Ornithologists respond to Jerry Jackson's critique of Ivory-billed Woodpecker search
Reactions range from unease over fundraising allegations to support for his skepticism
Published: February 17, 2006
|Jerome A. Jackson's critique of the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been called "great reading for the open-minded" and become fodder for critics of conservationists and the journal Science. (We report on the paper here.) For perspective, we asked five leading ornithologists for their views.|
"Jackson raises questions any good scientist might be prompted to ask given the paucity of solid evidence regarding the existence of the Ivory-bill," says John Kricher, a professor of biology at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. "Science is not based on faith or wishes or reputation. It's based on skeptical inquiry."
Kricher is a board member of the American Birding Association and the author of A Neotropical Companion (Princeton, 1999), Galapagos: A Natural History (Princeton, 2006), and other books.
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|John T. Rotenberry, a biology professor at the University of California Riverside and president of the Cooper Ornithological Society, says like most people, he was thrilled last spring when the Ivory-bill rediscovery was announced. Now, he says, "I think Jackson is right. We wanted so much to believe it that perhaps we failed to examine critically the evidence offered in support of the assertion."|
Woodpecker expert William S. Moore of Wayne State University in Detroit, disagrees. He says the video analysis by Cornell scientists "moved me toward the belief side of the argument," and the audio recordings of double-knocks convinced him.
"I have collected and studied several species of Campephilus in South America," says Moore, author of the Northern Flicker account (No. 166) in the Birds of North America reference series, "and the double-knock drum is so distinctive and characteristic of the genus, represented only by the Ivory-bill in North America, that when I heard the recordings from Arkansas, my doubt was dispelled."
Moore is currently researching the evolutionary history of the Campephilus woodpeckers with Martjan Lammertink, a leader of the Ivory-bill search team in Arkansas and a co-author of the Science article proclaiming its rediscovery.
Moore commends Jackson's knowledge of woodpeckers. But he wishes Jackson's paper had been directed at the news media and the public rather than primarily at scientists. "As Jerry states in his article, 'Scientific truth is not decided by a consensus of public opinion, but by the quality of data presented and rigorous independent review of those data.' In this regard, the scientists are doing exactly what they should be doing -- intensively seeking additional evidence," says Moore.
Hans Winkler, an ornithologist at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and co-author of Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), calls Jackson's paper "balanced" and says it is significant because it "points out the problems" with the evidence supporting the bird's existence.
He adds that better evidence is necessary because, for a recovery plan to work, "we must be able to keep track of the birds with a minimum degree of certainty."
Rotenberry agrees, and he notes that while the debate over the Ivory-bill's existence might seem trivial outside birding and ornithology circles, it "actually has multi-million-dollar implications" from a conservation perspective.
The federal government pledged $10.2 million for Ivory-bill recovery last spring, but as Jackson writes, the funding was redirected from other budgeted projects. Birder's World reported last fall that the federal money would rank the Ivory-bill fourth in spending on endangered bird species.
Jackson chides the Nature Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and other birding groups for using the rediscovery as a fundraising tool -- a point that Moore dismisses. "I am all for skepticism and caution in reaching scientific conclusions," he says, "but I am bothered by the implication in Jackson's article that the Cornell group played to the media and is motivated by the prospect of soliciting funds."
John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab, told the New York Times that Jackson's accusation about using the rediscovery for financial gain "hurts the most." "We've tried very hard not to oversell what we know," Fitzpatrick said.
Like Jackson, other scientists fear that if no one finds unequivocal proof that Ivory-bills survive, anti-environmental political forces will pounce on the controversy.
"I don't think the present uncertainty over the woodpecker," says Rotenberry, "should play any role in deciding whether to preserve large tracts of southern bottomland forest - their environmental worth independent of Ivory-bills seems self-evident to me. But I believe that there are those who, for ideological or financial reasons, will trumpet this as at best a boondoggle or at worst a failure of policy and the Endangered Species Act."
Ivory-bill or Pileated? |
Most of the ornithologists claimed not to know whether the bird in the video shot by David Luneau [featured in this video press release] is an Ivory-billed or Pileated Woodpecker. The video was the primary piece of evidence offered to support the Ivory-bill's rediscovery, but Jackson contends that the bird in the image is a Pileated Woodpecker.
Winkler says the video and other sightings in Arkansas "justify further efforts to get better evidence." However, he adds, "I am 100 percent sure that the sketch that appeared in Science (the insert in Figure 1) does not depict an Ivory-billed, or any other extant, normally colored woodpecker."
Jackson's concerns about the evidence reflect what many ornithologists have been saying privately, according to conservationist and author Noel F. R. Snyder, although no one he's met dismisses the sightings outright.
Snyder is the author of the books The Carolina Parakeet: Glimpses of a Vanished Bird (Princeton, 2004) and The California Condor: A Saga of Natural History and Conservation (Princeton, 2000). He has earned awards from the American Ornithologists' Union and Society for Conservation Biology for his conservation work on condors and parrots.
He notes that past AOU president George Lowery proposed in his 1974 book Louisiana Birds [excerpted here] three conditions for a large woodpecker sighting to be considered a possible Ivory-bill:
Seeing the ivory-colored bill of the bird.
Hearing the bird give typical nasal yamp calls.
Seeing the extensive white on the bird's underwing produced mainly by the white secondary feathers.
"None of the Arkansas sightings fulfills all three criteria," says Snyder. "No one on the search team has evidently yet had a good look at the bill color of the bird(s) in question, and no one has seen a candidate Ivory-bill vocalizing. Also, Pileated Woodpeckers with white secondaries have been seen in the wild, so seeing a large woodpecker with white secondaries is hardly proof it is an Ivory-bill."
The lack of solid proof also bothers Wheaton's John Kricher. "Frankly, in this day of superb photographic records," he says, "the lack of clear, unambiguous, photographic documentation regarding the Ivory-bill is troublesome."
Bill Moore of Wayne State adds: "To me, the arguments that it is an Ivory-bill are more convincing [than arguments saying it is a Pileated], but if I've learned anything as a scientist, it is to be patient. The truth will emerge through the scientific process, perhaps very soon, and at most within a few years."
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