Lord God, what a mess 

Whither the ivory-bill?

VIDEO MAN: David Luneau.
  • VIDEO MAN: David Luneau.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology biologists have left the Bayou de View, and the ivory-billed woodpecker they hoped to photograph most likely has, too, they say.

Now, birder brains across the country are saying out loud what they’ve been thinking privately: The bird identified as an ivory-billed woodpecker in 2004, whose finding was announced with much ceremony in April 2005, was more likely its common cousin, the pileated. Even in Arkansas, which has been pretty worked up over the bird, skeptics can be found.

The iconic bird, after all, was considered on its way out the door when James Tanner made his report to Cornell in 1942 on the small population remaining in the Singer Tract of bottomland forest in Louisiana. Everything about the “Lord God” bird is dramatic, from its large, flashy white bill and primeval look to a history of being killed by humans — Indians for its bill and feathers, collectors in the name of science, hunters getting paid by collectors. Its fate was theoretically sealed in the 1940s, when its last known holdout, the Singer Tract of old-growth forest in Louisiana, on the verge of being protected by Congress, was chopped down by a timber company using Nazi prisoners of war.

In 2004, a kayaker’s sighting in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge’s ancient tupelo swamp reached the editor of the Cornell Lab’s magazine, who was writing a book about the bird, and his woodpecker-chasing friend. They came, they saw and they screeched, in tandem, “ivory-bill!” The rest is history.

In the months that followed, reputable, knowledgeable birders assembled by Cornell and the Arkansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy descended on East Arkansas. They saw the bird, and reported their proof — which included a 4-second video — in a peer-reviewed article in Science magazine.

That’s good enough for Joe Neal, co-author with Dr. Douglas James of the 416-page hardcover “Arkansas Birds: Their Distribution and Abundance,” the most comprehensive book on avian life in Arkansas.

“The best records were the original sight records,” Neal said. He didn’t need the video to be convinced. “Then there is all of that acoustical stuff that no one is willing to say is absolutely [an ivory-billed woodpecker] … but have not been able to show it’s anything else.” (“Arkansas Birds,” Neal noted, relied solely on sight records for documentation.)

With three other members of the Bird Records Committee of the Arkansas Audubon Society, Neal voted to accept Dr. David Luneau’s evidence that the ivory-bill was back in Arkansas. The vote was 4-1.

Mike Mlodinow was the odd man out. Mlodinow, a researcher who like Neal and James lives in Fayetteville, was not impressed with the evidence. “I don’t like the video,” he said, referring to Luneau’s film of the bird, the feather in the cap of evidence presented to Science magazine. “You can barely tell it’s a bird.”

“For something like an ivory-billed woodpecker, you have to be pretty sure,” Mlodinow said. “If you’re wrong, it’s like crying wolf. You have to be exceptionally certain.”

Mlodinow called it “strange” that Cornell biologists interpreted every facet of the 4-second film as supportive of their interpretation that it is of an ivory-billed woodpecker. “It’s almost too good to be true.”

But “Arkansas Birds” co-author James, distinguished professor of zoology at the University of Arkansas, not only thinks there was a bird in the Bayou de View, he thinks “there’s enough evidence that there’s more than one bird,” because of recordings made in the Cache and the White River National Wildlife Refuge more than 50 miles away. Just because the 2005-06 field season for Cornell that wrapped up in April provided no new evidence, the earlier sightings were enough for James. “I say the second observation confirms the first.”

Debate is a healthy thing, the scientists involved are quick to say. But some of the back-and-forth amounts to bickering, embodied in newspaper accounts, the publication of critical scientific articles, the rebuttals to the articles, and rebuttals to the rebuttals. Now, it seems, the bird has flown the debate as well as the woods.

On May 18, Cornell scientists made the glum announcement that they’d fallen short of their goal to find and photograph a roosting ivory-bill during the 2005-06 field season. There were only four reportable “encounters” — one from the volunteer search team and three from the public. (Cornell coined the term encounter this season; it means a sighting in which a field mark is convincingly described.) More double-knocks and calls were recorded, but Cornell is being cautious in calling them definitive. The effort cost Cornell around $1 million (most of it private gifts, but some federal dollars and in-kind contributions).

Hard on that announcement’s heels was a gossipy article in the Chicago Sun-Times in which high-profile ornithologists — including a former Cornell employee who’d been in Arkansas — questioned the proof and in which biologists complained about federal dollars going to the ivory-bill project instead of their own. National Geographic Field Guide consultant Jon Dunne called the proof offered in Science “awful. … I just look at the video and say, ‘God, it’s hopeless.’ ”

“They simply have not come up with anything,” said Dr. Jerome Jackson of Florida, a doubter from the start and the author of a essay in an ornithological journal that made the stinging suggestion that the bird was more fund-raising tool than fact.

“I think that maybe it’s a reality check for the people of Brinkley,” Jackson told an Arkansas Times reporter recently. “I’ve talked to the editor of the newspaper there. … I keep telling them, don’t hitch your star to one icon, but to the ecosystem and all of its values.”

Jackson — who has devoted his career to the study of woodpeckers but who was not invited to take part in the secret tracking of the bird in 2004 and the first part of 2005 — called the ivory-bill story “a continuing saga and a sad saga in many ways because of the ways in which some individuals seem to have lost sight of reality or science or whatever.”

Some of those scientists apparently include Scott Simon, director of the Arkansas office of The Nature Conservancy, and TNC biologist Doug Zollner, who co-signed a letter written by Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick rebutting Jackson’s essay in The Auk. The letter, he said, “has so many errors, it’s going to be devastating to them.” He said he could not believe all the authors listed at the end of the letter had read it. “There are some lies in here.”

(Simon could not be reached for comment, but The Nature Conservancy stands behind the article. Like Cornell’s, its biologists have noted the vastness of the Big Woods and the fact that only 13 percent of it has been searched.

Jackson, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, acknowledged he was biased. “It’s all about me,” he said.

“I don’t want this to look like a cat fight,” Jackson said. But, he added, “It is on their part. I certainly intend that my rebuttal to this will not follow in their vein.”

“Jerry’s a professional doubter,” Doug James continued. “I’ve had to design two experiments with red-cockaded [woodpeckers] to disprove him.” One required that James’ graduate student climb tall pine trees before dawn and measure the beaks on the woodpeckers — a threatened species — to see if metal restrictors on their roost holes were hurting their bills. James said the results — that the metal had not hurt them — ran contrary to Jackson’s hypothesis.

Still, the men are friends. James found a carved ivory-billed woodpecker in an antique shop in Eureka Springs and sent it to Jackson after the discovery.

Some have suggested that the naysaying is sour grapes. Like Jackson, neither National Geographic’s Dunne nor David Sibley, author of the “Sibley Guide to Birds,” were invited to join the secret work in the Big Woods. Sibley published a rebuttal of his own in Science calling Cornell and TNC’s science into question. The artist and self-taught ornithologist insists the video captured not the dorsal white wings of an ivory-bill but the ventral white wings of a pileated.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Luneau isn’t shaken. “I’m not as excited as I’d like to be,” Luneau, a computer and electronics professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, acknowledged. “I’d certainly like to be finding multiple ivory-bills and roost cavities and so forth.” But, he added, “we knew they were elusive.”

Luneau’s confidence in the interpretation of his video — which the team dubbed the bird’s “Zapruder film” — is unshaken.

Cornell Lab director Fitzpatrick said he has no beef with Sibley; “He has my full and unaltered respect.” But, he added, “He’s wrong.” After examining some 80 films of flying pileated woodpeckers, Fitzpatrick says he’s sure the video is not of a “typical pileated.”

“We have what we have,” Luneau said. “If we’d seen the bird 25 times [this year] it wouldn’t make previous sightings better or worse.”

One person who filed a report with Cornell during the field season was Erik Hendrickson, an engineer at Yellowstone National Park who spent his Christmas vacation walking the then-dry Bayou de View. On Dec. 28, Hendrickson said, he flushed a large bird he believed showed a lateral white stripe along a long black neck. Hendrickson crept forward until he saw the bird again, and though it flew, Hendrickson lifted his binoculars and “nailed the bird,” getting a magnified view of a black wing with a white trailing edge. He’d lost his pen, so Hendrickson took out his cell phone, called his voice mail at his office in Wyoming, and dictated what he saw. “I tried to describe the quality of the white, how brilliant it was,” Hendrickson said. Now, he predicted, “I’ll be a target” of ridicule.

Cornell will turn its attention to the White River National Wildlife Refuge in the field season that starts in November, installing autonomous video and audio equipment, and it will probably send an “ivory-billed woodpecker SWAT team” to Arkansas on occasion. “This is a search that is decades overdue,” he said.


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