Saturday, May 17, 2008

Of Ivory-bills, Bigfoot, and Skepticism

Link to the past: my daughter Ava (then 4) with undisputed
ivory-bill eyewitness Nancy Tanner, Atlanta, March 2007

As a skeptic, I don't put much stock in extraordinary claims if the evidence is lacking, be it homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, telepathy, 9/11 conspiracies, Bigfoot, dowsing, "intelligent design" (don't even get me started on Ben Stein's movie), aroma therapy, feng shui, faked moon landings, alien autopsies, or whatever. There's a reason I have a link to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe in the short blogroll here; I never miss a podcast, and I highly recommend it for critical thinking. I don't know--maybe the ivory-billed woodpecker is my Achilles heel of skepticism, because I'm still holding out hope against what some call long odds. I acknowledge that no conclusive evidence exists to show with certainty that the species survived past the 1940s. And I know a skeptic has to be ever diligent about being seduced by something that he would really, really want to be true. For that matter, I think it would be wonderful if Bigfoot actually did exist, and I can understand (to a degree) why the people at BFRO are obsessed with proving it's "out there," but come on, guys, get real. There are no Bigfoot roadkills, bones, DNA, or uncontested photos or film/videos. There is also zero evidence that a large hominid (other than Homo sapiens) has ever existed in the Himalayas, Pacific Northwest, Florida, etc., and virtually every "Bigfoot" photo or video has been shown to be a hoax. So say what you will about David Luneau's controversial 2004 video of a putative ivory-bill, it is what it is, and it's no hoax. Unlike Bigfoot, we have plenty of specimens, and we know the ivory-bill existed within living memory. Just last year I met someone who saw five, and few will argue with her. It is far more conceivable that the ivory-bill is still hanging on in dense southern swamps than that there is a reproducing population of North American giant apes unknown to science.

Ivory-bills in Louisiana, 1935. Arthur A. Allen photo, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

The answer to the question of when the last ivory-bill died is unknowable, and you can't prove a negative, so we really can't know the species is extinct, at least not at this point. Complicating it all is the presence of another large black and white woodpecker (the pileated) that could have absorbed any number of actual ivory-bill sightings by proficient observers who may have been operating for decades under a false "ivory-bill = extinct" paradigm. "For a second there I could have sworn--naah, it had to be a pileated." If there was no pileated woodpecker, we would by now pretty well know the ivory-bill's fate. I have been closely involved in the Florida search (I blogged from it here), and I know some of the main players quite well. I have also met Gene Sparling and Bobby Harrison (who along with Tim Gallagher reported the 2004 sighting in Arkansas). I have not seen the bird, nor have I personally heard anything that I could attribute to it. But when you talk to these people who claim sightings, you can tell they are convinced. And most of these people are birders with well-honed observational skills, for what it's worth. Geoff Hill's Auburn team has also amassed considerable acoustic evidence that is strongly suggestive that ivory-bills are or were in the Choctawhatchee River swamps of Florida. But until that million dollar photo (or better yet, video) surfaces that convinces everybody, or until I see one myself, I can't count myself among the True Believers.

In a recent interview, renowned ivory-bill expert Dr. Jerry Jackson is quoted as saying, "I think it would be something short of a miracle if it is there," and, "I think that any betting person would have to say it's probably extinct."

Campephilus principalis
might indeed be extinct. And it might not. Even a skeptic can be hopeful, and I hope the ivory-bill is still with us. I intend to keep looking. Time will tell.

Six years before Cornell's 2005 ivory-bill "rediscovery" announcement, Julie Zickefoose wrote a wonderful article on her imagined encounter with the ghost bird. Well worth a read.

1 comment:

Larry said...

I'm with you, Mark. I really want the ivory-bill to have survived, but I also realize that the extinction of the species very likely has happened. Oh, well, we can hope!

I envy the the 18th- and 19th-century explorers of this continent. I hope at least some of them appreciated their luck! Read Audubon's description of the great passenger pigeon flocks...