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Ornithologists and amateur birders were both stunned and thrilled in 2005 when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the discovery of living ivory-billed woodpeckers in the swamplands of Arkansas.

The ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWP) has been thought extinct for over sixty years. Sightings were reported from time to time, but random sightings of rare birds are notoriously unreliable. White pigeons have been reported to the Audobon society as ptarmigans. Swallow-tailed kites (resident in Southern Florida, but rare even there), have been called in by people in upstate New York. Sightings such as these are often followed up on, but are so rarely accurate that most ornithologists simply don’t take them seriously until they’re confirmed. The ivory-billed woodpecker was still listed in the field guides, but the entries noted that the bird was presumed extinct.

All that changed with the announcement from the University of Cornell. In 2005 they made the announcement that they had found live IBWPs in the Cache River area of Arkansas. At the time of the announcement, they had seven sightings, and one video clip. “Ivory-Billed Rediscovered” headlined the news – but some people aren’t so sure.

The Cornell expedition was mounted to follow up on a sighting made by kayaker Gene Sparling in 2004. Sparling’s report seemed more reliable than most, so the University, in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy, mounted a year long expedition to find the IBWP. At the same time the Nature Conservancy began buying habitat in Arkansas to better preserve the area should the expedition prove successful. When the press announcement came, it looked as if the two institutions had been prescient, and US birders greeted the news of the IBWP’s resurrection with joy.

However, as time has passed the extensive ivory-billed hunt has still produced no clear photos, no hard evidence such as eggshells or feathers, and no sightings lasting more than a few seconds. Some people, ranging from amateur birders to well-known ornithologists are beginning to express skepticism. They point out that the IBWP was a large, showy, noisy

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

bird that was not particularly shy. If the birds in Arkansas are indeed IBWPs, they argue, then surely the large field team should have been able to produce some concrete evidence by now. Instead the best evidence is the very blurry video that the skeptics argue is probably a Pileated woodpecker rather than a IBWP. Interestingly, abnormal Pileateds with more than the usual amount of white on the wing have been spotted in the area previously, which lends credence to the skeptics’ position.

The skeptics’ problems with the evidence runs as follows: No unmistakable evidence has been produced – no photos, no clear video, no close sightings under good conditions. The distinctive calls of the IBWP (Kent calls) have been recorded, as has the double-knock pattern the IBWP uses when tapping. However, the two have never been recorded at the same time. Area bluejays have been known to make Kent calls, while other large woodpeckers (including the Pileated) have double-knock patterns. The two sounds in conjunction would be unique to an IBWP, however taken singly they are far from diagnostic.

In addition the skeptics note that the area where the IBWP was spotted is not particularly good IBWP habitat. Other areas, such as Southern Louisiana and Mississippi would be far more typical, as well as more remote. The area where the IBWP sightings have occurred, while not cluttered with human habitation, does have hunters, especially duck hunters, coming through regularly, and major roads run quite near to some of it. Believers in the IBWP note that the Cache River birds may be a new population seeded from a more remote, more suitable area, yet expeditions in likely areas have produced no IBWP sightings.

The reaction of many IBWP believers to the skeptics has been an angry rejection of their arguments. They argue in return that the skeptical viewpoint amounts to pure iconoclasm – a desire to knock holes in the evidence simply because they can. They point out that the noisy, unwary birds would have been the most likely to die out, and that a surviving population of IBWP’s would have become less obvious by simple selection. Their logic, though, however good, does not silence the skeptics the way even one clear photo would.

In general, the skeptics’ viewpoint sums up to an argument that a large amount of circumstantial evidence cannot take the place of direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence can propagate itself through the expectations of observers, or through groupthink. Direct evidence cannot. It’s a valid point, and one that thus far the advocates for the resurrected ivory-billed woodpecker have yet to effectively counter. Unless and until they do, the rest of us will have to wait and wonder.

Further reading:
Ivory-billed conservancy site
The Ivory-Billed Skeptic