Monday, August 01, 2005

ENV: Perhaps Ivory-bills can rest now

Tom Nelson provides some continued skepticism here.

While Tom makes some excellent individual points, i am inclined to disagree with the overall assessment, largely because neither he nor i are privy to the exact details, and have chosen to side with different experts on the matter. Here's what weighs most in my mind: a) that the folks directly involved spent 17 months collecting and analyzing evidence (vs. the two months taken by the skeptic crew, a couple of whom i know and highly respect); b) that Prum, in particular, quickly withdrew his part of the challenge on hearing the recordings, which strikes me as being better evidence than would suggest distant gunshots or nuthatches, or even blue jays or tape recorders; c) being a bioacoustician, and knowing something of the process (though not in particular in this case), and trusting the eminent bioacousticians at Cornell (who were able to determine that supposed calls from the Pearl River in Louisiana were indeed distant gunshots) i take a higher road view both of the signature trustworthiness of a recording, and the fact that they (Cornell) also must have been convinced after analysis considering their own statements online; and d) having been at least tangentially involved in Ivory-billed Woodpecker lore since the late 1960s (living in the Big Thicket, etc.) i am most keenly aware of the threat to one's lifelong reputation these other eminent biologists made simply by announcing their connection to the project.

Is any of that flat out plain unequivocal evidence? No. But even the most recent photographs taken were declared fakes (photos of stuffed birds) and played a part in the humiliation of one of our great ornithologists -- a fate he assumed for himself in a noble effort to protect the birds themselves. On this question, while i have no proof, nor will i make an out-and-out declaration, i am leaning in support of those who claim to have seen the bird, while also supporting the idea that skepticism is good for the process.

Sibley and Nelson request redundancy. Is that too much to ask? Well, no, it's not. But if a passel of amateur woodpecker-seekers had claimed they might have seen an Ivory-bill, would so much effort, money, and discussion have been expended? How much longer, after 17 months, with what some considered convincing views, should one wait before going public, especially considering the rate at which land disappears under concrete and asphalt these days?

Redundancy yes, but silence, no. And ridicule, no (which comes not from Tom, but is evident in some email/blogging on this matter). If there is even a smidgen of possibility this bird still exists in the Big Woods of Arkansas, then my feeling is there is no longer time to waste in petty discussion. Let's protect what is there. And if, perchance, the bird is a ghost, then our protection of the Big Woods has been at least a small step toward preventing some other creature, some salamander, some dragonfly, from also becoming a ghost.

Update Again:
Now comes word via Ian Paulsen on the TexBirds listserv that Cornell may not consider the recordings definitive themselves, which is curious considering Prum, a bioacoustician, was provided those recordings by Cornell which resulted in the withdrawal of his skepticism?

More to come i suppose . . .

Ian later passed on this USFWS Press Release:

August 2, 2005
Contact: Jeff Fleming, 404/679-7287

No Changes Planned for Public Access
at White River National Wildlife Refuge
Sound recordings suggest presence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said today it plans no changes at this
time to public use management at the White River National Wildlife Refuge
in eastern Arkansas.

This announcement comes on the heels of yesterday's news that three
scientists are withdrawing a paper expressing doubt about evidence of the
rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Their decision to withdraw the
paper is based on a sampling of sound recordings taken from White River in
January, 2005 that strongly suggest the presence of Ivory-billed
Woodpeckers there.

These recordings are part of 17,000 hours of audio taken over the past 18
months at dozens of locations throughout the Cache and White River
ecosystem. Findings from Cornell's research will be presented at the
American Ornithologists Union meeting later this month in Santa Barbara,
California. While Cornel's scientists and others are excited about the
initial results, only 20% of the recordings have been analyzed. Indeed,
Cornell scientists emphasize that they cannot be 100% certain that the
sounds were made by an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The Service will continue
to monitor the research activities in the area.

In April, the Department of the Interior, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The
Nature Conservancy, and other partners announced the extraordinary
rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker at Cache River National Wildlife

Members of two working groups of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team
are meeting today and tomorrow in Little Rock to begin developing the
bird's recovery plan.

White River National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 160,000 acres of
bottomland hardwood forest in southeastern Arkansas. It adjoins Cache
River National Wildlife Refuge, where there have been multiple sightings of
the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. White River National Wildlife Refuge has
active hunting, fishing, and environmental education programs, and
maintains a visitor center opened in 2003 in St. Charles, Arkansas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency
responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and
plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American
people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge
System, which encompasses 544 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small
wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national
fish hatcheries, 63 fish and wildlife management offices and 81 ecological
services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws,
administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations,
restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife
habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their
conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program,
which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on
fishing and hunting equipment to State fish and wildlife agencies.

For more information about the recovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,

Vindication for a Bird and Its Fans
The phoenix had nothing on the ivory-billed woodpecker.
By JAMES GORMAN and ANDREW C. REVKIN, August 2, 2005, The New York Times

It is hard to keep track of how many times this near-mythic bird, the largest American woodpecker and a poignant symbol of extinction and disappearing forests, has been lost and then found. Now it is found again.

Even the most skeptical ornithologists now agree. They say that newly presented evidence shows that at least two of the birds are living in Arkansas.

Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University and one of several scientists who had challenged the most recently claimed rediscovery of the ivory bill, said Monday after listening to tape recordings that he was now "strongly convinced that there is at least a pair of ivory bills out there."

Mark B. Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas, who had also been a skeptic, listened to the same recordings with a graduate student and said, "We were absolutely stunned."

Dr. Robbins said the recordings, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, were "astounding." Of a paper questioning claims of the woodpecker's discovery that he, Dr. Prum and another scientist had submitted to the Public Library of Science, he said, "It's all moot at this point; the bird's here."

That was what the Cornell lab said last April, when it announced that an ivory bill had been sighted in February 2004 in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. In April 2005, a group of scientists published a paper in the journal Science on the rediscovery, with a heavily analyzed but blurry video.

After widespread euphoria, three skeptics - Dr. Prum, Dr. Robbins and Jerome A. Jackson, a zoologist at Florida Gulf Coast University - prepared their criticism. Prominent birders like David Allen Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, both authors of bird guides, agreed that the evidence in the Science paper was not conclusive.

But while the skeptics' paper was still in the works, the Cornell team provided several audio recordings to Dr. Prum and Dr. Robbins. Dr. Jackson, who was out of the country, has not had a chance to listen to the recordings, Dr. Prum said.

The evidence was so convincing - the characteristic nasal "kent" call and double raps on a tree - that Dr. Prum and Dr. Robbins withdrew their challenge.

"The thrilling new sound recordings provide clear and convincing evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct," Dr. Prum said in a statement.

The snippet of videotape that until now was the strongest individual piece of evidence showed only one bird. But the sound recordings, made over many months in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Cache River, provide vital signs that a potential breeding population persists, said experts and officials involved with the search.

"We felt all along that the White River was probably the core of the bird's habitat and it was dispersing out," said Sam Hamilton, the Southeast regional director for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the chairman of a panel that is overseeing the drafting of the federal recovery plan for the bird.

The scientific consensus on the strength of the sound recordings from that region was "very, very exciting," Mr. Hamilton said. "It gives you chill bumps to think about that vast bottomland hardwood being certainly home to more than one bird."

Dr. Prum said the double raps appeared to be from a pair of ivory bills communicating with each other, one close and one far away. "I'm thinking about when I should head down to Arkansas," he said.

John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a primary author of the Science paper that announced the bird's survival, said, "The birds are there, which we knew." But Dr. Fitzpatrick said he was happy that a scientific battle in print had been avoided.

"We sent them the sounds," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "I wish we'd done that earlier." But he noted that the process was "science in action, at its messy best."

The manager of the 160,000-acre White River refuge, Larry E. Mallard, said the boggy woodlands there had been actively logged for generations in a way that took care to protect areas friendly to wildlife. As a result, Mr. Mallard said, one rare species after another has returned, including bald eagles and swallow-tailed kites.

The ivory bill topped it all, he said.

"Now Elvis has come along," he said, "and said: 'I'm the rock star. Look at me.' "

Want to help out the Ivory-bill? Buy a conservation stamp -- just click on the pic below:

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Conservation Stamp

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