Well, it was almost a year ago that we were all over the moon with news that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been rediscovered in Arkansas. Now, with Cornell unable to provide further proof of the bird, critics are growing more vocal. The latest rumor is that in March Science will publish an article rebutting the famous Luneau video presented by Cornell as evidence of the Ivory-bill--and that birding luminary David Sibley will be one of the co-authors.
With careers and reputations on the line, this could get ugly, exposing the world to the dark underbelly of birding, where skeptics are quick to undercut any bird sightings that they find questionable, and where egos often loom large. There is a potential backlash here against birders, birding, and bird conservation...so how should we be prepared to deal with this backlash, should it occur?
We're all hoping that Cornell can come up with definitive proof that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker does indeed persist in Arkansas. However, barring any proof coming from this field season, perhaps Cornell should admit that they have failed to substantiate the birder sight records, and that there is still no direct evidence that the woodpecker is not extinct. Cornell can then decide how much it wants to spend on an additional year of searching, but should back down from its claim to have rediscovered the bird. If they are reasonable and say that they gave it their best shot, but just can't be sure that the birds are still there, then most people will be willing to let it go. Like the Pearl River search from a couple years ago. Good effort, no proof. We'll all be sad, but oh well.
If Cornell tries to maintain that the bird exists, withought being able to substantiate it with more evidence, than their credibility will be seriously questioned and things could get ugly, though mostly just for Cornell. I have friends who work there, and I wish the Lab of Ornithology the best of luck. I hope they can get convincing evidence that there are Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Big Woods. But if they can't, I hope they will admit it, so we can all move on to other worthy projects. There is a lot to do to protect America's birds. If there are woodpeckers to save, so be it...and it will be worth every penny we can spend on it. But if they aren't there, we need to move on.
One last note. Many commentators have been critical of the secretiveness of the initial Cornell search in the Big Woods. While I'm willing to give Cornell the benefit of the doubt, and believe that they thought their secretiveness was in the best interest of the birds and the habitat acquisition efforts taking place at the time, I can't help but wonder if all of this uproar and controversy couldn't have been avoided if Cornell would have attempted to operate more openly. Surely, with more outside review of the Luneau video, it would have been clearer to Cornell that it was pretty shaky evidence, and they could have avoided the potential spectacle and attendant media circus of having their Science paper rebutted. Hindsight is 20/20, but hopefully we can all learn a lesson here about the value of inclusion and openness.