Archive for February, 2010

Recovery Plan for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?

Nature‘s news feature has an article on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s development of a recovery plan for the ivory-billed woodpecker. The recovery plan will include a strategy for preserving key habitat in order to save the species. The problem is that ornithologists disagree about whether the bird is already extinct in the United States or not. And even Ron Rohrbaugh, a biologist at Cornell University who was a member of the team that reported sightings of the bird in eastern Arkansas in 2005, is quoted in the news article as saying he doesn’t believe a recoverable population exists. Skeptical ornithologists believe that the Cornell team didn’t spot an ivory-billed woodpecker on the 2004/2005 expedition at all, instead letting ivory bill fever get the better of them when they saw the similar, but quite common, pileated woodpecker. I do have to say that it seems rather arrogant to assume that trained Cornell ornithologists couldn’t tell the difference between a woodpecker that most of us have seen many times in our backyards with one as rare and remarkable as the ivory bill. And I personally found the sound recordings of the distinctive double-knock drumming and the kent-like calls to be even more convincing than the videotape. But no one enjoys fighting and personal attacks more than scientists, so the rebuttals and enthusiastic mudslinging began, with doubters like Jerome Jackson labeling belief in the evidence as “faith-based ornithology.” GrrlScientist has also seized on this idea in her blog post titled “Faith-Based Birding 201: Fraudulent Photos and Federal Funding.” She says that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is “unable to distinguish reality from hysteria” and says that the reason they won’t admit that their video identification was wrong is “testosterone poisoning.” Nice. I’m sure the female co-author of the Science report appreciates that one. I do greatly respect Jerome Jackson (I bought a copy of his book In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and was thrilled to discover that it was autographed by him), but I think this kind of dismissal and labeling of top ornithologists goes too far. I’m fine if people disagree on whether the evidence is convincing or not. But I don’t understand why detractors have to resort to name-calling. And I do think that whether the population is recoverable or not, the resulting habitat conservation from a recovery plan will be a positive step regardless. The ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t the only creature in the old growth swamps, even if it is the most polarizing.