|David Allen Sibley
Giving Up the Ghost?
On a sunny early May morning in 2005, near the White River in Arkansas, David Sibley’s heart began pounding when he glimpsed a large black-and-white woodpecker swoop into a leafy oak tree 100 yards away. It was unmistakable: the trailing edge of the wings appeared to be white, the pattern of an ivory-billed woodpecker. But when Sibley got within 30 yards of the tree, a pileated woodpecker flew out. Still, he was so intoxicated by the brief view, he recalls, that “there was definitely a strong desire to ignore the more cautious voices in my head to say, that was ‘good enough,’ and to convince myself that I must have seen an ivory-bill.”
Sibley, the famed birding-guide author and illustrator, had rushed to Arkansas within days of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s announcement that the ivory-bill had been rediscovered. The Cornell Lab offered seven sightings and a grainy four-second video as proof that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker still lived in the Cache River basin. Skeptics, however, have since dissected the video and found it inconclusive, at best. Now Sibley wonders if anyone ever saw an ivory-bill. “At this point I have to guess it was all wishful thinking,” he says.
After two years of intensive searching by Cornell researchers and others, the ivory-bill has yet to be seen again. The dragnet has added up to more than 27,000 hours of audio recordings and more than 50,000 hours logged by searchers covering 70,000 acres in Arkansas, and still the Cornell Lab doesn’t have a clear-cut photo. “It strains the limits of belief,” says another bird-guide author and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman. “Someone should have had something by now.”
But Cornell researchers are pleading for patience. “This is a species for which a concerted, exhaustive range-wide search had been long, long overdue,” John Fitzpatrick, a highly respected ornithologist and the Cornell Lab’s director, wrote Audubon in a recent email. A four-person mobile team extended the effort across the Southeast this year and plans to continue searching in promising habitat at least through next year. Fitzpatrick defends the effort because he regards “the timeless value that could be gained by locating one or more remnant breeding pairs of ivory-billed woodpeckers as, quite literally, priceless.”
Nobody wants to write the bird’s final obituary, so the question now is how much longer should the search go on? Some critics think it’s time for Cornell to give up the ghost. “People like to say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but there is no absence of evidence,” says Sibley. “They’ve got 50,000 hours of zeroes. At some point, that becomes evidence that the bird is not there.” But Ron Rohrbaugh, who is directing the Cornell Lab’s effort, said it would be “a terrible mistake” to end the quest if there is even the slightest chance the ivory-bill is out there—somewhere, anywhere.—Ted O’Callahan
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