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.
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: