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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Taking it all Back

Air Date: Week of August 5, 2005

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Former skeptics of the recent Ivory-billed woodpecker sighting are reversing their doubts after being presented with new audio evidence that they've deemed unequivocal. Host Jeff Young talks with the recently converted Richard Prum, an ornithology professor at Yale University.

Transcript

YOUNG: Now an update on last week’s story about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. We told you about skeptical scientists challenging the video evidence that the bird once thought extinct had been rediscovered, and we hears from birders who insisted their sighting was for real. Tim Gallagher stood by his claim that he saw the Ivory-Billed last year in an Arkansas swamp and he told us he had more proof coming.

GALLGHER: You know, I don’t know if I should talk about it before it’s published. You know, the American Ornithologist’s meeting in Santa Barbara next month we’ll have some evidence. We’ll present our acoustic evidence.

YOUNG: Well, I’m sure a lot of people will be listening.

GALLAGHER: Yeah.

YOUNG: Among those listening was the leader of the team of skeptical scientists. Yale University ornithology professor Richard Prum. Mr. Prum, what did you hear?

PRUM: We were sent some wav files or electronic files of two recordings and the recordings included two behaviors or two sounds that are very distinctive and very characteristic of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. The first was a series of kent calls which is sort of a nasal “ahnk ahnk ahnk.” The second was one of these characteristic double drums, which sound like, “ba-bum.” Maybe one pounding and then an echo of it immediately after.

YOUNG: So when you listened to that did you hear proof?

PRUM: I found them to be clear and convincing and when I heard these recordings I was first immediately struck by how naturalistic they sounded and that was part of the reason I found them so convincing.

YOUNG: Now I imagine this is kind of a weird position for you, your paper that you were working on, you had to withdraw, but at the same time as a birder you must be just tickled to be wrong here.

PRUM: I’m ecstatic about the fact that there’s convincing evidence for the existence of the bird and it was really because I wanted to have the experience in a confident and assured away that I pursued a skeptical path. Now this has really been about the science and what sort of data are required before we can confidently conclude that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker still exists.

YOUNG: Well, Richard Prum is professor of ornithology at Yale University. Thanks very much for talking with us.

PRUM: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: The new audio evidence that persuaded Prum to drop his challenge won’t be available to for the rest of us until it is presented at an upcoming scientific conference. But it probably sounds something like this 1935 recording of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

 

Links

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

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