20 March 2006

Everybody's heard about the bird

I'm not an avid birder. Sure, I appreciate the brilliant colors of the jays and cardinals that flit through the woods here in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, but I have no idea how many species call this place home and I couldn't even produce a single scientific name for the ones that nest in our yard. And yet, there's something undeniably intriguing about the prospect that the ivory-billed woodpecker continues to haunt the swamps of Arkansas.

I remember feeling almost excited that spring morning a year ago as I listened to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce describe how a couple of biologists came to conclude that the ivory-bill wasn't extinct after all. Their video, and the accompanying description in Science, seemed to clinch the case. The evidence came from members of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, so why wouldn't it be sound?

And like many others, last week's rebuttal, also in Science, from the skeptics, among them one of the world's top birders, David Sibley, left me that much sadder.

Now come the recriminations. Were the editors at Science, along with the rest of us, just a little too eager to see what we wanted to see in four seconds of blurry video? Remember what the poster behind Fox Mulder's desk said? "I want to believe."

The best commentary on the controversy, which I hasten to add, has not been settled -- the debate within the ornithology community is far from over -- comes from California researcher Stan Moore, a long-time observer of such things. Posting to the Ecological Society of America's listserv (a post I verified), Moore says he has "concerns about what I perceive to be unwarranted certainty by Cornell."
Uncertainty should be the rule in evaluating claims of seeing any extinct bird or other taxa. Proof of the existence of an animal thought to be extinct should be of a high level, even more so than of a rare bird sighting. But rare bird sightings require a high level of certification by state rare bird record committees. How much more so should the certification of an extinct bird's existence/presence be!
Moore's problem is that most of us, including a large number of scientists and others who should know better, didn't apply the proper level of skepticism to what amounted to an extraordinary claim accompanied by less than extraordinary evidence.

Moore doesn't dare to challenge the evidence himself, he just points out that Sibley's instincts should be trusted - especially if all we have to go on are four seconds of footage that makes the Zapruder film look like high-definition television:
David Sibley is one of the world's most accomplished bird artists. I trust his intuitions when he analyses grainy videos that are not definitive, but there is always room for some uncertainty. In the case of deep uncertainty regarding issues of extinction or even sightings of extremely rare birds, the benefit of the doubt should go to the doubter.
As Sibley and his coauthors write in Science:
Our analysis of the digital video and deinterlaced video frames demonstrates that this conclusion rests on mistaken interpretations of the bird's posture, that several features visible in the video contradict identification as a typical ivory-billed woodpecker, and that other features support identification as a pileated woodpecker.
With the benefit of this hindsight, it now seems the Cornell "proof" was something less. Moore even quotes a description a couple of months ago in the New York Times of the ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovery as nothing more than "faith-based ornithology." That comment came from Jerome A. Jackson, an ivory bill specialist at Florida Gulf Coast University and the author of a 15-page article in The Auk, the quarterly journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, attacking the rush to publish the Cornell team's report.

Moore also casts aspersions on the motives, conscious or otherwise, of the Cornell team, which has benefited in more ways than one from the attention and funding the discovery has attracted. ("A book was written, funds have been raised, publicity generated, excitement fomented, and reputations put on the line...")

"Faith-based," eh? Subconscious motives? Thems fighting words, and perhaps a little too strong. After all, the Cornell team members did see the suspect woodpecker with their own eyes, and dismissing a claim as rooted in faith instead of reality is just about the most damning thing one scientist can say to another.

But Jackson's and Moore's disappointment with the editors at Science, the rest of the scientific community and the media is understandable. Science has now done the right thing and published both sides of the case. The rest of us should keep an open mind.

Remember, the proverbial jury is still out.

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