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Saturday, February 24, 2007

False Advertising?

Originally this post was a criticism of the ad copy for Ivorybill Hunters, Geoff Hill's new Oxford Press book about looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. However, upon further reflection, I've decided its time for me to follow Rule #2, a Fergus Family rule my parents came up with after watching Walt Disney's Bambi--ie, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

In the spirit of that rule, I think I'm done commenting on the whole Ivory-billed Woodpecker saga--and I want to apologize to anyone who I have disagreed with about this issue. The lines seem to be drawn, I don't see too many people changing each other's minds about this, and resulting conversations seem to mostly generate ill feelings. To the degree that I've contributed to that, I apologize. While I believe in always searching for and standing up for the truth as it can be best determined, I do not believe in using truth as a weapon to attack others. To the degree that I have done that, or have made others feel attacked, I apologize. We may disagree, but I apologize for doing so disagreably. I aspire to be better than that.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

in the meantime you're pushing the GBBC which is chockfull of unverified, imprecise, inaccurate, and bogus reports, not that anyone would care.

birdchaser said...

We know there are problems with some of the GBBC reports. That's why we are careful not to overstate any claims we might make based on the limits of the data we have. But here's the deal--over 70,000 people saw and enjoyed birds last weekend because of the GBBC. How many people saw and enjoyed Ivory-billed Woodpeckers last weekend?

John L. Trapp said...

The advertising and marketing execs at Oxford obviously are aiming this at their potential customers (i.e., "those with an interest in natural history, adventure, environmental conservation, and science, as well as the more than forty-six million American who now consider themselves birdwatchers" [emphasis added]) many of whom are naive enough to fall for this hype.

Anonymous said...

You realize that blurb was probably written by a press agent, not by anyone directly associated with the Auburn search team.

birdchaser said...

Of course I realize who wrote the blurb. This post was primarily about the advertising, not the merits of the Auburn team's IBWO enterprise.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the GBBC reports - I submitted 2 reports each day, but one report had numbers that I may have been skeptical of myself - an unusually large number of a fairly unusual bird in my area. The report was flagged and, despite the fact that I have photo evidence to back up my claims, nobody has contacted me yet and the numbers aren't reflected on the GBBC website. I'm really disappointed in this. Meanwhile, up until a couple days ago, the largest number of individual birds was reportedly spotted by one birder (300,000 on one list) in Delaware - during a huge winter storm! This is the kind of thing that makes me uncertain whether or not I'll be interested in participating again.

birdchaser said...

Anonymous #3, we have volunteer reviewers who check on flagged records. As with all volunteer efforts, they may not happen at the speed or level of efficiency that we might always hope. Some reviewers are exceptional, others are very busy with other things. Hopefully your record will be reviewed soon.

As for the 300,000 birds in DE, they were in a massive flock of blackbirds and grackles, which is a well known phenomenon there. We did contact the observer and have modified the estimate downwards a bit, but it does appear to be legitimate.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you are stepping back from the IBWO fray, recognizing nothing's changing until incontrovertible proof of existance surfaces (and if that doesn't happen, I might start to believe in hell, and that I'm already there: reading the ascerbic comments on the IBWO skeptic blog from now until eternity? I'd gouge my own eyes out first).

I do want to weigh in on this comment, though, regardless of whether Ivory-bills will be discussed here anymore:
But here's the deal--over 70,000 people saw and enjoyed birds last weekend because of the GBBC. How many people saw and enjoyed Ivory-billed Woodpeckers last weekend?

These questions don't really parallel one another, do they? Wouldn't the appropriate question be, "how many people are now seeing and enjoying birds because of interest stimulated by the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?"

And is it worth drawing this type of comparison between projects? It's important to keep in mind that citizen science projects, by their very nature, have issues with data collection, but they are addressed by the experimental design and a relatively conservative interpretation of the data. It's also worth acknowledging that while there is dispute over the evidence presented as to the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the thorough and focused searches currently underway are long overdue.

Bottom line: in spite of flaws and short comings, both projects are inherently worthwhile for their pursuit for knowledge, for contributing to our understanding of the natural world, and how they engage the public and raise awareness.

Now, I'm stepping back outside for some owling.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #3 here again. Thanks for the clarification - I hope reviewers contact me soon too. Also, I'm self-employed and take a lot of time off for birding. Can I be a reviewer for next year? I have no life and would complete the work very fast.

About the Ivory Bill: although I was interested in birding before the IB, the search has certainly added a new dimension of interest for me and although I don't know if I do or do not believe in the existence, I will be in the Florida swamps in two weeks keeping an eye out from my camo canoe.

Patrick Coin said...

It's also worth acknowledging that while there is dispute over the evidence presented as to the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the thorough and focused searches currently underway are long overdue.
I'm going to respectfully disagree with this. I don't think the searches are long overdue, I think they are 70 years too late. I've heard these shadowy reports of IBWO my entire life (47 years, 42 as a birder). They have never panned out--no breeding population has ever been found, and no photographs have been produced. (The 1971 photos look fake to me, but they are so poor, it is hard to know for sure.)

A breeding population of 20 or more IBWO would not have been hidden for so long. The southern United States is full of birders--they would have picked it up by now. Heck, people are even "searching" in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. It has a visitor's center and is birded all the time by very active South Carolina birders. I see reports from there all the time on the carolinabirds e-mail list. (I live and bird in North Carolina, and have been to Congaree once.) How could all these birders have missed a noisy, wide-ranging, diurnal species for years in an area that is just not that big and not that inaccessible? In Arkansas, there is (or was) alleged to be a breeding population in White River National Wildlife Refuge. There has been a Christmas Bird Count for decades--see this link an article by the man who has compiled this count since 1977.

Bottom line: in spite of flaws and short comings, both projects are inherently worthwhile for their pursuit for knowledge, for contributing to our understanding of the natural world, and how they engage the public and raise awareness.

I think citizen science projects like the GBYBC and Christmas counts are very worthwhile, not necessarily for the their scientific results, but for the raising of public awareness--a very laudable goal.

However, I disagree completely about the current IBWO searches. The USFWS is spending quite a bit of money, taking money from other projects. Heck, it would be better to make an all-out effort to look for Bachman's Warbler--there is still some hope for that species. The Rusty Blackbird is in trouble and nobody knows why. A South Carolina birder e-mailed me and said that the USFWS was not interested in funding research on it. But the USFWS is interested in funding wild IBWO chases? Is that good science? Is that good public policy?

If you want to talk endangered woodpeckers, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker ranges throughout the Southeast and is still in real trouble. The populations are scattered and disconnected--massive efforts are needed to reconnect them and restore the Long-leaf Pine forests in which they live. Ironically, the IBWO probably depended on Long-leaf Pine for foraging, and the loss of Long-leaf pines in the 19th century probably contributed to its decline. Though it may have bred in swamp forests, that may not have been its primary habitat. Tanner mentions this briefly in his book on the IBWO, and so does Lawrence Earley in his book Looking for Longleaf. The last populations of IBWO found in swamp forests may have been in marginal habitat, dooming them. Compare also, Jerome Jackson's species account, where he states the bird was originally found in uplands.

Conservation, and public education, need to be based on good science. The current round of Ivory-bill sightings is not based on good science, not even on good birding. It has become this bizarre pursuit based on "faith", disconnected from the actual practice of biodiversity conservation. The public needs to be connected with real biology, not fantasy. There are plenty of extant endangered species out there for the public to get excited about--no need to go on flights of fancy.

Incidentally, I was overjoyed when the IBWO was reported to be extand in 2005. I initially thought it was too good to be true, and I've come back round to that view. Cornell made a truly massive effort to find the Arkansas birds in 2005-06, and could not verify them--see their report. They had over 100 stealthy observers in the field, most with cameras. Yet they had no confirmed sightings and no photos. They did, however, come up with alternate explanations for the kent calls (Blue Jays) and double-knocks (duck wings). What is the scientific conclusion to be reached by the public? I think it is this, quoting from Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter (from Through the Looking Glass, available here:

No birds were flying over head--
There were no birds to fly.

Ellen said...

I thought you'd decided against allowing anonymous postings? It seemed like a good idea at the time, and more so now. Regarding your refraining from further comment on IBWO, and apology for anything you said that caused hard feelings, well, if all parties to the IBWO debate were to follow your example in terms of civility, reasoned discussion, tempered tone...the world would be a better place. I don't recall your having said anything, or in anyway, that would remotely require an apology. I wish everyone would take a step back and re-read some of the things they've said, and then follow your lead.

Ellen

birdchaser said...

Thanks Ellen. It was hard to totally disallow anaonymous posts, but I'm trying to moderate them, and a couple on this thread didn't get through.

As for being nice, maybe I aspire to be the Bill Richardson of the IBWO scene. More likely, I'm just not sure how to say anything worthwhile about it without causing more hard feelings than its worth.

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