Monday, January 12, 2009

Campephilus Woodpeckers and eBird

eBird, the massive online checklist project administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, includes observational data on 9 of the 11 species of large woodpeckers of the genus Campephilus. Only the Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis) and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (C. principalis) are absent. The remainder of this blog post will focus on the latter species.

The absence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO) from the eBird database is difficult to explain. It’s not because sightings of IBWOs can’t be submitted to eBird (they can be). It’s not that there haven’t been reported sightings of IBWOs in the United States since 2002 (there have been numerous well-publicized sightings, including many published in books and peer-reviewed journals). It can’t be that people in a position to report IBWO sightings to eBird would be worried about ridicule from skeptics (the identity of the observer is not revealed to the public).

I can think of only three logical explanations to account for the absence of IBWO records in eBird: (1) IBWO sightings have not been submitted, (2) sightings submitted to date have been reviewed and rejected by eBird reviewers, or (3) sightings submitted and accepted as valid are being withheld from public view (for whatever reason).

Over at Ivory-bills Live!!, Cyberthrush opined that "The scorn of skeptics seems to have produced a 'chilling effect' on the disclosure of Ivory-bill reports." He concluded that "there remains a residue of reports from credible or potentially credible sources that also seem to be swept out of public view," but offered no opinion on the party or parties doing the sweeping.

As I have pointed out above, the anonymity afforded eBird observers protects them from the "scorn of skeptics" that Cyberthrush blames on what he considers a dearth of credible IBWO reports in the public domain.

Any knowledgeable field observer who has made what he or she considers a credible sighting of an IBWO has an obligation to report it. Don't let "scorn of skeptics" be an excuse.

So here’s the challenge to everyone who has ever made what they consider a valid sighting of an IBWO. Without further haste, log onto eBird and report it. Make the now-blank IBWO distribution map light up!

If anyone has other thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.


Blogger cyberthrush said...

hi John MEEEE again! ;-)

1. I thought I was clear, but apparently not, that the folks sweeping reports from public view are the only folks who compile and pick what is reported, the official "IBWO Recovery Team" (largely Cornell and USFW people) -- but to be clear, my beef is not with them but with a situation where they have been forced into such a restraining position by certain harsh critics.

2. as to eBird -- I suspect very very few birders, %-wise, actually send reports to eBird or even take the database very seriously (although some day it will be); assuming reports do get reviewed than I'd assume IBWO reports would indeed be rejected, since the prevailing view is now that any such report must be accompanied by a photo to be taken seriously. Finally, anyone having a sighting as part of the official searches CANNOT turn in such a report due to confidentiality agreements (even anonymously).

January 12, 2009 3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Criticism serves a useful purpose and I hope it continues.

cyberthrush's continuing efforts to blame the current situation on the skeptics rather than the lack of decent evidence speaks for itself.

After Cornell's original announcement skeptics were loudly and openly ridiculed. As the facts became clear the situation reversed itself.

To quote cyberthrush's site:

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."
-- Arthur Schopenhauer

Often people will believe what they want to believe without regard to the evidence or lack thereof.

January 13, 2009 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John,

My impression is that if anybody were to submit an IBWO sighting to e-Bird it would be re-directed to Cornell's IBWO sightings link [ ] .

When one goes this route the sighting report seems to disappear into a world accessible only to the Cornell researchers involved with the IBWO search.
Nobody else ever hears of it...


January 13, 2009 1:01 PM  
Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Hi John,

As an eBird regional editor, I can speak a little bit to this. First, my "turf" (middle and west Tennessee) is not a hotbed of the Ivorybill controversy, and it has not been a source of any of the (in)famous recent sightings. There has been one Ivorybill report submitted for this area; it was under unlikely circumstances (suburban backyard) and with no particular details, so it was not validated. A bit more on a few of your points and Cy's...

eBird is not entirely anonymous. Regional editors can see all the data you submit, including your name, e-mail, and phone number, and all your locations. Of course you'd hope (and I am sure you'd be correct) that we are all the sort of people who would never make use of any of this information for any purpose other than to examine, evaluate, and occasionally request more info about your reports; but still, the information is all there. But more publicly, eBird does make reports of rarities from the most recent week available for public viewing via its "notable sightings" google gadget (see the sidebar of my own blog for an example). These sightings include a link that gives the name of the observer and a google map of the location. This is easily avoided by simply waiting more than 7 days before submitting a sighting you don't want to have publicized; but still it is there and might be of concern to many users who have records of controversial or sensitive species, not just the Ivorybill. Even after the 7 day limit, exact locations of validated reports are shown on the public maps for a state or county. You could easily get around this by submitting only an approximate location (e.g. just the county, or even just the state), in which case your Ivorybill would show up as an arbitrary dot which would lead the hoards of eBirding Ivorbill chasers to some random cow pasture.

Also, as Cy mentions, only a small minority of birders actually makes use of eBird at all. A few of our most active birders here in TN are regular eBirders, but most have never submitted a single datum. Even the official Cornell volunteers and field staff on the Ivorybill project do not all submit data on a regular basis from their official Cornell activities.

As to what would happen if someone did submit an Ivorbill sighting and it were validated, I can't say. As the only records I have access to as editor are from Tennessee, I can't tell you whether or not some of Cornell's "robust" sightings (including at least one that was accepted by the official records committee) are in the validated AR data and just suppressed from the public eye or not. If I received what appeared to be a good substantiated Ivorybill report, I know I would *not* validate it until I knew the state and federal wildlife folks, and private landowners if the land is not public, where all fully informed and unanimously on board with having the information revealed.

On the flip side, if someone does believe they have seen an Ivorybill, even if they know they won't be able to prove it to the satisfaction of the regional editor, they might as well it in. I'd suggest waiting until the 7 days have passed, and including a comment (we editors read your comments on rare sightings with great attention!) explaining the situation. Heck, even if you have a photo, you can still request the editor to NOT validate the record so as to keep it out of the public record and off the public maps. The bird will still show up on your own personal lists and data, which only you can see, your secret will not be blown to the rest of the world, and the only disapproval and criticism you might be subject to is the silent refusal of the editor to click that little "validate" box next to your report. It hardly hurts at all.

January 15, 2009 12:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You will never correct by logic a man's error, if that error did not get into his mind by logic" - Mark Twain.

January 15, 2009 9:06 AM  

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