I still remember the day at work several years ago when a colleague and birder friend came up to me in the hall and excitedly said “Have you heard? Have you HEARD!?!?” That was the day it was announced in the media that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been found again in Arkansas. A species not seen in decades, one that the vast majority of “experts” had declared extinct, yet reports of a number of good sightings from the reputable Cornell ornithology group sent the birding world into an excited tizzy.
A story of similar significance was just published, noting that the famed “Night Parrot” of Australia had been confirmed still alive. Researchers in Queensland not only recorded instances of the species by sight and by sound, they actually managed to capture a live bird. A confirmed live bird hadn’t similarly captured since the 1800s, and as the story notes, even despite a pair of dead birds found in the last 30 years, many experts considered the species extinct. The species nests in ground burrows and introduced species, particularly feral cats and introduced rat species, pose a grave threat. Many thought it was a mortal threat and that the species was forever gone, despite intermittent reports of sightings over the years.
A birding “miracle”, ala our very own Ivory-billed Woodpecker! Alas,the story of the night parrot is even better than the Ivory-billed Woodpecker story, in that the clear photo and capture of the night parrot was irrefutable evidence of the bird’s continued survival. In the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, almost immediately after Cornell announced the sightings of the Arkansas bird(s), doubters emerged from the woodwork. Despite sightings from a number of reputable ornithologists associated with Cornell, and despite more sightings in Florida by Auburn University researchers, an outcry emerged from many in the birding community that without a clear, definitive photo, the sightings didn’t constitute “proof”. Prominent birder David Sibley was one who led the charge against the published reports, In short, instead of being met with excitement and joy, many in the birding and science communities instead chose to attack the reports, and indeed, to personally attack the Cornell group itself.
Ah, what a difference a photo makes! One thing I’ve come to truly HATE in the birding community is the competitive nature many birders have. Given then names involved in the Arkansas and Florida sightings, and given the number of DIFFERENT people who saw and/or heard the birds, I have no doubt that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were seen. Alas, however, in the birding community nothing brings scorn as does lack of DEFINITIVE proof. Unfortunately, even a CLEAR PHOTOGRAPH doesn’t constitute proof in the eyes of some skeptics, as George Lowry found out in 1971, when two photos were rejected by “experts” as likely fakes.
My opinion…I’ve never met him personally, but thanks to his VERY vigorous reaction to the Ivory-billed episode, I will now forever think of David Sibley as a pompous jackass. I will now FOREVER equate his name with the many other PJB’s (Pompous Jackass Birders) that I’ve run across over the years. What did Sibley and others stand to gain by personally attacking the Cornell group? Without a clear photo, Sibley and others COULD have taken the high road, expressing excitement and joy in the sightings, while at the same time encouraging additional work to photograph or even band a live Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Instead, the (jealous?) PJBs chose the low road, looking at the glass as half-empty and interpreting every bit of evidence in the most skeptical and negative way possible. All for the lack of a photo. Congrats to the Queensland group for the wonderful work. I look forward to the day that similar “proof” is found in the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I look forward to the day of vindication for the Cornell Group, Geoffrey Hill from Auburn, John Dennis for his sightings from the 1940s to 1960s, George Lowry (he of the photos from 1971), and the many others over the years who have been open ridiculed for DARING to publicize a sighting of a species that the jackass PJB’s hadn’t THEMSELVES seen.