Dec 05 2008

The Search Is On

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Believers claim that this creature lives in the remote swamps of northwestern Florida and Arkansas. Several eyewitnesses claim to have seen it, but they have only returned with blurry photographs that are not of sufficient quality to make a positive identification. Skeptics charge that no one has come across a corpse or any hard physical evidence that the creature actually exists.

In addition, there have been several large expeditions hoping to find the creature, but they have come up empty handed. Believers claim this is due to the rare and elusive nature of the creature. They plan another excursion this Spring – their confidence high despite broad skepticism in the scientific community.

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

The ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers (the largest being the imperial woodpecker of Mexico). It resembles the common piliated woodpecker, but is slightly larger and has a distinctive ivory bill.  Ivory bills live in remote forests, specifically swamps such as those found in Arkansas and northwestern Florida.

Above is an historical photo of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

However, the last documented sighting of an ivory bill in the US was in 1938, and the last sighting world-wide was in Cuba in 1948. The species was therefore thought to be extinct. In 2004, however, there were several documented sightings of what may have been ivory-billed woodpeckers. However, the evidence is inconclusive.

The primary piece of evidence is a video of a fleeing woodpecker, referred to as the Luneau video after David Luneau who took the footage in April of 2004. The video is frustratingly blurry, leading to the controversy over whether or not it constitutes compelling evidence for an ivory bill. The controversy is over whether or not the video is actually of the related piliated woodpecker.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has done an extensive analysis of the video, including reenacting the video with life-sized models of an ivory-billed woodpecker and a piliated woodpecker to compare to the Luneau video. They make a fairly convincing case, but still they are trying to extract the most information they can out of a blurry video.

Below is a still taken from the Luneau video.

I know – it’s hard to get excited about a blurry patch like that, especially skeptics who have become jaded by the endless photos of “blobsquatch”. But the video clearly shows a large bird in flight – again, the only real controversy is over whether or not it is a piliated or ivory-billed. If we accept that premise, then the debate is down to a binary choice. This simplifies the analysis, for then scientists only have to demonstrate that the blurry images look more like an ivory-billed than a piliated.

Given that premise, I do think the Cornell analysis is compelling.  But it is not enough to end the controversy. And scientists being scientists, the Cornell team has made a number of annual expeditions in search of hard and undeniable evidence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. They are planning another such expedition this Spring, although they have had to scale back their numbers.

There is also a standing $50,000 reward (donated by an anonymous birder) for anyone who can provide photographic proof of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

There is also good reason for continued skepticism regarding the ivory-billed’s existence. Sixty years is a long time to go without a sighting (70 years in the US). While it does inhabit remote forests, these areas have increasingly been encroached by civilization. Some enthusiasts have been looking for the bird now for the last four years, without success.

It’s possible that the bird’s elusiveness is due to its rarity – if not extinct, then it may be on the brink, with only a few specimens remaining.

The best way to end the debate, of course, is with definitive evidence. So I wish the Cornell team luck in their search.

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