Scientist decries ‘faith-based ornithology’ in Ivory-bill search

John James Audubon's hand-colored engraving of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was created for his book Birds of America.
John James Audubon’s hand-colored engraving of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was created for his book Birds of America.

An article published in the quarterly journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union takes issue with the pervasive secrecy that has surrounded the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas and alleges that mistakes were made in the scientific process by which the woodpecker’s existence came to be regarded as confirmed.

The 15-page “Perspectives in Ornithology” article was written by ornithologist Jerome A. Jackson. It appears in the January 2006 issue of The Auk.

Rediscovery of the woodpecker was announced in June 2005 in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was featured in the August 2005 issue of Birder’s World.

“More than a year elapsed between the time of the first sighting and the announcement that an Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been documented in Arkansas,” Jackson writes. “This was time enough to get the science right, but the secrecy policy of the BWCP [Big Woods Conservation Partnership] led to involvement of only a few biologists who work with woodpeckers, and the rush to publication led to a quick peer review by Science.

‘Faith-based’ ornithology

Mistakes were then compounded at multiple levels, Jackson writes, “as a result of scientists, government, media, and the public relying on the combined authority of the Cornell Laboratory and Science.”

The product is “faith-based” ornithology, not true science, Jackson concludes. And this, he suggests, may result in the erosion of public support for conservation efforts in the future.

“What will happen two years from now,” he asks,” if researchers fail to provide unquestionable documentation of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Big Woods? Will the public remember two years from now that the reports were ever made? Will conservation funding for the region be withdrawn? And what about the next time? Will those involved be so jaundiced by the experience that future reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers or other rare species will be ignored?”

“Sound bites must not pass as science, and science demands more than mere observation for documentation of extraordinary records,” writes Jackson, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. “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.”

Jackson wrote book, report

Jackson, recipient of the American Birding Association’s 2004 Chandler Robbins Award for significant contributions to birder education and/or bird conservation, is an acknowledged expert on woodpeckers.

In 1986 he served on a committee appointed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and he wrote the account on the Ivory-bill (No. 711) in the Birds of North America reference series available for sale from the Cornell Lab. He also co-authored the Pileated Woodpecker account (No. 148). He is the author of In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Smithsonian Books, 2004). Following a search for Ivory-bills in 2002, Jackson wrote “The Truth Is Out There” for the June 2002 issue of Birder’s World.

Early last summer he and three other authors argued in a manuscript submitted to the peer-reviewed online journal PLoS Biology that the bird visible in a video recorded by David Luneau in the Cache River refuge in April 2004 was not an Ivory-bill, but a Pileated Woodpecker.

The journal accepted the paper, but it was never published. Shortly before its scheduled release and while Jackson was out of the country, and after the BWCP had prepared a rebuttal, senior authors Richard O. Prum and Mark B. Robbins opted to withdraw it. The pair did so after Cornell Lab personnel provided them with recordings made in Arkansas of rapping sounds and kent calls.

Prum initially called the recordings “thrilling” and said they provided “clear and convincing evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not extinct.” But on August 24 Russ Charif, a biologist in the Cornell Lab’s Bioacoustics Research Program and the coordinator for the BWCP’s acoustic search effort, told the annual meeting of the AOU in Santa Barbara that the recordings were “suggestive” and “tantalizing” but were not conclusive proof of the woodpecker’s presence in the Big Woods.

“Scientists at Cornell University have acknowledged that these recorded vocalizations and double raps do not constitute evidence confirming the presence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers,” Jackson writes, and he leaves no doubt that he and his co-authors stand by their unpublished paper. “Prum, Robbins, Brett Benz, and I remain steadfast in our belief that the bird in the Luneau video is a normal Pileated Woodpecker,” he writes. “Others have independently come to the same conclusion, and publication of independent analyses may be forthcoming.”

Robbins is collections manager at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. He was a member of the ABA’s Checklist Committee for eight years and its chair from 2001 to 2005. Prum is the head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. Benz is a Ph.D. student in the division of ornithology at the University of Kansas.

‘Widespread misunderstanding’

Jackson claims that “several” characteristics of the video are consistent with Pileated Woodpeckers and inconsistent with Ivory-bill Woodpeckers. Referring to Figure 1 in the Science article, he argues: “Even a cursory comparison of this figure with the photographs by Arthur Allen and James Tanner or the art by Audubon or [Alexander] Wilson shows that the white on the wing of the bird, said to be perched behind the tree with only a portion of its right wing and tail exposed, is too extensive to be that of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”

He continues: “My opinion is that the bird in the Luneau video is a normal Pileated Woodpecker. I believe that the white shown extending from behind the tree is the large white patch present on the underside of the wing of a Pileated Woodpecker, held vertically, with the bird already in flight.”

Jackson further asserts that information provided by earlier researchers who knew Ivory-billed Woodpeckers has been ignored or used selectively, and that information about species other than Ivory-bills has been used to make assumptions about the woodpecker. The result, he says, is “widespread misunderstanding of behavioral and ecological characteristics of this species.” The following assertions, he writes, are “myths and uncertainties that have been presented as facts”:

• The Ivory-bill is “much larger” than a Pileated Woodpecker. The Ivory-bill is indeed larger, Jackson writes, but the difference amounts to, at most, only two inches in wingspan and two or three inches in length. “Assuming that bird measurements made by John James Audubon are reasonably correct,” he writes, “for an individual to be able to say that an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight, at 100 meters, is much larger than a Pileated Woodpecker implies an ability to easily distinguish between a meter stick and a yard stick down the length of a football field.”

• Ivory-bill flight is straight and level while Pileated flight is undulating. Jackson quotes both Audubon, who wrote of the Pileated, “The flight of this well known bird is powerful, and, on occasion, greatly protracted, resembling in all respects that of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” and Tanner, who wrote, “I have frequently seen Pileateds fly directly, in no way different from the flight of the larger bird.”

• The life spans of large woodpeckers rarely exceed 15 years. “We simply do not know the range, variability, or mean of woodpecker life spans,” Jackson writes. “What information we have is based on very small sample sizes of banded birds of other woodpecker species.”

• The Ivory-bill has become reclusive and silent within the past century. “While game animals often become wary as a result of hunting pressure,” Jackson writes, “I know of no evidence that suggests anything more than individual wariness as a result of negative interaction with humans. I believe that the integrity of the social system of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, as evidenced by numerous historical reports of movement in pairs and family groups, vocal chatter, and exchange of double raps, would remain if the species has survived.”

Jackson writes that members of the BWCP have used an analogy coined by Tanner — that searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was like “searching for an animated needle in a haystack” — to explain why the bird has apparently eluded discovery even after more than 22,000 hours of searching since the spring of 2005. Jackson says the analogy has limits.

“Just as a big magnet might greatly facilitate finding an ‘animated needle,’ the roost or nest cavity of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would be like a magnet in repeatedly ‘pulling’ a bird back to the same area,” he writes. “In addition, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a social species that is well known for traveling in pairs and family groups. Finding a group of vocal, rapping ‘needles’ should be much easier than finding a lone ‘needle.’ The inability (as of early December 2005) to locate and document with a reasonably good photograph or video even a single Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not suggestive of the existence of a breeding population in the Big Woods.”

Read more about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Truth is out there
Jerome A. Jackson assesses David Kulivan’s 1999 report of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Pearl River Swamp, Louisiana. June 2002.

Old friend found
Eyewitness accounts of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers from the Cache River, Arkansas. By Chris Niskanen, August 2005.

Now what?
What’s next for the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. By Elliott Swarthout and Ron Rohrbaugh, August 2005.

First step
In the wake of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery, a plea for conservation of the world’s other declining species. By George Fenwick, August 2005.

Old friend missing
Description, range, habits, and credible sightings of the Imperial Woodpecker. By Matt Mendenhall, December 2005.

The other guys
Geoffrey Hill describes his search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. February 2007.

1 in 15,625
Teams of researchers calculate the odds of finding a living Ivory-bill today. By Matt Mendenhall, February 2012.

Ghost bird
Ten years after Ivory-bill fever swept the nation, Jerome A. Jackson assesses the hope, hype, and disappointment. February 2015.

Sightings map
Historic ranges and reported sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since 1944. By BirdWatching Magazine, August 2005, February 2015.

This article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Birder’s World.

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Chuck Hagner

Chuck Hagner

Chuck Hagner is the director of Bird City Wisconsin, a program that recognizes municipalities in the Badger State for the conservation and education activities that they undertake to make their communities healthy for birds and people. He was the editor of BirdWatching from 2001 to 2017, and his articles have appeared in Nature Conservancy and Birding. He is also the author of two books about birds and the board chair of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, Inc., located in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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