Archive for the ‘hot topics’ Category


My Ivory Tower

December 12, 2005

Like most birders I was thrilled to learn that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been re-found in the US after nearly 60 years. I read the accounts from the Cornell Lab teams and watched the now-famous Luneau video, all 10 seconds of it. I pretty much took everything I read at face value, and was reassured by the authoritative voice coming from CLO.

But I’ve recently come across a few blogs and other statements expressing some concerned skepticism towards the identifications, and the subsequent efforts toward conserving the believed habitat of the remaining Ivory-bills. I admit that I was a little surprised to discover this skepticism, but after reading about the basis of it, I’ve had to rethink my own ideas on the whole matter.

I’ve only read up on the Ivory-bill marginally, and I make no pretense at expertise. I will say however that while I consider the video to be compelling evidence, I don’t consider it definitive, unassailable proof of the existence of the species. For such an extraordinary claim, it just isn’t extraordinary evidence. Not yet.

Now, the Luneau video shows a large black woodpecker with a remarkable amount of white in the wings – way more than any Pileated I’ve ever seen. But the video is grainy and I’ve also now heard of stories of ‘abnormal Pileateds’, which presumably can have much more white in them than usual. I’ve not investigated those claims, and I need to. In either case though, there is just no prima facie logical basis for claiming this bird is either a Pileated or an Ivory-bill.

All this motivates me to read up more on the “controversy”, because in the absence of any clear photography showing this bird, we may well be stuck in this limbo state of having to treat the actual scant data as a Rorschach test that ends up saying more about our own standards of evidence and desire to believe than it does about the bird we all want to save. Because so much in the way of public and private resources are about to be committed here, there needs to be transparency and honesty as to what has actually been observed.



Bird Morality

December 2, 2005

From bootstrap analysis:

Cowbirds have an undeserved poor reputation as being lazy or immoral. Of course, the attitude that birds, or any other animal, can or should follow human expectations of ethical or moral behavior is illogical and unreasonable.

Certainly true, although I hasten to add that a fair number of those concerned with the actions of nest parasites base that concern more on conservation issues. Nevertheless, it is not always easy for us to separate out that visceral response to witnessing what would be an atrocity in its human representation.

I don’t intend this to be a lengthy exploration of bird morality, but the topic is interesting. Curiously, though, this isn’t the case only with those who react negatively to cowbirds and other nest parasites, but also to certain groups in reaction to March of the Penguins. Roger Ebert:

The stupendous success of “March of the Penguins” this summer has led some political and religious agenda-promoting scalawags to paint weird and disturbing parallels between penguin behavior and human behavior, and to draw insupportable conclusions that do not exactly square with zoological reality.

He’s referring to media critics like Michael Medved and Maggie Gallagher. And let’s not even mention penguin homosexuality. OK, I change my mind, let’s:

Every day at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo the two males entwine necks, vocalise to each other and have, er, sex. When offered female companionship, they decline.

Roy and Silo have even displayed urges to procreate, and once tried to hatch a rock. Finally their keeper, Rob Gramzay, gave them a fertile egg from another brood. Tango, their chick, was born later. The pair raised it lovingly. ‘They did a great job,’ admits Gramzay.

I believe there’s nothing wrong with finding character traits in birds that help us appreciate them more. As long as it remains clear that bird morality is not something we humans are privy to understand – in this we can only gaze from afar.

Back to cowbirds though. If it cannot definitely be shown that cowbird range expansion is causing population drops in host songbird species in these newly penetrated areas, then from a conservation perspective the cowbirds are cleared of their “responsibility”, and we can resume concern for decreasing populations of host species due to more direct human causes like habitat destruction and collisions with transmission towers, etc.