Faith-Based Birding 201: Fraudulent Photos and Federal Funding

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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has posted a reward of $50,000
to be given to anyone who can provide "video, photographic, or
other compelling information and lead a project scientist to a
living wild Ivory-billed Woodpecker."

Mass hysteria is that strange psychological phenomenon where a group of people experience the same hallucination at the same time. Such hallucinations include observing statues or paintings of the Virgin Mary either bleeding or crying at certain times of the year. But mass hysteria is not limited to religious fanatics. During the past five years, there has been a marked increase in what I refer to as "faith-based birding," where groups of people believe they've seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, a large bird that has been extinct in the US for more than 50 years.

Ever since a small group of birders and ornithologists from Cornell University published their very controversial claim in Science in 2004 that they captured this extinct species on video, the number of other people who have likewise "seen" the Ivory-billed Woodpecker have increased. Unfortunately, many of these so-called sightings are based on manufactured photographic evidence.

Apparently unable to distinguish reality from hysteria, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has only added fuel to this fire by advertising a $50,000 reward to anyone who can provide "video, photographic, or other compelling information and lead a project scientist to a living wild Ivory-billed Woodpecker." Why would the "Lab of O" even get involved in this when they should be devoting their precious time and resources to avian research? Why not admit that their original video ID was mistaken and move on already? (my hypothesis: testosterone poisoning)

Further, if they are really serious about finding this species, why wouldn't they refocus their energies from their sensationalist "wanted dead or alive" advertising campaign (above) to one where they educate the public by showing them how to distinguish this bird from other, similar species (below)?

Image: David Sibley (designed for internet use).

Worse, some so-called birders, such as landscaper and gambler Daniel Rainsong, who claims to have photographed the bird, resort to harassment to assert their claims to this $50,000 prize. According to the current kerfuffle on the intert00bz, Rainsong apparently refuses to allow anyone to see his December 2009 photographs of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker until his "right of claim" (huh?) for this discovery is established (huh??). But despite the self-imposed veil of secrecy surrounding his supposed photographs, Rainsong is allegedly harassing professional ornithologists by filing "formal complaints" against them because (he claims) they refuse to accompany him on an extended search in the Sabine River basin in east Texas to "prove" the validity of his photograph(s). Which he won't permit them to examine.

But the furor has reached far beyond the machinations of a few self-important fortune-seekers: it has even infected the US government. During the past five years, hysterical public officials redirected $14 million of precious conservation funds into developing the Ivory-billed Woodpecker recovery plan -- never mind the fact that this species has not been seen in more than 50 years and is extinct in the USA. But this raises the question; why not spend that $14 million on implementing recovery plans for endangered species that actually exist and that we have a chance of recovering?

Further, after five years of fruitless searching, even some ornithologists at the Lab of O have given up all hope by deciding the bird is either extinct or hopelessly irrecoverable.

"We don't believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists," said Ron Rohrbaugh, a conservation biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who headed the original search team.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in a museum bird collections drawer.

Image: Orphaned.


Dalton, R. (2010). Still looking for that woodpecker. Nature, 463 (7282), 718-719 DOI: 10.1038/463718a

Free Press Release

Addendum: an opposing point of view.

More like this

a couple of things:

The photos have been seen by appropriate people and will be addressed (why it's taking this long I have no idea; it's a pretty open-and-shut case, and the longer it drags out the more of a fiasco it becomes). I'll have a wrap-up at my blog as well, once officials have their say (I reluctantly broke this story back on Jan. 19th.)

The reward is actually offered by an "anonymous" source, and the impetus for it was to encourage anyone who might know the whereabouts of IBWOs, but not wish to tell (for example, if they are on private lands), an incentive to speak up. The criteria for the reward are actually so stringent it should be a DISincentive to most hoaxers to try (and put themselves through such a grill), but unfortunately Rainsong didn't realize that.

It's hardly news that most birders' life-lists are filled with fleeting glimpses and wishful thinking. But spending $14 million on a recovery plan, on the strength of a dubious videotape, is the sort of thing that gives conservation biology a bad name.

'Faith-based' birding is about right. Maybe we need a Society for Skeptical Birders?

But how does it taste?

i think it must taste like crow, but lab of o might have first-hand information (and recipes) they'd like to share?

When you say "extinct in the US" do you think that there is a chance of it still existing in Cuba?

why not spend that $14 million on implementing recovery plans for endangered species that actually exist and that we have a chance of recovering?

Because political appointees under the Bush administration got wind of it, swooped in, declared it a "success story", and dictated a ridiculous PR media blitz, much to the consternation of the field staff. Such heavy-handed political management was very commonplace from 2000-2008.

How do I know? I'm a USFWS recovery biologist.

i think it must taste like crow, but lab of o might have first-hand information (and recipes) they'd like to share?

Nah. It tastes exactly like pileated, but there are people who, despite all the evidence, claim they can tell the difference. :-)

I'd say $14 million is a bargain, if there's any chance at all that the bird exists. I don't buy that video, but I at least initially put "faith" in the sightings by experienced Cornell researchers, and the Auburn group.

Given how much time has now elapsed, and given the lack of conclusive evidence, my "faith" is a lot less now. But...I have a hard time getting worked up over $14 million to potentially save a species, when that $14 million quite literally will only buy a couple of hours for the U.S. war effort in Iraq.

terry: that $14mil was NOT redirected from bombing innocent iraqi civilians into the next ice age. it was redirected from other endangered species budgets supporting species that are still alive. the fact that other endangered species might be un(der)funded in the process was actually another win for the bushies, who have never been especially keen to protect anything except their own bank accounts.

I'm the last one to support any win for the Bushies, but I have a hard time getting worked up over this one.

Of that $14 million, $8 million as spent on habitat conservation, including an expansion of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

That's a good thing. As for the rest of that money...again, if there's ANY chance such a magnificent bird exists, I say go for it. You had some well-respected Cornell researchers ID the bird by sight. Could they have been mistaken? Too enthusiastic? Sure. But should doubt be a reason to ignore a chance to save a species?

So throw $14 million dollars at an extinct species rather than spending that money to save species we know for a fact are not extinct, because someone claims to have seen it? we're going to let other programs die from lack of funding for that?

Because political appointees under the Bush administration got wind of it, swooped in, declared it a "success story", and dictated a ridiculous PR media blitz

Well, as recovery plans go, it's done better than some - there's been no further decline of the species, after all! :)

(count me in the "it's extinct" camp)

"We don't believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists,"

It depends what your definition of "recoverable" is. Clone those museum specimens. OK, so it's not easy... the ibex was not extinct for only seven minutes so far. How much cloning effort can $14 million buy?

Sure, some of the money spent on the 'search' team could have been redirected, but they tried and it didn't work out....time to move on. I'm playing devil's advocate here but some might argue we've been wasting tons of conservation money on habitat specialist species of serious decline whose populations can't survive without our assistance...say Kirtland's warbler? Least Bell's Vireo? I still think we should try.

Personally, I think whether the Ivory-billed still exists is a moot point. Bringing attention to the degradation and loss of bottomland hardwood habitat in Arkansas, Florida Pan, etc. is the real success in the woodpecker story. What those areas really needed was more public awareness and conservation and I think the ivory-billed search helped alot in that respect. Maybe these efforts might help stop the decline of another bottomland hardwood species before it's too late....say the rusty blackbird? (Big Woods had great flocks when I visited last).

What's 14Million? NObama spent that on the Photo Opt of Air Force 1's over New York City. Scared the entire city again. Not o mention the billions he has wasted on his the recovery act which has yet to produce a single job.

> recovery plan

Restore it and they will come back?

Well, what's the worst thing that could result from doing this?
There's a reason they call'em 'charismatic megafauna' -- they need the same kind of environment restored that many others will find habitable, and usually a bit more of it.

The Ivory Billed Woodpecker is in fact a werebird. For nearly the whole of the month, it sneaks about in the shape of a common Pileated Woodpecker. But on the night of the full moon, it transforms! Then, and only then, can its true form, in all its ivory-billed glory, be seen. Thus it has eluded the cleverest of searchers for all these many years.

Citation for the $14 million price tag, just for preparing a plan? I see it on a lot of websites (also $10m) but no citation. Also if some/most of the money's spent on land acquisition, that isn't money spent on a plan, and I wouldn't call it wasted even if the bird's not there.

Never attribute to testosterone poisoning what can be adequately explained by caffeine intoxication.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Your blog post is, to say the least, misinformed.

1. Actually there is a precedent from 1930s, when a naturalist reported seeing IBWO to the museum curator and received the answer that it is already extinct. He then asked if he will be believed if he shot one. The answer was yea, and the naturalist returned and threw the skin on the table. It was one of the last IBWO skins collected.

So, a faith-based non-birding.

2. For 50 years, not a single serious conservation body (I'm not talking about popular books etc) dared to claim IBWO is extinct. The reason is simple - low observer coverage in swamp forests plus regular reports without the photo evidence - some coming from respected public figures or experienced birders.

3. Cornell lab kept secret about the original observation and film for a year and spent considerable money on buying land near the secret sighting during that time.

So it is plainly wrong that it sought publicity or government money.

If president Bush had not made a misguided speech about developing the area, the observation and film would probably be secret to this day.

4. Habitat protection, on which most of money is spend, is protecting also black bears and other species. The protection of bottomland forest is worthy goal in its own right.

If the $14 million was spent on habitat restoration or land conservation I have no problem with that. As far as the IBWO goes, I will believe it when I see positive proof. If people want to look for it using their own funds or those of a philanthropist I think that's great.

The fact is that there are 192 critically endangered species on this planet that can use our help. Maybe we should direct our attention to those species.

No naturalist who has seen Peterson's painting picture of this bird in the legendary Field Guide has not dreamed of seeing it... perhaps even scientists from Cornell can get carried away by their emotions. But why is it that no one who claims to have seen it has ever been able to produce a convincing photograph -- even, as with Kulivan, when they supposedly had a camera? Perhaps this bird really only survives in our collective subconscious, because we know we have lost something truly great and yearn to see it. So unless the miraculous happens and a real encounter occurs, the only hope may be if science, at some future date , figures out a way to produce them by cloning them from genetic material... even if so, however, could these creatins be re-integrated into their natural environment? One has to wonder...

By Alan Asper (not verified) on 04 Jul 2010 #permalink

Here is a fun scenario -- what if there really were a couple of these birds blithely fluttering about, careening about the treetops, in the general vicinity of where Sparling, Harrison et al think they saw them... so let's say a small group of them was hanging around the area, literally in plain view of any kayaker paddling through, gazing at them curiously with their big yellow eyes...
but then, after the big announcement was made, with the cat out of the bag so to speak, could a secret, strategic decision have been made by USFWS to covertly take them down and relocate them to an outdoor aviary-type facility for observation and/or captive breeding? (These then would be survival insurance for the species while allowing that others could still possibly exist in the wild)

Remember, there are precedents for this with california condors, black-footed ferrets, red wolves... maybe these too???

Then again, our government can't even cover up something like the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so I'm not sure... :-)

By Alan Asper (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

Few people realize that the origins of the ivorybill's popular nickname of "Lord-God bird" are more prosaic than one might think -- locals simply thought of it as a "logcock" -- quite similar to the pileated woodpecker, which also was so called... back in Tanner's day, the Singer Tract population remained in place, raising their broods, easily located time and again for photos, until this, their last refuge, was tragically cut down. But could it be that a small band of their descendants found refuge at the Cache River, where they were being spotted by all those people? But then, justly unnerved by the possibility of this news falling on the wrong ears, USFWS simply had to relocate them, quietly? (They were like a few Hope Diamonds or original Picassos, but innocently just fluttering about, unable to be guarded constantly.)

Conspiracy theories are fun! We've had ones relating to the JFK assassination, Roswell... what about an secret ivorybill operation?

Another possibility could be that some are hanging out on some private land someplace. But for obvious reasons, it's being kept a secret...

By Alan Asper (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink