Woodpecker Racket?

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.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

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.