Date: 11/18/20 9:29 am
From: Michael D. Collins <mike...>
Subject: Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Debunking the Critics
Since the first published reports of sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in recent decades came from Arkansas, I have posted the occasional update about my work on this forum over the years. For reasons that had nothing to do with science, it took more than a decade to publish my observations, data, and analysis in a series of papers, including one that came out in September. I have also produced a series of lectures about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. There are links to all of this material at
I recently posted this lecture on debunking the critics...
One of the topics covered in that lecture is the analysis of the Luneau video. Much of the debate on that video was centered on a white object that pops out from behind a tree. According to the original interpretation by Fitzpatrick et al., the white object corresponds to the wings folded onto the back of a perched Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Sibley et al. argued that the white object is the underside of the right wing, but the issue wasn't settled in an exchange of letters that appeared in Science. As discussed in the lecture, this issue was easy to resolve by considering the acceleration of the white object (which may be estimated using the known diameter of the tree and the known time interval between frames of the video). It turns out that Sibley et al. were correct in pointing out an error in the original interpretation, but this doesn't shed any light on whether or not the Ivory-billed Woodpecker persists. As discussed in the lecture, the critics haven't come up with anything that sheds light on this issue. I believe the bird in the Luneau video is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the basis of the rapid wingbeats and the amount of white that appears on the wings on average (not just in any particular frame). As a scientist, I believe in giving credit wherever it is due, even though others don't always do the same. I applaud David Luneau for spending time in the field and obtaining that video, but much stronger evidence was obtained later. 
By a wide margin, the strongest evidence from Arkansas was a series of sightings by experienced bird watchers who were well prepared for the task. It isn't plausible that such observers could repeatedly mistake the common species (which they observed on a daily basis) for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a large bird with distinctive and prominent field marks and remarkable fight characteristics. The Luneau video was a distraction that served as a convenient target for those who wanted to discredit the reports from Arkansas. As discussed in the lecture, it is interesting to consider Geoff Hill's opinion of the Luneau video relative to his opinion of the videos that were obtained in Louisiana and Florida. As quoted in Science in 2007, Hill regarded the Luneau video to be one of the most unfortunate things that has ever happened to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. On the other hand, Hill has met with me several times to study the other videos, which he finds "very convincing." No ornithologist has more credibility than Hill when it comes to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He led a search in Florida that found Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and he had one of the sightings. His book on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is by far the most authoritative and informative book on this bird that has ever been published. Hill is one of the few ornithologists who have risen above the unfortunate nonsense that has plagued this issue. After interacting with other ornithologists, it was like a breath of fresh air to meet Hill in 2006. He immediately struck me as a first-rate scientist. Totally non-political and a truth seeker. Right from the beginning, he acknowledged the significance of my data, and I obtained one of the videos after he invited me to visit his study area the next year. 
I also have the highest opinion of John Fitzpatrick for having the courage to lead the search in Arkansas and publish the results. He was always very gracious in granting me permission to use materials from Cornell in my comparisons. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that one of the other ornithologists on the Arkansas team has been very critical of my work. I won't mention his name, but he has the option of going public with his arguments (if he actually has any), and it is always best to have an open discourse in science. In a recent discussion with other ornithologists, he made some very strong comments in criticizing me for publishing the evidence that I obtained in Louisiana and Florida. This seemed hypocritical since his name appears on a paper that reports evidence (that isn't nearly as strong as mine). He was also very critical that I published an analysis that sheds light on why the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has a unique history of elusiveness. I found it very puzzling that a fellow scientist would be critical of a rock-solid analysis that helps us to understand why nobody has managed to obtain a clear photo and why it is unrealistic to hold out hope that anyone will manage to do so in time to make a difference in the conservation of this bird. 
Mike CollinsAlexandria, Virginia


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