The Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Fact or Fiction?
Female Ivory-billed Woodpecker at nest hole. (Photo: James T. Tanner, 1937)
A remote bayou in eastern Arkansas entered the national spotlight last April after the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed extinct since the 1930's, was reportedly rediscovered there. The news brought new hope for birders, a wave of tourism, and $10 million in federal money for habitat conservation. But now, another group of scientists is disputing the evidence, saying the bird thought to be an ivory-billed could actually be the common pileated woodpecker. Guest host Jeff Young speaks with Tim Gallagher, who claims he saw the bird, as well as Dr. Jerry Jackson, a skeptic.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young, sitting in for Steve Curwood.
It’s the feel-good wildlife story of the year: dedicated birders trekking through the swamps of Arkansas catch sight of a majestic bird long-thought extinct. Then, armed with video evidence, the birders make a dramatic announcement in April-- they had rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Or had they? Other scientists now say it could be a case of mistaken bird identity. Jerry Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers is among the skeptics and he joins us now. Welcome.
JACKSON: It’s good to be here, thank you.
YOUNG: Why do you doubt this evidence that was presented?
JACKSON: Well, science moves forward on the strength of the evidence that’s presented and on the ability of other scientists to verify that evidence. The evidence that has been presented so far includes visual observations, that for which we have no documentation, and, in addition, a very brief video that is sub-optimal – admittedly sub-optimal even by those who wrote the paper in Science.
YOUNG: Okay, sub-optimal? Sounds like a delicate way of putting it. You don’t think that’s the bird, do you?
JACKSON: We don’t know whether it’s the bird or not. But we look at it as those authors have provided us with tremendous hope. And the world has reacted to the hope that they have provided. But hope is not truth – it’s only the fire that incites us to seek the truth, and the truth is still out there.
YOUNG: What do you think is in that video there?
JACKSON: Well, we have analyzed the video frame by frame and looked at the obvious potential, and that is that it’s a pileated woodpecker, and we believe the video shows a pileated woodpecker that is flying away. The pileated, incidentally, is a very common bird in bottomland forests across the southeast, and in old growth forests, and even in some suburban areas across North America. We’re not questioning what those people thought they saw, but we can’t know what they actually saw without some kind of proof.
YOUNG: Dr. Jerry Jackson teaches at the Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers, Florida. Thank you for being with us, Dr. Jackson.
JACKSON: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
YOUNG: So, is the ivory-billed really back or was this just some wishful woodpecker thinking? Well, Tim Gallagher says it’s the real thing. He says he saw the bird in that Arkansas swamp and he joins us now from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Mr. Gallagher, welcome to Living on Earth.
GALLAGHER: Thank you, glad to be here.
YOUNG: Mr. Gallagher, you have a book just out that documents your search for the ivory-billed. It’s called “The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.” And it became the story of your sighting of the bird, but I guess it started out a little differently. You had this project to talk to other people who claimed that they had seen this bird in past years.
GALLAGHER: Yeah, I mean, some of these people had seen them years ago and everyone knew they’d seen them. It was in the famous Singer Tract of northeast Louisiana, and it was the last known stronghold of the ivory billed woodpecker. And I spoke with people who’d seen the birds in the 1930s and 40s, including some kids who grew up near there. And also Nancy Tanner, who was the widow of James Tanner, who was the Cornell grad student in the late 1930s who studied the birds there.
But I started also interviewing people who’d seen them more recently. Sometimes it was thirty or forty years ago. And I started visiting these people and interviewing them face to face about their sightings. And if they sounded credible I would go out there and check them out.
YOUNG: In the course of checking out one of these accounts this is what led you to this swamp with this great name, the Bayou de View. And quite a view it had, huh? What happened there?
GALLAGHER: Well, we’d spend the night out the night before, and we were going to float the entire length of this bayou looking for the bird. And we didn’t necessarily expect to see a bird, we just wanted to evaluate the habitat and see if this was worth spending any more time there. And on the second day out, about 1:15 in the afternoon, Bobby Harrison and I were canoeing down the bayou there and all of a sudden we spotted this bird coming up a side slew. And it just merged in front of us. We measured later, it was only 68 feet away, and it flew across the bayou right in front of us in good light and it was swinging up like it was going to land on this tree. And we both yelled “Ivory-Bill!” simultaneously, and probably spooked it, to be honest, cause it veered away from the tree and it flew further into the woods. We got over the side and jumped out of the canoe, sunk to our knees right away, and just were scrambling through there as fast as we could go, pulling ourselves over logs and through branches. And finally, after about 15 minutes of that, we sat down on a log and Bobby just let out a sigh and said, “I saw an ivory-bill,” and he started sobbing.
YOUNG: And you had some trepidation, I guess, about sharing with these scientists what you had seen.
GALLAGHER: Well, that’s right. For more than half a century, ivory-bill sightings have been looked at in the same way as a Sasquatch sighting, or Loch-Ness monster,. And people had been, other ornithologists had been laughed at in the past over the years. So it was quite a step. I hadn’t slept for a couple days just worrying about announcing this to the Lab of Ornithology that I’d seen this bird.
YOUNG: These expert birders and scientists, they joined you down there, you spent a – long story short – a lot of time in some thick mucky swamps. Several people claimed they saw the bird. You got a clip of video and published in Science magazine the results here. What do you make of this challenge to your evidence?
GALLAGHER: Well, I look at it like this is the scientific process: you publish a paper, and people give you their response and you from there. I mean, we welcome this kind of inquiry, and I’m absolutely certain that our results will be borne out, that we did, indeed, see an ivory-billed woodpecker out there.
YOUNG: Now, you are clearly a very passionate chaser of this bird. You believed very strongly that it was out there, and then you found it out there. Some might take this in and say, ‘maybe he believed it was out there so much that he saw it when it wasn’t there.’ Did your emotion taint your ability to be objective about what you were seeing?
GALLAGHER: Well, no it didn’t. I’ve always been an objective observer. As a bird watcher I tend to be conservative. I’m not the person who’s going out there and saying I found this fabulous bird over here – because I want to be sure. I want to be absolutely sure. When I saw that bird, I looked at the white going to the trailing edge of its wings, I honed in on that, I watched it fly for about another ten feet and I double-checked that again. There was no way that it could have been anything but an ivory-billed woodpecker. I mean, I know the birds in North America. This was a bird I’d never seen.
YOUNG: If this bird has been out there and this is, as you put it, the “Holy Grail” for birders, why have other birders not seen it?
GALLAGHER: Well, actually, people ask me that a lot. They say, well, considering how many thousands of birdwatchers there are in the United States, surely if these birds still existed some people would be seeing them. But the problem is birdwatchers don’t go out to these places. When birdwatchers go to the swamp, 99 percent of them go about 100 feet out on the boardwalk. They don’t get down and dirty in the swamp. And they don’t spend a lot of time dressed in camouflage sitting still. It’s been people like hunters and fishermen who’ve been coming back with interesting reports. These are the people who’ve been ignored. So, it’s not surprising to me at all that this bird, considering how low its population must be, it’s not surprising that it could’ve gotten by under the radar screen for so long.
YOUNG: Clearly, your hope is that the rediscovery of the bird will trigger more action to protect what’s left of this sort of habitat. And you – or at least my interpretation of what you’re writing here is – that you’re a little miffed with the scientific establishment for not being more open to the possibility that the bird might be out there and that we should get about saving some of these woods.
I want to read an excerpt from the book. You write that “the belief that this bird is extinct has been held so strongly for so long that it has become a tenet adhered to by many ornithologists as rigidly and dogmatically as the tenets of the most fundamentalist religious sects.” I’m wondering, isn’t that a little harsh? I mean, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, don’t they?
GALLAGHER: Yeah, that’s right, but on the other hand, I’ve met scientists who said that they had heard of credible reports of sightings of ivory-bills, and they didn’t investigate them because they didn’t want to have it reflect badly on their careers. So, when it reaches the point where it has that kind of chilling effect on the science, then there’s a problem.
YOUNG: Now, as I understand, part of your argument in the book here is that there was more at stake in disputes like that than just the egos of the people or scientists involved. Your point is, what happens to the bird, or what did happen to the bird, if it was out there, people were seeing it, and those claims were disregarded, and there was no additional protection or action toward the bird?
GALLAGHER: That’s right. I mean, that’s really what we have to worry about here, too. We don’t want our conservation efforts to get stalled. This was a very neglected habitat. I mean, it’s one of the great ecological tragedies of the United States that all the southern bottomland swamp forests were not protected. They were cut for decade after decade, from the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, until there was really nothing left.
This area where we’ve had the sightings really might just be a place the birds fly through – it’s a narrow area of swamp only about a mile wide. There’s a really huge wooded area to the south of there, and there’s a huge swamp to the north, and this might just be a passageway where the birds aren’t really spending a lot of time.
YOUNG: Hmm. So, a lot more hunting to do?
GALLAGHER: A lot more. Yeah, we’ve only looked at something like eight percent of the forests there. There’s half a million acres, and so it’s a huge, very daunting task.
YOUNG: It sounds like your life is going to be very busy.
YOUNG: And is this giving away too much, or do you have fresh evidence coming?
GALLAGHER: You know, I don’t know if I should talk about it before it’s published – actually, at the American Ornithologist Union 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: Yep. (LAUGHS)
YOUNG: Tim Gallagher is author of “The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory- Billed Woodpecker,” it’s published by Houghton-Mifflin. He is also editor of Living Bird magazine. Mr. Gallagher, thank you for talking with us.
GALLAGHER: Thank you, it was my pleasure.
[MUSIC: JoRane “Pour Gabrielle” from ‘You & Now’ (2005)]
YOUNG: There’s more about Gallagher’s account of the ivory-billed woodpecker at the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s website. The scientists challenging the evidence will publish their paper in an upcoming issue of the online journal Public Library of Science Biology. And you can link to both websites via ours at Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot o-r-g.
YOUNG: Coming up: Judging Judge Roberts on the Environment. Keep listening to Living on Earth.