Monday, March 20, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Initial Excitement Yields to Skepticism

The following is a simplified timeline of some major events surrounding the recent "re-discovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, and growing skepticism about the adequacy and quality of the evidence submitted in support of the scientific finding:

2005 April 28: Formal announcement of the re-discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is made by John W. Fitzpatrick et al. in an article published in Science Express entitled Ivory-billed Woodpecker persists in continental North America.

2005 June 3: Publication of the print version of the Fitzpatrick et al. article in Science magazine, a renowned publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is accompanied by an editorial by Donald Kennedy entitled The ivory-bill returns.

2005 July 20: As recounted here, the anonymous author of Bootstrap Analysis announces that "a soon-to-appear paper by three well-known and respected American ornithologists will cast doubt on the authenticity of the recent sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Arkansas."

2005 July 26: Veteran Minnesota birder Tom Nelson launches The Ivory-bill Skeptic, a Web log that continues to post articles skeptical of reported sightings in Arkansas and elsewhere.

2005 September 2: In a brief letter published in Science magazine entitled Notes and double knocks from Arkansas, Russell A. Charif et al. describe four recorded sequences of "kent-like" vocalizations resembling those of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The recordings were made at one of 153 sites at which unattended digital autonomous recording units recorded over 17,000 hours of ambient sounds (much of it remaining to be analyzed).

2006 January: A scholarly perspective and critique by Jerome A. Jackson entitled Ivory-billed Woodpecker: hope, and the interfaces of science, conservation, and politics, is published in The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

2006 March 17: In an article published in Science magazine entitled Comment on "Ivory-billed Woodpecker persists in continental North America", David G. Sibley et al. reanalyze the video presented by Fitzpatrick et al. as evidence confirming the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, and conclude that none of the features described as diagnostic of the Ivory-billed eliminate a normal Pileated Woodpecker.

2006 March 17: In a published Response to the Comments by Sibley et al., Fitzpatrick et al. counter that the claims made by Sibley et al. "are contradicted by experimental data and fail to explain evidence in the Luneau video of white dorsal plumage, distinctive flight behavior, and a perched woodpecker with white upper parts."

2006 March 17: In a posting to the Frontiers of Identification listserv entitled Woodpecker I.D., Kenn Kaufman lays down the gauntlet, challenging bird identification experts to weigh in on the reliability of the evidence provided to date on the continuing existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Kaufman’s posting elicits many responses over the next several days, including notable exchanges from Ned Brinkley, Kenn Kaufman (again), Ned Brinkley (again), and David Sibley.

This "woodpecker war" is sure to spark much heated debated and press coverage for years to come!

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