Monday, January 22, 2007


Much of the most recent vortex of Ivory-biled Woodpecker action has gathered around Tyler Hicks, the source of what appear to be the "best" Ivorybill sightings in many decades. He has been the focus of near deification in some circles; he has also been on the receiving end of a rather large heap of patronizing condescension from many directions, much of it concerning his age, presuming him to be a conclusion-jumping hothead. The seeming inevitable black-white polarization that engulfs All Things Ivorybill has swallowed him up with pervasive "he's either lying or he is seeing Ivorybills" declarations. We are also treated to the equally inevitable declarations of "He's a total bogus hoaxer because we know the bird doesn't exist therefore anyone who says he has seen it is a LIAR!" from the usual directions: a classic, unfiltered, and undisguized example of "If the data do not fit my conclusion then they must be discarded."

Step away from the shouting for a moment, and permit me to ponder for a bit without exclamation marks, boldface, or italics. Many chins are indeed being scratched about the Hicks Conundrum: He and he alone is the sole provider of the "best" sightings; he has thus far not been successful in capturing a photograph. What does this mean? The mind is torn between scenarios...

Does it mean that he is particularly energetic and capable at bird finding? This is most definitely a possibility. We all know that the ability to find and see birds is a complex skill that combines many individual bits. These abilities also improve with experience. One learns over time to "see" better; to pick out field marks faster and more accurately. And by this I mean real field marks, not imagined ones. Anyone who has been out with groups of birders has noticed that some people just snap to the birds faster, are better at tracking them down in difficult situations, and can pick out distinguishing marks more quickly and reliably than others. We call these people "better birders." This is strongly correlated with, but not entirely synonymous with, "experienced birders." By most accounts, Hicks is both a "good" birder and an "experienced" birder; likely the top in both categories for that team. Quite possibly this, combined with a little luck (both good and bad), is all that is necessary to explain the Conundrum.

On the other hand... maybe Hicks really is too quick to call, and sees things through his eyes that are placed there by his overeager mind rather than by physical reality. This is a hefty accusation to hurl at an experienced birder, however. We work our whole careers to battle against this exact thing, to find and see what is there and only what is there. Mistakes are never impossible, but it seems many people are very, very quick to simply brush his sightings off as "well, he must have just thought he saw those things because he wanted to." That smacks of the easy way out.

But the thing is, we just don't and can't know at this point. Time will clarify. Personally, I think the cascade of compounding errors and delusions necessary to explain away all that has happened in the last three years is more unlikely that the actual survival of a miniscule relict population of this bird in vast expanses of a vastly underbirded environment. However... until someone turns up that photo, or something equally concrete, there will always remain the unshakable doubt that maybe all these sightings really are just wishful thinking and willful delusions, that bird in the video really is a Pileated with a freakishly narrow black trailing edge flying in a way that no other pileated has yet been documented to do, and everything else is just a case of mistaken interpretations of various assorted unrelated phenomena. My money is not on that, but that doubt will continue its soft gnawing until...


At 4:50 PM, Blogger Larry said...

-Did you ever see the episode of Twilight Zone when William Shatner keeps seeing a creature on the wing of the airplane and no one else sees it?-If he did really see the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker-he must feel like William Shatner did in The Twilight Zone by now.-Larry


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