Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


By now we all know that the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has cheated extinction. The news that David Luneau, an Arkansas Engineering professor and ardent birder, caught footage of an Ivorybill in his state's White River Refuge was the biggest ornithological news in memory. Teams of birders paddle the cypress swamps searching for further signs. Arkansas unveiled a new Ivorybill license plate, and I'd bet that woodpecker plush toys are available in gas stations across the state. The good news has affected us all, and everyone's talking about what the media have come to call the “Lord God Bird.” (Is there anybody out there who ever heard that ludicrous phrase before last April?)

In the midst of the celebration comes Jerome Jackson, Whitaker Eminent Scholar in Science at Florida Gulf Coast University, and noted ornithologist. Jackson was one of three woodpecker experts on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's advisory board to determine C. principalis' status in the 1980s. Jackson has long championed hope in regard to the Ivorybill, but he expressed skepticism at Luneau's footage. The new issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, carries his long-awaited paper on the Arkansas situation. Jackson's lucid and thoughtful prose sets the stage with an overview of the events leading up to last April's announcement before assessing Luneau's video and the other Arkansas evidence.

Reading his paper has caused me to reassess my own view of the evidence. I bought the hype, as I think most of us have. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology called the video conclusive, and that was good enough for me. I never even watched the clip, to be honest, but now I feel I must. Whether that was an Ivorybill or a Pileated caught by Luneau's lens, Jackson's paper serves to remind us of a number of important lessons, about the scientific method, about the commodification of conservation, and most of all, about the way we learn about the world.

Every con man knows how easy it is to trick a person into believing what they want to believe most. I was a boy when the National Geographic Society released the news of the Tasaday, the Stone-Age people on the Philippine island of Mindanao with no previous knowledge of the outside world. It was an appealing story that we all believed eagerly and uncritically. It wasn't until the fall of Marcos, some twenty years later, that the rather fraudulent nature of the story came to light. Whether they're right or wrong, many of the Luneau tape supporters want to believe in it a little too badly. As a kid trapping Merlins (Falco columbarius), which were outnumbered by Kestrels thirty to one, I stopped for every Kestrel that looked like it might have been a Merlin, until I realized how my own desire could shorten a bird's tail and legs in my eyes, and turn a red back gray.

The book on Ivorybills is far from closed, and Jackson makes it clear that closing it is the last thing he wants to do, but for me, the bird now recedes back into the questionable status it had for me when I painted Strange Fruit (above), in 2002. I feel no sorrow in letting go of my conviction for its existence. There's romance in the ambiguity, and I'm quite happy to be an an agnostic with respect to the Lord God Bird.
illustration: STRANGE FRUIT--IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER (2002) Acrylic 30" x 20"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

For another take on Jackson's article see my blog post of 1/21/06:


8:35 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, cyberthrush. Your post was good to read. I don't see that your take on Jackson's paper differed too much from mine, it just came from a perspective that's better informed and probably more deeply invested. Those with an interest in this subject should check out cyberthrush's ivorybill blog

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen the video Carel, and I can't be sure; not that I'm the definitive source. I will say however, that in California in the 1980s, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk with partial albinism; half a dozen white secondary feathers. I've also seen partial albinism a number of songbird species here in NY, along with a chickadee that looked "dipped in bleach"; everything faded. We'd all love for the Ivory-billed to be there (OH YES), but it's just possible that what was seen was a "Pileated with patches".

12:56 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Hi Carl! I see several pied starlings every year, and ten years ago saw a stunning white robin with some gray on its back and rufous breastband. Jackson says the records of partially albinistic Pileateds record an oddly yellow tint to the affected feathers. I've got to order a copy of the clip and bother a friend with a tv to see that thing for myself.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These were some good thoughts. Fourth paragraph, last sentence - could you please re-phrase or explain it? I couldn't figure out if you were saying that you were mistaking the Kestrels for Merlins, or vice versa (or neither). Regardless, a cool piece.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Mystery commenter! Glad you enjoyed the post...er...yeah, that sentence was kind of rough. See if you can make sense of the new one any better.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic painting...and your Merlin/Kestrel example is great. I remember looking for Merlins in Utah Valley back in the 90s and stopping for lots of kestrels in my search. Your post took me back!

10:42 AM  

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