An elusive being

There’s an entity that I dearly wish existed, for its presence would bring me solace and wonder.  Alas, it’s elusive.  There are rumors that it is actually present in the world, but, sadly, these never pass empirical scrutiny.  A few people have had personal experience of this being, but these haven’t confirmed by others.  Much as I would like to live in a world inhabited by this being, I must reluctantly conclude that it doesn’t seem to exist.

I am an a-woodpeckerist.

About five years ago, biologists were all abuzz with a sighting and a brief and fuzzy video clip suggesting that the Ivory-billed woodpecker was still alive in the Arkansas swamps.  There were later sightings from Florida.  This was dramatic news, since the Ivory-bill (Campephilus principalis), America’s largest woodpecker, was thought to have been extinct since the mid-1940s.  The “resurrection” of an extinct and iconic species gave all biologists and bird lovers a new spring in their step.  How magnificent it would be to see this bird again after 60 years!

But intensive searching by biologists and laypeople over the past five years has failed to turn up the Ivorybill, and I sadly conclude that it’s really truly extinct. If there were an unambiguous sighting, with good video, I would of course change my mind, but for now the species is an ex-woodpecker, singing in the choir invisible.

As PLos Biology reports this week, a new movie on the search for the Ivorybill, Ghost Bird, opens in September.  The movie is reviewed by Jerome Jackson, an ecologist at Florida Gulf Coast University and author of In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.  It’s a nice review that summarizes all the brouhaha around the “rediscovery” of the woodpecker, somewhat resembling the hype about the “ancestral primate” Darwinius.  Although Jackson once thought the Ivory-bill was still alive, he’s now a skeptic.  He gives the movie an emphatic thumbs-up.

Ghost Bird reveals this process and the myriad of impacts it can have. It is a film that will produce a more sophisticated citizen with a better understanding of how science works. While in many ways it is a fun film, a fascinating window on science and the interfaces of science, media, and the general public, ultimately, it tells the story of the tragic extinction of an iconic species and our collective and probably unfounded, yet seemingly inextinguishable hope that maybe, it might still exist. Science can prove that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still flies. It cannot prove that it does not. With the efforts that have been made since 2004, it has become increasingly likely that it is extinct. But… the truth is still out there.

Sort of like God, isn’t it?

Ghost Bird will be publicly screened in 20 American cities, but only for a short time.  You can find the showings at the movie’s website.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Image: Damir Frkovic © 2009/Small Change Productions

Here’s a long (150 minute) video in which John Fitzpatrick of Cornell, the biggest proponent of the Ivorybill’s rediscovery, defends his position. There are some photographs of the bird at 13:15, and you’ll certainly want to see the 1930s movies of the living birds (14:00 to 17:23), showing their huge bills and characteristic “back and forth” movement in the trees.  The crucial new (2004) video and its analysis begin at 42:40.  The argument is about whether the white on this bird indicates an Ivory-billed rather than the darker pileated woodpecker (its size and flight pattern are also issues).

Here’s how the pileated and Ivorybill differ:


  1. Posted August 18, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I’m sad to say that I’m a skeptic, too. I do get a bit excited whenever I glimpse a pileated woodpecker, hoping it to be its (probably extinct) cousin, but so far nada.

    A friend of my sister’s in north Louisiana insists that she has ivory-billed woodpeckers on her property, but she wants to keep them “secret” so they’ll be safe. O … K … (She’s not a birder, and I think she has them mixed up with pileated woodpeckers.)

  2. Posted August 18, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Oh, I know, me too. I was so excited about the sighting, but, alas…

    And of course I always knew that if they were that scarce they were effectively extinct anyway.

  3. Sven DiMilo
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    From the linked film review:

    the Cornell Lab refused to allow their employees to be interviewed

    That seems unfortunate. The Cornell Lab of O really handled this whole thing poorly IM hindsighted O.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted August 18, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      That’s what I was going to ask, whether they’re reconciled with the consensus. Guess that answers that.

  4. Thornavis.
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I’m a Great Aukist myself, I know they still exist, on a magical island in the North Atlantic which is only accessible to those who believe.

  5. mk
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    What is the consensus on the blurry video? Is that an actual Ivorybill which has perhaps finally died naturally? Is it a hoax? (dressed up Pileated?)

    Professor Coyne (or anyone) your thoughts?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I’ve added a note to the video giving the time when Fitzpatrick begins presenting the crucial film documentation, so you can see the evidence for yourself. I believe most people have said that it could be a pileated woodpecker.

      The flash of white is intriguing, but the lack of further sightings, despite many visits to the area, suggests that the bird just isn’t there.

      • Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        Yep, it was probably a pileated as it would have looked about the same. It also has white on the underside of its wings:

        Still, it was exciting to hope.

      • mk
        Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink


        And yes, I always found the flash of white at the wings intriguing. I was once so excited about all this. Alas….

      • Posted August 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        The sasquatch videos are of much better resolution than this on; watch them to compare and contrast

  6. Bryan
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    These two short pieces written by the ornithologist David Sibley back in 2007 touch a bit on the wishful thinking that produced the overconfident claims of recovery. Sibley was one of the early skeptics.

    I remember reading these a couple years ago, and also thinking how similar it is to people’s wishful reports of experiencing God, or UFOs, or ESP, etc.

  7. daveau
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Calendar marked for the movie.

    Until someone else sees an ivory bill, or finds a recent nest or egg, for all practical purposes it is extinct. I saw a pileated in the wild once, on the IL-IA border. They are gorgeous. And huge compared to the downys we occasionally get in our back yard.

  8. truthspeaker
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    You can’t prove the woodpecker isn’t living there! You’re just as dogmatic as a fundamentalist! I take the much more rational position that we can’t know if the woodpecker is extinct, and since we can’t know, I assume it does and I pray to it to save my immortal soul.

    • Thornavis.
      Posted August 18, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      But which do you pray to, the male or the female ? Make sure it’s the right one or you’re damned. Oh and don’t forget that the true path to the father woodpecker is via the male chick who was sacrificed to a snake for your sins.

  9. Dominic
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Biology Letters has an article about the genetic divergence of the Ivory-billed woodpecker genus

    And spare a thought for the closely related Imperial woodpecker from Mexico – probably extinct even more recently (1956 last seen)

  10. Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Seems like an interesting movie. Hopefully I’ll be able to go see it.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Haven’t we seen this movie before – Love, Pray, Sight?

    Anyho’, this:

    Sort of like God, isn’t it?

    Not at all! The difference is that the woodpecker (the bird) actually once existed.

    Theoretically, since bird/dead bird are pure states, you can arrange them into a Schroedinger’s woodpecker mixed state. Open the box in some woods, and find out what happened.

    However, you can’t do that with non-existing states. The Schroedinger’s god zombie is likely , so it is still likely ‘pure’. Pure empty-headedness. (Cf. Miller’s quantum woo.)

  12. Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    A few months ago, the skeptic podcast MonsterTalk did a very interesting interview with Scott Crocker, the director of the documentary Ghost Bird about the “rediscovery” of the ivory-billed woodpecker:

    • Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that podcast. But the podcast itself is linked elsewhere on that site, not from the summary page.
      I have shortened it here for those who would like to listen (just over an hour long!):

  13. Neil
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Unlike god, we do know that the ivory bill did once exist, so believing (hoping) that it still does is not entirely without an evidentiary basis.

  14. Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Though the “official” search is over, several independents continue to search and claims continue to come in. The story is far from over, and the debate over the Luneau video has never been settled, but Sibley/Jackson have done a far better job ‘marketing’ their viewpoint than USFW or Cornell did ‘marketing’ theirs.

  15. MadScientist
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    The difference between the woodpecker and god of course is that we had and still have evidence that the creature existed. God doesn’t even have that much going for him. Now I have half a mind to visit a natural history museum and label a few specimens ‘god’ …

    • justsearching
      Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      “‘Where has God gone? he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers…’

      Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives.”

      I’d go to a museum to see a God’s carcass.

      • Microraptor
        Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

        Be careful.

        Dead gods dream…

      • Dominic
        Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        If god lived & is now extinct, with whom did he breed? Oh yes, that would be Mary. Was Jesus an F1 hybrid perhaps?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Morrow’s “Godhead trilogy may be a good substitute for an imaginary beings imaginary death:

        Towing Jehovah (1994), in which the corpse of God (a two-mile long white male with a grey beard, as he has often been depicted) is discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

        Blameless in Abaddon (1996), in which God’s body is now part of a religious theme park.

        The Eternal Footman (1999), in which the absence of God, save for his skull orbiting the Earth, results in a plague of death-awareness.

        A large skull in orbit would make a good infra-structure for a space tourism hotel, btw. Think of all the joys of free fall sex while watching the Earth spin about the eye orbit windows!

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          “beings” – being’s

  16. Jon H
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Kind of a shame that those museum specimens hadn’t had more time to reproduce.

  17. littlejohn
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    As a boy I used to enjoy watching the very similar pileated woodpecker visit my parents’ suet offerings in our back yard. A truly impressive, and somehow prehistoric-looking, bird.
    If the ivory-bills aren’t extinct, they must surely be down to an unsustainable number, and soon will be. It’s a real shame.

  18. KP
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Am 20 years out of ornithology and don’t have a bird book in front of me. Are pileateds most similar looking to ivory billeds of all the woodpeckers? How come different genera, then?

    • Dominic
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      See the link in note 9 above – the probably also extinct Imperial was closer..

  19. Posted August 18, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink


    Pileateds are the most similar U.S. woodpecker to Ivory-bill, but there are many differences between the two along with their superficial similarities; genera of course are based on much more than visual similarity, and there are MANY separate woodpecker genera.

  20. Posted August 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    The sightings by experienced birthwatchers seem a lot more credible than that very low-quality video. Still, they haven’t been repeated since then (AFAIK), and so the evidence there doesn’t hold up very well either.

    Which is sad.

  21. Alex SL
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Sort of like God, isn’t it?

    Ah, haven’t we learned anything from the recent discussions?

    Obviously, if a scientist looks for a bird and doesn’t find any evidence, you are allowed to conclude that most likely it does not exist. But if a scientist looks for a god and doesn’t find any evidence, things are completely different, and you are forbidden from concluding the same.

    Why? Well, let me just restate twenty times what I just said. If you still ask for a reason why it is different, that just shows your contempt for philosophy.

  22. Hempenstein
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m no ornithologist, or even birder, but I’d be happy to claim woodpeckerist. The fine print in the Science paper about the video analysis impressed me, at least. Plus, I think that still only 10% of that swamp has been surveyed.

    In any event, if someone asks me if there isn’t ANYTHING I believe in, I think now I’ll say yes, the Ivory-bill.

  23. Diane G.
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    One thing I haven’t heard mentioned is the possibility of a leucistic pileated individual…Given the frequency of such variants in other spp of birds, I’d expect that to be at least as likely a possibility for this bird as that it is in fact an Ivory-Billed…

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