[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?]


    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
    ivory-billed woodpecker.

    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
    ivory bill.

    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.

    Until now.

    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
    embracing this."

    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
    reasonable doubt."

    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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