May 02 2011

Hunting the Elusive…

Published by under General
Comments: 15

The existence of this creature remains at best controversial, with the bulk of the scientific community skeptical. The evidence so far put forward consists of photos and video that are either out-of-focus or at such a distance that definitive identification is not possible. Proponents focus on questionable analysis of minute details of their blurry videos in order to make their case, and excuse the lack of better evidence by that fact that their quarry is rare, wary, and lives only in the deep wilderness.

I am talking, of course, about the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is a larger cousin to the extant pileated woodpecker, but it was believed to have gone extinct in the 1940s. However, recent putative sightings have raised the possibility that a small population still persists in the deep swamps where they roam. In most of the videos and photographs shown so far the subject does appear to be a large woodpecker – but the question remains if the birds seen in these images are a pileated woodpecker or an ivory-billed. There are differences in markings and flying characteristics, but the fleeting and distant images do not allow for a clean distinction.

Birders are Skeptics

I became involved in a little bit of amateur birding over the last decade, as a fun project to do with my daughters. One thing that struck me when talking with more experienced birders is that there is a natural skepticism that pervades the birding culture. This makes sense, as the primary activity of birders is to identify these mostly-small animals in the wild based upon anecdotal evidence – people’s reports of what they heard and saw. There are also many birds that are easy to confuse with similar related birds, and it takes a practiced eye and ear often to distinguish them.

Further, birders keep track of what birds they have seen, and share their stories of rare bird sightings with pride. The so-called “life list” of birds seen is based on the honor system. So it is not surprising that a culture of skepticism has evolved among birders. It’s partly a way to educate each other, and for more experienced birders to school their greener companions. They exchange the best “field markings”, which are features that can easily be viewed in the field that are most helpful in identifying specific bird species. And of course, there is at times friendly but vigorous discussion about what kind and quality of evidence is necessary before concluding that a specific bird was sighted. The birding culture is complete with the recognition of how easy it is to be deceived by your eyes, of the effect of viewing conditions on the ability to identify field markings, and the effects of bias in wanting to add a rare bird to one’s life list.

There is also a willingness to be skeptical of the claims of others – no false politeness. When I was just getting started in birding I set a couple of bird feeders outside my kitchen window. For a while most of the birds that were coming to the feeder were new to me (since I knew so little about the local bird species). This further meant that I had no idea how common or rare a bird was when I first saw it. One morning just as I woke up I saw about five birds all of the same species that I had not seen before. They looked like blue-jays, but were not blue-jays (a species with which I was already very familiar). They were darker and lacked any white markings.  I observed them at close range for a few minutes. I didn’t run to get my camera because it did not occur to me that they were rare – I figured I would be seeing them often at my feeder. And typically birds would have left by the time I got my camera ready, so I chose to spend the time observing them. This is a decision I would soon regret.

I then went to my trusty bird encyclopedia to find out which species I had just observed. After about an hour of pouring through the book I came to the conclusion that the birds must have been Steller’s jays – a species related to the blue jay. There was just one problem – Steller’s jay are native to the West coast of the US, not the East cost. But – they are occasionally seen as “accidentals” – as birds found outside of their native range. Sometimes they hitch a ride on a transcontinental jet, for example. I further concluded that I had seen an adult with their children, likely hybrids with a local blue jay.

The first time I told a more experienced birder that I saw five Steller’s jays near my home in Connecticut, without hesitation she looked at me and said, “No, you didn’t.” She applied a little bit of Occam’s razor and concluded that it is much more likely that an inexperience new birder simply was mistaken about what he thought he saw than that he had an extremely rare (if not impossible) encounter with an accidental. I thought back to my decision to observe the birds rather than run for my camera and realized it was the wrong decision.

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

It is within this community of natural skeptics that claims of an even more unlikely bird sighting are being made – a species, rare and elusive when alive, and thought to be extinct for decades. The evidence coming forward is intriguing, but not compelling. Ornithologists have largely concluded that the photos and videos are of pileated woodpeckers, but believers do have some interesting details to point to that might suggest the ivory-billed is still around.

Now an amateur bird-hunter is throwing his evidence into the ring. Michael D Collins has produced a series of videos with audio that he claims is of a woodpecker too large and fast to be a pileated – and therefore the only other contender is the ivory-billed. He has spent the last year waiting in the swamps for the chance to glance this bird, and claims he has had ten sightings.

The problem is that his evidence is less than definitive. The video is generally out-of-focus or distant. He has done some careful analysis of the video to estimate size and speed, but such analyses are notoriously subject to bias. We have seen similar “detailed analyses” of Bigfoot photos, or UFO photos, looking at the tiny details that might suggest some feature which in turn would suggest that the subject is really a large primate or spaceship. Such exercises turn out to be little more than exercises in self-deception and confirmation bias. And they are no substitute for one high-quality photo or video.

My advice to Mr. Collins is to invest in a better camera and to learn how to use it. Now, I am all too familiar with how difficult it is to take photos or video of birds. Even large birds are still small creatures, that move fast and generally do not stay still for the camera. They are also skittish and don’t allow you to get very close. The solution, however, is the telephoto lens and a tripod.

It’s possible that there is a reason all of the photos and video of putative ivory-billed woodpeckers are blurry – because all the close and in-focus pictures can be clearly identified as not being an ivory-billed.

Collins himself is convinced he has seen the ivory-billed. He is quoted as saying:

“All these politics are very damaging. We should be saying, ‘OK, the bird exists, it’s just very difficult to observe. Now where are they? Where do they live? How can we save them?”

Sorry – wrong. It is premature to conclude that the bird exists, and to engage in “special pleading” that the low-quality evidence is due to the bird being difficult to observe. The alternate, and default, explanation is that it is impossible to observe, because it’s extinct. We need definitive evidence before we can conclude it still survives.

The plausibility here, however, is low but not extreme. We are not talking Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. The quest for the ivory-billed is perhaps more analogous to the coelocanth – a fish thought to be extinct until it was found in a fish market. I am willing to believe that the ivory-billed is still out there, clinging to survival. I hope it is, and I hope I get to see an unambiguous picture or video or one some day.

But until then it is best to remain skeptical, and not to jump to premature conclusions based upon ambiguous evidence.

And for the record – I did see Steller’s jays in my backyard in Connecticut (OK – at least I think I did, but I could be wrong). But even if I did, I would not expect anyone to believe me based upon my say so. I can only kick myself for being too inexperienced to even realize what I was looking at and to grab my camera. I still sit by the window sometimes looking at my bird feeder and hoping for another such rare encounter that will likely never come.

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