As I’m sure you know by now, today’s issue of the journal Science contains a four-and-a-half-page staff-written story on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (“Gambling on a Ghost Bird” by Erik Stokstad, Science, Vol.317, No.5840, 17 August 2007, p.888. The article is available online for free to AAAS members only.)
The article was the subject of much conversation in between sessions at the just-concluded AOU meeting in Laramie, where the word in the hallways was that it might appear on Friday, the day before Geoff Hill and Brian Rolek's presentations. And I wish that it had, since then it would have taken its proper place in the Ivory-bill chronology. But the interviews were completed, the writing was done, and the story was in the can before the meeting started. The data Hill presented in Laramie were not addressed. Instead, Stokstad summarizes the Florida search in a single sentence:
“Hill is convinced that he and his team saw ivorybills in 2005 and 2006 along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida, but he admits he can’t deliver enough evidence yet.”
No one in Laramie knew, of course, what shape the finished Science piece would take -- how long it would be, how faithfully it would recount conversations, how frankly, or even if, the journal would address the rushed review process that preceded its June 2005 announcement of the woodpecker’s apparent rediscovery -- so there was a clear sense of anticipation.
Does the article deliver?
It reveals that members of the Cornell team worked mighty hard behind the scenes to silence skeptics Jerry Jackson, Mark Robbins, and Rick Prum. (You can read about Jackson's highly critical "Perspectives in Ornithology" article here.)
-- Jim Tate, then the science advisor to the very science-minded Bush Administration, called Jackson in July 2005 and told him to “back off.” (Tate, Stokstad writes, denies this.)
-- Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick went a step further confronting Jackson in August 2006 and going so far as to offer him "co-authorship on a future paper” if he would withdraw a letter to The Auk. Jackson’s reply: “That’s not how I operate.”
It suggests that the Cornell search won’t, can’t, go on indefinitely. Stokstad writes: “Fitzpatrick anticipates another year or two of searching at most. ‘It’s just too expensive,’ he says, noting that it’s become harder to raise money.”
It puts into words, depressingly, just how deep people have dug in their heels. The one side wants proof that the bird in the Luneau video is not an Ivory-bill, the other demands proof that it is: “Fitzpatrick and Lammertink,” writes Stokstad, “say they will remain convinced that the Luneau video shows an ivory-billed woodpecker until they see evidence that a pileated could look and fly like that.... Skeptics, on the other hand, won’t believe in ivory-billed woodpeckers until they see clear proof.”
But perhaps the article’s most important contribution is its somber appraisal of the woodpecker’s chances: “After more than 2 years of herculean efforts and sometimes vituperative debate, indisputable evidence of the bird’s existence has not emerged,” Stokstad writes.
He goes on: “Most birders and ornithologists seem resigned that even if an ivorybill was in Arkansas in 2004, the chance to save the species is past. ‘I want to hope against all odds,’ says James Bednarz of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. ‘But my scientific logic says it’s deep in the vortex of extinction.’” -- C.H.