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De Omnibus Dubitandum - Lux Veritas

Friday, January 27, 2017

Preserve the habitat of imaginary woodpecker?

By Steve Milloy

Unlike birds, scams never go extinct. JunkScience exposed this one from the Nature Conservancy 11 years ago.   As exposed in February 2006, alleged sightings of the Ivory-billed woodpecker are just a trick to keep land from being developed.   The media release and my 2006 column are below.

Researcher calls for conservation of ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat Footage of what appears to be the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker calls conservation rules into question


The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s habitat should be protected despite the lack of definitive evidence of this species’ existence, according to a new study published in Heliyon. Currently, bird conservation efforts rely on indisputable photographic evidence, which according to the new study could take many years to obtain, by which time it may be too late.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is an iconic species that is symbolic of the wilderness of North America. Threatened by habitat destruction and other factors, it has been declared extinct only to be rediscovered several times. In the absence of indisputable evidence, the discourse on the bird’s existence has been dominated by opinion. After ten sightings during an eight-year search, Dr. Michael Collins of the Naval Research Laboratory in the US believes the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is alive – but the bird needs our conservation efforts now, regardless of the proof, if it is to survive.

The birds live in vast swamp forests in North America – Florida and Louisiana, in particular – which are difficult and dangerous to access: with alligators, wild boars and venomous snakes, along with the risk of being accidentally shot in areas that are heavily hunted, most bird watchers will never visit the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s habitat. What’s more, the thick vegetation means it is only possible to see for a few meters – a challenge for searching areas of more than 100 square kilometers.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are highly elusive and wary of human contact, hiding away and keeping quiet at the first sign of threat. Using these behavioral and habitat factors, Dr. Collins has been able to approximately quantify the elusiveness of this bird, concluding that it would take significantly longer to photograph the Ivory-billed Woodpecker than similarly rare North American birds.

The analysis suggests we need to take a more pragmatic approach to documenting this species while it may still be possible to save it from extinction. In the past, sightings have led to intensive efforts to obtain a photo. But as well as being expensive, inefficient and ineffective, this approach could interfere with the birds’ nesting attempts.

“There is no logical reason to require a particular form of evidence,” said Dr. Collins. “When faced with an exceptional case, scientists often develop alternative approaches and make progress using different types of data.”

In the paper, Dr. Collins presents three videos – one of more than 20 minutes – that show birds he believes to be the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as they have many characteristics consistent with the bird but no other species living north of Mexico. The bird’s remarkable swooping flights, rapid wingbeats, and an audible double-knock are captured on film, consistent with reports from the 1940s and earlier. He observed the Ivory-billed Woodpecker ten times in 1500 hours of searching between November 2005 and June 2013. “Having observed these birds is one of the two most deeply meaningful experiences of my life. When I was 11 years old, I stood in my front yard in Tampa, Florida, and watched Apollo 11 blasting off into space on the way to the first manned landing on the Moon. I feel very privileged to have been a direct eyewitness to a symbol of the vanishing wilderness of our world as well as one of the great achievements of mankind. My hope is that we will continue making progress and doing great things while at the same time preserving our natural world.”


Woodpecker Racket?

By Steven Milloy, February 02, 2006

Last year’s reported sighting in eastern Arkansas of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, raised the hopes of bird-watchers everywhere.

But now a prominent bird expert has cast serious doubt on the report, characterizing it as “faith-based” ornithology and “a disservice to science.”

Writing in the ornithology journal The Auk (January 2006), Florida Gulf Coast University ornithologist Jerome A. Jackson criticized the “evidence” put forth to support the conclusion that the Woodpecker wasn’t extinct after all — including a four-second video of an alleged sighting which garnered widespread media attention; several other anecdotal sightings; and acoustic signals purported to be vocalization and raps from the Woodpecker.

News of the alleged Woodpecker sighting caught on video was first released in late-April 2005 in ScienceExpress, an online component of Science magazine. The full report subsequently appeared in the June 3 issue of Science.

“While the world rejoiced, my elation turned to disbelief,” wrote Jackson. “I had seen the ‘confirming’ video in the news releases and recognized its poor quality, but I had believed [anyway],” he continued.

“Then I saw [a still image] and seriously doubted that this evidence was confirmation of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Even a cursory comparison of this figure with [photographs and illustrations of real Ivory-billed Woodpeckers] shows that the white on the wing of the bird… is too extensive to be that of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson dismissed the other unverified sightings with, “I do not question the sincerity, integrity or passion of these observers [but] we simply cannot know what they saw.” The researchers who claimed to video the Ivory-billed Woodpecker later admitted that the acoustic information “while interesting, does not reach the level we require for proof.”

Jackson went on to conclude that, “My opinion is that the bird in the is a normal Pileated Woodpecker… Others have independently come to the same conclusion, and publication of independent analyses may be forthcoming.”

Jackson isn’t some inveterate or knee-jerk skeptic with respect to the possibility of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s existence. In fact, in 1986 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service convened a panel to “officially” declare the Woodpecker extinct, Jackson argued that “it was unreasonable to declare the species extinct without making a serious effort to find it.”

Only time will tell whether the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is, in fact, extinct, but one thing is certain — the fanfare announcing these now-suspect sightings was way overblown. And it’s worth noting that the beneficiaries of all this hoopla were also the ones behind it.

The search to “find” the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was organized, supported and launched by the Nature Conservancy. The subsequent “find” was announced and widely publicized by the Nature Conservancy. Now, according to Jackson’s article, it seems the Nature Conservancy also stands to benefit substantially from its own “discovery,” possibly to the tune of $10.2 million federal dollars and hundreds of thousands of acres in Arkansas.

To Jackson’s dismay, this money, which had originally been designated for other ongoing endangered species projects, has now been diverted into a “recovery” effort for the apparently-still-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker — involving none other than the Nature Conservancy, a private “nonprofit” group that uses land acquisition to advance its self-proclaimed “conservation” agenda.

But a series of Washington Post articles in May 2003 exposed the Nature Conservancy, the world’s richest environmental group with $3 billion in assets, as more than just a “land bank.” In the past it has also acted as a broker of too-sweet-to-be-true land and business deals for wealthy insiders and corporate supporters, often at taxpayer expense.

In one scheme reported by the Post, “…the Conservancy bought raw land, attached development restrictions and then resold the land to state trustees and other supporters at greatly reduced prices. Buyers then voluntarily gave the Conservancy charitable contributions roughly equivalent to the discounts, sums that were written off from the buyers’ federal income taxes. The deals generally allowed the buyers to build homes on the land.”

What’s all this got to do with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?

The Nature Conservancy says on its web site that it “has helped protect more than 120,000 acres of [eastern Arkansas forests], and is now aiming to conserve and restore an additional 200,000 acres of forest – vital habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker…”

Given that the land acquisition is made possible with taxpayer dollars and tax breaks — for who knows what ultimate purposes – you can almost hear the Nature Conservancy laughing like that other fictional woodpecker, Woody Woodpecker, all the way to the bank.

A final note on this saga concerns the reported sightings that were rushed to publication by the journal Science — the same journal that rushed to publication last year’s faked South Korean stem cell studies, and a faked 1997 Tulane University study on environmental chemicals.

While there’s no evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker study was faked, Jackson’s characterization of the report as wishful-thinking certainly doesn’t say much for Science’s peer review process — intended as a safeguard against the publication of unsubstantiated scientific claims and junk science.

Science has enjoyed the reputation of a preeminent journal. But over the last decade, it seems to have developed the print-first-ask-questions-later tendencies usually associated with tabloid publications.

It would be terrific if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker weren’t extinct — but we’ll need better evidence than just four seconds of blurry video hawked by special interests.

Steven Milloy publishes and, and is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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