[Paleopsych] NYT: Mystery Woodpecker Upends a Bird Lover's Life
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Sun Jul 24 15:04:02 UTC 2005
Mystery Woodpecker Upends a Bird Lover's Life
[Where does the official skeptic, Michael Shermer, stand on this?]
By JAMES GORMAN
HUNTSVILLE, Ala., July 23 - In the church of birds, where passions run
high and prophets emerge from swamps and thickets with revelations,
nothing can ruin a reputation like admitting that you have seen an
Bobby Harrison, a large, gentle man with thinning hair and a soft
Alabama drawl, knows this and can recite the casualties. Consider John
V. Dennis, one of Mr. Harrison's heroes. He took the last accepted
photograph of an ivory bill in Cuba in 1948. But when he testified to
seeing one in the Big Thicket area of southeast Texas in 1966, he was
Even worse, at a 1971 meeting of ornithologists, George H. Lowery Jr.,
head of the Louisiana State Museum of Natural Science, presented what
he was convinced were photographs of an ivory bill, taken by an
acquaintance he would not name at a location he would not specify.
"Look at what happened to him," Mr. Harrison said, sitting in his
office here at Oakwood College, where he teaches photography. "He was
just ostracized by the ornithological community for the rest of his
Mr. Harrison is willing to take the risk. He has had a major part in
the most recent report that the ivory bill lives and now, after a
period of acceptance and celebration, some scientists and birders are
questioning the strength of the evidence: a videotape of a bird and
eyewitness accounts. What the critics want is an absolutely clear
photograph and a bird that can be seen repeatedly by a variety of
It is 17 months since the day - Feb. 27, 2004 - when he and Tim
Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology were paddling a canoe in
the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas, bumping
into cypress trees and searching tall tupelos for some hint of an
They were following up on the report of Gene Sparlin, a kayaker who
had seen some sort of bird but was not sure what it was. "We knew what
we were looking for," Mr. Harrison said.
Then a bird appeared in the distance and he and Mr. Gallagher watched
its flight, wondering what it was. "As soon as it broke over the bayou
and tipped, I knew what it was," Mr. Harrison said.
When it flew over land, they tried to chase it through the swamp,
running over the wet ground, carrying binoculars and notebooks.
Finally they stopped, he said, and he wept. Recalling the moment in an
interview, he choked up again.
Like other birders, Mr. Harrison developed his passion early in life.
He has been looking for an ivory bill since 1972, when he was 17. He
is a particular species of birder; he has always had a single-minded
dedication to one bird. It is no surprise that he picked the ivory
bill. It was - or is - the largest American woodpecker and has long
haunted the imaginations of birders because of its elegance and its
He took a video of another ivory bill sighting, one that has not been
widely released, that he has provided to the Cornell Lab. The video,
played at normal speed, shows about a quarter-of-a-second glimpse of
something fast flying by a tree where he had placed a decoy bird.
Shown in slow motion after some technical manipulation to separate
each frame, the video shows a black and white bird.
This is not what he wants. He wants to get a photograph that nobody
can argue with, the kind that does not need an expert to interpret it,
so that the average person can clearly see the bird.
He will be back in the swamp in Arkansas in August and this fall, and
in other swamps after that. He knows he has seen the bird. "I've
waited all my life for this," he said. "Still haven't got that
photograph I want."
Mr. Harrison said he always called the people who had seen ivory bills
"the chosen few."
"And I was one of the chosen," he said. "It's a moment I waited for
most of my adult life. And it happened. Never thought it would really
The sighting that day was the beginning of a major - and secret -
search, by a team of experts from the Cornell Lab and other groups. It
culminated last April in a public announcement and a paper by a gaggle
of experts in the June 3 issue of Science. The ivory-billed
woodpecker, the group reported, was alive.
Unlike reports of past sightings, this one seemed so solid that it
provoked only elation, a public sigh of relief and wonder. The
re-discoverers floated on the almost palpable gratitude of birders and
others who treated the news as a sign of hope.
Three scientists have a paper in the works at the Public Library of
Science challenging the report in Science. No details have been
released, but there are other signs of doubt.
David Allen Sibley, the prominent American birder and the author of
popular field guides, said Thursday that he had concluded that in the
Science paper, "the evidence they've presented falls short of proof."
Mr. Sibley said he decided this independently of the three scientists
who wrote the rebuttal, although he had been in contact with them.
Kenn Kaufman, another major birding author, also said in an interview
that he was not satisfied with the evidence. Although he said he
believed the sighting was real, he did not think the re-discoverers
had proved their case.
Mr. Harrison said that he could not comment on an unpublished paper,
but that he was confident in the finding, and welcomed a scientific
"I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner," Mr. Harrison said.
Nor do the critics question his integrity or that of Mr. Gallagher or
of the other authors of the Science paper.
"The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got
an ivory-billed woodpecker," said Mark B. Robbins of the University of
Kansas, one of the three scientists preparing the challenge to the
Science report. "They believe one thing, we believe another. This is
how science plays out, the fabric of science getting at the truth."
Except that with the ivory bill, nothing is ever business as usual.
Even when it was common, the bird had a certain majesty and mystery.
For the last 50 years it has been a symbol of loss, and of human
failure. Most people were afraid to hope.
So the report in Science, reviewed by other researchers, with multiple
sightings over the course of a year by respected observers, and a
blurry videotape that was exhaustively analyzed, was greeted with
almost religious fervor.
Mr. Kaufman described the initial reaction as: "The bird is back from
the grave. Eureka! We're saved."
Pete Dunne, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and a
prolific author on birds, said he was one of many who thought the
ivory bill was gone for good.
"If someone had said to me, what was more likely, the rediscovery of
the ivory-billed woodpecker or the Second Coming, unhesitantly I would
have gone to the latter."
He is now a firm believer. "The credentials of the people who saw this
are stellar," he said.
Usually, scientists and birders are skeptical. In fact, Mr. Kaufman
said, "I've actually been shocked that virtually everyone has been
He added, "I do in fact believe that there was a bird there last year,
but it hasn't been proven and we could have a more honest discussion
if people accept the fact that we don't have proof."
Mr. Sibley is unconvinced. At first, he, too, was elated, and went
down to Arkansas for 10 days to look for the ivory bill without
It was only when he returned, he said, that he began to think
critically about the Science report. "It's really crushing to come to
the conclusion that it might not be true, that there is room for some
He has been reluctant to speak publicly about his doubts, and
described doubters as being treated as "heretics" in online
The reason he is speaking out now, he said, is that he worried that
money might be diverted from other conservation efforts.
What he said he wanted, for proof, was "redundancy. Repeated sightings
by independent observers of birds really well seen."
This is what Mr. Harrison wants, more than anything. And he
understands the skeptics, because he has been one. But this time, he
and his colleagues are following in the long tradition of Mr. Dennis
and the late Dr. Lowery. "I know the bird is there," he said.
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