September 27, 2006

Ivory-Billed Bull $#!%


Back in April of 2004, a group of scientists from Cornell University claimed to find the an ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to be extinct for sixty years, living in the swamp lands of Southern Arkansas. The story was broadcast on the national news, cable networks, and made the front page of most major newspapers. Scientists around the world were in an uproar. The Holy Grail of the Audubon world (or The Jesus Bird, as I have unofficially named it for this post) had been found. Or had it been?

Among the swirling reports and the celebration of the The Jesus Bird's resurrection, none of the media actually stopped to thoroughly check what evidence the good people of Cornell University had to prove the bird was still in existence. Well, the evidence happened to be a few seconds of poor quality audio of a doube-knocking sound, a sound that only the The Jesus Bird makes, and a few seconds of poor quality video of a large bird flying through trees in a swamp. That was it.

As time has passed, skepticism about the existence of The Jesus Bird started to arise. There were approximately forty-one professors and scientists that claimed to have heard the double-knocking noise, yet no definitive audio existed. Also, failure by the professors to produce photographic evidence that The Jesus Bird was flying around Southern Arkansas put doubt into the minds of many of the same people that were so excited eighteen months earlier. The skeptics pointed out that The Jesus Bird and it's still thriving cousin, the pileated woodpecker, bare a striking resemblence to each other. Many false Jesus sighting have been reported over the years by people that were actually seeing the pileated woodpecker. The last confirmed Jesus sighting was in 1944.

Why doesn't more evidence exist? Is it that the universities that spend the thousands upon thousands of dollars for professors to float through Southern Arkansas swamps can't afford high-tech audio equipment to capture the double-knocking sound that so many have claimed to have heard? Are their budgets so constrained that they are unable to use a camera with higher resolution than a $30 webcam? No, money is not the issue. The reason there are no pictures or clear audio evidence that The Jesus Bird is flying around Southern Arkansas is because it isn't. The bird is extinct and has been for sixty plus years.

Other than the war in Iraq, the discovery of The Jesus Bird was the biggest story in the country on April 29, 2004. Why? Was it just because a few jokers with Ph.D.'s that were being paid to hunt for an extinct species said that they found it? Shouldn't there have been more facts put on the table before this story made national headlines? Sure, it was a great article for Audubon Magazine as a speculative piece, but did the story really need to be covered by the NY Times, CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, MSNBC, and so on? It doesn't matter. Those media outlets broadcast the story, because it was exciting. No facts required.

I suppose one reason the story took off without any evidence is because of the discovery of the Coelecanth back in 1997. The Coelecanth was a fish believed to have been extinct for 70 million years. A couple that was honeymooning in Indonesia saw the fish near the beach and posted pictures of it on the internet without knowing it was supposedly extinct. An expert saw the photos and later DNA tests confirmed that the Coelecanth was alive. Unlike The Jesus Bird, not only does photographic evidence exist of the Coelecanth, but several specimens have been retrieved from the ocean since the discovery.

Humans don't typically hang out 3-4 miles below the ocean's surface, so it is understandable that the fish could survive for so long without being spotted. Arkansas has world class duck hunting, and thousands of hunters swarm to Southern Arkansas every year from around the country. It's hard to believe that The Jesus Bird was flying around out there all of this time without one of the Elmer Fudds spotting it. Of course, the reason the bird is extinct is because of Elmer Fudds, so maybe they did see a couple.

There are still believers holding onto hope that The Jesus Bird is out there, but with the growing skepticism, professors are using a new tactic to retain their grant money. Since zero plausible evidence has come out of the expeditions in Arkansas, it was announced recently that The Jesus Bird is also living in Florida swamps. No new evidence has been produced, but many researchers will be heading to the Sunshine State to spend the upcoming winter months. Winters in Arkansas aren't horrible, but even dealing with a category 5 hurricane in Florida is better than the best day Southern Arkansas has to offer.

I did personally see an ivory-billed woodpecker about six months ago, but it was nowhere near Arkansas or Florida. I also got clear photo that nobody could refute was a picture of an ivory-billed woodpecker. However, I didn't make too much of a fuss over it, because the bird was full of cotton and sitting behind a glass at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsyvania. It was perched on a fake branch next to it's cotton-filled pileated cousin. The taxidermist had done such a great job that I could almost hear the double-knocking sound as I looked at the exhibit. Quite moving.

If you'd like to see actual footage of the ivory-billed woodpecker from 1935 (which is actually pretty interesting) or the footage from 2004 of a pileated woodpecker that Cornell claims to be Jesus, just visit this website: Cornell Lab of Orinthology

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