February 2, 2006

Article Questions Recent C.U. Woodpecker Finding

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Prof. Jerome A. Jackson, biology, Florida Gulf Coast University, sharply criticizes Cornell ornithology’s sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, in Arkansas last spring in a 15-page article published in the current issue of The Auk, an ornithology journal.

John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said that he “tried explicitly since the beginning of the story not to step beyond, say anything we don’t know because there’s so much room to hope, to allow our wishes to color what we’re saying.” He added that Cornell Ornithology had not “documented the recovery of a species or even the beginning of it. We’ve documented at least one ivory-billed that still existed, the most endangered species of bird on the planet.”

One of Jackson’s major qualms is the science behind Cornell’s public announcement of the ivory-billed sighting.

“This is all about science and the very foundation of science. When something is recorded as certain, there should be physical evidence so another scientist can repeat it now or a hundred years from now,” Jackson said in a telephone interview. “The best we seem to have right now is a good hypothesis.”

According to Fitzpatrick, Cornell’s accumulated set of seven to ten sightings, one video and some acoustic recordings that can best be interpreted as the ivory-billed’s call, are the best products of the search in Arkansas so far.

Upon viewing the four-second video by Cornell ornithologists shown last spring as physical evidence at a conference in Santa Barbara, Jackson believed the woodpecker to be an ivory-billed. After his scrutiny of the first figure in the Science article published by Cornell, Jackson believed the bird to be a pileated woodpecker, one that easily and often can be mistaken for an ivory-billed.

Jackson said that were he in Fitzpatrick’s shoes, he “would’ve stood up as a scientist and said that ivory-billed only might be in this area.”

Prof. Mark Robbins, natural history and biodiversity, University of Kansas, one of three authors of a paper that criticized Cornell’s Science article that was then withdrawn, stated in e-mail that “to date, no irrefutable evidence has been presented for the presence of ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas.”

Fitzpatrick answers Jackson’s accusation with the fact that in the Luneau video, the physical proof of the existence of one ivory-billed, the wings of the bird beat 8.4 times per second and that no pileated woodpecker in history has even been recorded beating his wings faster than seven to seven-and-a-half times per second. He went on to say that in the 1930s a group of Cornell ornithologists recorded the sound of an ivory-billed flying and acoustic analysis revealed that the ivory-billed beat its wings 8.4 times second.

“Jackson’s paper is not a scientific paper. It’s a blog, basically just opinion and conjecture. And it’s filled with factual mistakes,” Fitzpatrick said.

The re-allocation of $10.4 million from the federal government-namely the USDA and the U.S. Department of the Interior-makes the validity of Cornell Ornithology’s announcement last spring all the more pressing. In a Jan. 26 interview on WGCU 90.1, a radio station in Southwest Florida, Jackson said that some of that money was taken from other projects for endangered species but would not say if the re-allocation was a good decision or not.

“The re-allocation was a good conservation effort but to push forward was not good science, not a good thing,” Jackson said.

Jackson also mentioned that “wildlife refuge biologists had been working the area [in Arkansas] since 1935,” but that “none of the biologists had saw an ivory-billed, and that’s pretty strange.”

Fitzpatrick said he’s “trying to do science” and to him “science means dispassionately accumulating evidence, drawing fair inference from evidence, making predications on evidence, testing predications and being willing to be proven wrong.”

Thus, Fitzpatrick believes that the ivory-billed and pileated models Cornell ornithologists designed to further investigate the exact species of bird in the video and the experiments they conducted with them are examples of science. Cornell ornithologists recreated the scene David Luneau first taped the ivory-billed in-from the camera’s aperture to the lighting at the time of day- with the two models of the woodpeckers. The results of the experiments clearly show the bird in Luneau video to be an ivory-billed.

“That’s science,” said Fitzpatrick.

The lab of ornithology has just designed a new website with a detailed analysis of the Luenau video that, according to Fitzpatrick, allows everyone to see what Cornell ornithologists take as proof of the existence of one ivory-billed. The website also allows viewers to compare the ivory-billed video with over 60 videos of pileated woodpeckers.

“This bird, the ivory-billed, is a symbol of the great southern forests and the ecological disaster we brought to bear on them. It’s an icon of ecological destruction. There’s no bird at all that comes close to having this much power over people,” said Fitzgerald.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer