Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Ivory-bill Comments

Back in the 80s I called the National Audubon Society asking for support when I was first working on a cat leash law in Duluth. Their only response was that "cats kill individual birds, not populations--what hurts populations of birds is habitat." When Stanley Temple started amassing data that established that cats indeed affect whole populations of birds in Wisconsin, he was subjected to serious questioning by scientists. EVERY scientific study is, and rightly should be, exposed to careful scrutiny and additional studies, which prove or disprove the hypothesis. That's what science is all about.

But Stan was also subjected to personal attacks and even threats by non-scientists who felt personally affronted and aggrieved by the thought that if his studies' conclusions were generally accepted, these people might be expected to keep their own personal cats indoors. The subject of cats is fraught with controversy because so many people either love cats or hate them, and in this case the scientific study might have in the long run affected people's personal behavior, so there was a bizarre emotionalism connected to the very subject. This is exactly what has happened with the issue of global warming--people with a financial or personal stake in the issue are weighing in emotionally rather than looking carefully at the body of studies and supporting data.

For whatever reason, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker seems to have sparked a bizarre and profoundly unscientific emotionalism, too. Some top-notch birders and ornithologists who checked out areas where the 2004 reports had been made and didn't see or hear an Ivory-bill themselves spoke out about and/or published their results and opinions, which is the way science works. Some of them were heated in speaking out against the original reports, which is the way scientists, all too human, work. Some on the other side became heated in defending their study, again the way human scientists work. We're none of us perfect, or robots.

But like the cats-and-birds issue, this one sparked a shockingly emotional response from non-scientists. Most--maybe close to all--of us when we first heard the news releases in April, 2005, were not just delighted--we were elated. Those of us who had for decades looked longingly at pictures of Ivory-bills in our field guides had been heartbroken as we came to accept that such a beautiful and charismatic species could truly be extinct. The news of a credible birder actually having seen one was thrilling beyond measure.

As with all rare sightings, this sighting was seriously scrutinized. And, because the species was more than just "rare"--it had been considered extinct--the scrutiny of the sighting and the birders making it was justifiably more intense and public than most bird reports ever are subjected to.

But in this case, the scrutiny went far beyond scientific skepticism to emotional and personal attacks. When a handful of credible birders and ornithologists first questioned the reports, some people not only instantly took sides but went off the deep end into bizarrely unfair personal attacks. Naturally, the most vociferous of these weren't ornithologists or top-notch birders. They were like those children who, when first told there's no Santa Claus when they desperately want to believe, get furious with their parents for having tricked them in the first place. In this case, though, the Ivory-bill isn't a fictional character made up out of whole cloth. And Tim Gallagher wasn't a parent lying to his children about Santa Claus. He's a credible birder whose own experienced and trained eyes told him he'd seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Every birder who has ever reported a rarity to a good state committee knows the cruelly impartial way that a good committee operates. For example, last autumn I reported seeing a Kirtland's Warbler in Florida. The state committee has asked me for additional information, and that was the last I heard--they very well may reject the sighting. Meanwhile, the Kirtland's Warbler recovery team did accept the sighting. I KNOW I saw a Kirtland's Warbler--I'm familiar with the species, which I'd seen in Michigan on two earlier occasions, and I'm very familiar with every species which could be confused with Kirtland's Warbler. But autumn sightings are extremely rare, the species is critically endangered, and my sighting was justifiably scrutinized.

What does it mean if the sighting is accepted? Nothing more than that the state committee includes an October, 2006 sighting at Lake Kissimmee State Park in its official ornithological records. If in subsequent years, other birders report the species at that location, the park may ultimately be considered a migration stopover spot, which may have implications for habitat management in the park. (I saw it in excellent scrub habitat.) If no one ever sees it there again, it was just a fluke.

If the sighting is not accepted, that does not imply that I didn't actually see the bird. It does mean that the data I provided--a sight record with no photographic or sound recording support--wasn't enough to merit inclusion in the official ornithological records of the state.

When lifelists are personal, as mine is, it's not a big thing. Our lists can bear scrutiny or not, as we prefer. When my own lifelist reached 200 or so, I went back and scrutinized it myself--in my inexperience when I first started birding, I included a Red-necked Grebe in winter plumage that, even though I probably saw it, I was no longer CERTAIN about, so I dropped it and waited to see it again before I put it back on my list. Right now my Minnesota list includes one Mississippi Kite from Duluth that I reported in 1986. That sighting was rejected by the MOURC. If the vote had been unanimous, I'd have not included it on my personal list, accepting that maybe I didn't know what I was looking at. But the vote wasn't unanimous, and Kim Eckert, whose identification skills are among the finest in the state, voted for inclusion, so I decided to keep the sighting. I know what my eyes saw. But the very fact that most committee votes on reports are not unanimous makes it clear that sight records, and even photographic records, are to a certain extent more subjective than we'd like to believe.

The truth is that eyes CAN be wrong. I bet more than one of us has made a daily list of fall warblers that had at least one of them misidentified. I bet more than one of us has taken a quick look at that woodpecker and checked off Downy or Hairy for the day without carefully scrutinizing the bill-length/head-size ratio or the outer tail feather pattern. We're none of us perfect, which is why we need records committees in the first place. I put Kirtland's Warbler on my Florida list because I saw enough of the bird to be completely satisfied--100%, not even just 99%. I love warblers, and so I spend a LOT of time studying them in the field and in books, and my level of experience with them gives me an added sense of certainty.

But my own eyes and judgment can be terribly suspect when it comes to gulls and shorebirds. If a committee rejects a report of mine with these birds, there's no way I'll include it in my own personal lists, because I don't trust my judgment when it comes to them.

If I were contributing my state list to any Florida list compilation, or to the ABA, my Kirtland's Warbler would NOT be allowed if the state committee ultimately rejects it. And that's precisely the point where the sport of birding crashes into the science of ornithology.

The point of competitive listing is to get as many species on our lists as possible. The point of record-keeping in ornithology is to ensure that the official state checklist is based entirely on credible data. Most of us, most of the time, manage to negotiate the difficult waters where the two disciplines meet. But a few people get emotionally overwrought about it. They whine, criticize state committees, and hold lasting grudges when a sighting of theirs is rejected. And they apparently get overwrought when a bird is reported that they personally don't believe was sighted. Is it because someone has added it to a list and they know they'll never be able to? Is it somehow conjuring that sense of betrayal they felt when they found out the truth about Santa Claus, even though the Ivory-bill is not the stuff of myth, but is or definitely was a living, breathing species? It's hard to say why anyone is taking this so personally, and ridiculing our birding colleagues and calling then names. But that's the point where skepticism ends and emotionalism begins.