It was the first time the recordings had been played in public. They were also made available on the Web site of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu.

He described the processing, still continuing, of 18,000 hours of sound recorded digitally by remote automated devices in the Cache River and White River refuges.

First, the recordings were filtered by software, then by humans, to come up with several of the kent calls and 54 double knocks.

While the video is blurry, the recordings sound to the untrained ear exactly like old recordings of ivory bill calls. But, Mr. Charif said, both blue jays and nuthatches have calls that sound like kent calls.

On the positive side, the double knocks sounded as an ivory bill should. But there were more before dawn and after sunset than expected from earlier accounts of the bird's behavior and, Mr. Charif said, it was not possible to rule out other sources for the sounds.

"Our interpretation of these data is that they provide suggestive and tantalizing, but not conclusive, new evidence of living ivory bills in this region," he said.

Tantalizing is the way even the most serious critics describe the evidence so far. Dr. Jackson, the author of a book titled "In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," who was not invited to participate in the Cornell Lab search, says there may be ivory bills out there, perhaps in Arkansas, but, "in my opinion, the evidence that has been presented thus far is not conclusive."

He concurs with Dr. Prum on the video. He says that witness accounts are not as conclusive as scientific proof, and he is not convinced by the audio recordings.

Dr. Jackson says that a blue jay could possibly have made the calls, something the Cornell Lab agrees with. As for the double knocks, the characteristic communicative rapping on wood of the ivory bill, he said, "I've heard pileated woodpeckers make that kind of sound, I've heard crows make that kind of sound in breaking open a nut."

Several incomplete or inconclusive lines of evidence do not add up to conclusive evidence, Dr. Jackson said, adding, "The bottom line is we simply can't know yet, we don't have the conclusive proof."

There is a lot at stake here. The Department of the Interior earmarked $10 million for preserving the ivory bill's habitat, and some ornithologists say that other species, like the Kirtland's warbler, are losing out as a result.

Dr. James Tate Jr., the science adviser to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, was at the ornithological meeting. Asked whether money had been moved from programs for other species in trouble, he said, "That's going to be a difficult question to answer."

He continued: "The budget is complex. The budget is multifaceted. I don't think you can say we have really moved money to the ivory-billed woodpecker so much as we have emphasized and maybe speeded up some things for this entire ecosystem."

Conservation activity in the Big Woods area of Arkansas has been strong for some time, without the ivory bill. The Nature Conservancy is active in buying land there. The reason there is enough forest for ivory bills is that there are the two national wildlife refuges.

But the bird is now the face of conservation in that area for the Nature Conservancy, for the Cornell Lab, and for the state of Arkansas. You can buy ivory bill T-shirts, hats and polo shirts. Arkansas offers an ivory bill license plate. In themselves the products are trivial, but their use is not. The bird is what conservationists call a charismatic species, one that captures public attention and devotion. In other words, it is a creature that looks good on a T-shirt, like a wolf or a whale. It catches both eyes and donations.

Even though scientists, government officials and environmentalists agree that it is habitats, not individual species, that need saving, they all use appealing animals to gather support.

Half a year ago, the ivory bill was extinct as far as the public was concerned. Now it is a symbol of hope. What happens if it is never seen again?

Meanwhile, for those who want to find the ivory bill, not just hear about it, Little Rock Tours and the Mallard Pointe Lodge are offering guided ivory bill tours by Mr. Sparling, the man whose sighting began the furor.


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