National Geographic : 2006 Dec
goal of determining once and for all whether the ivorybill lives. Cornell plans to send out a travel ing SWAT team to advise local searchers in places such as Florida's Choctawhatchee River Basin, site of a flurry of recent unconfirmed sightings. As Ron Rohrbaugh says, Cornell has developed some "pretty sophisticated" technology to search for ivorybills. That technology, though, works for both positive and negative results. Remote cam era techniques painstakingly created by the search team have shown that the kind of bark scaling once thought to be the work of ivorybills is also commonly done by pileateds. High-tech audio analysis has shown how many species of com mon birds-especially blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, and red-winged blackbirds-make sounds that can fool a listener into thinking that an ivorybill was the source. (Understandably, some believers ask how blue jays, noted mimics, could imitate a bird that had been extinct for As more and more experts examined the evidence-seven fleeting glimpses and four seconds of fuzzy video that make the notorious Bigfoot film look like March of the Penguins -the controversy escalated. decades.) Either way, Cornell's improved tech niques could end up, during upcoming region wide searching, primarily gathering evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct. There's more at stake here than the existence or absence of a single species. University of Kansas ornithologist Mark Robbins, one of Cor nell's most acerbic critics, says he got involved in the controversy primarily "because I'm so dis gusted that we're taking money from species that aren't extinct, that are in trouble" elsewhere in the federal endangered species program. A serious push has been under way in Con gress for some time to revise the Endangered Species Act (eviscerate it, conservationists say), and some worry that the ivorybill episode could give ammunition to politicians and pundits who might claim that environmentalists overreact, abuse and manipulate science, and use scare tactics to achieve their goals. 156 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * DECEMBER 2006 David Sibley isn't completely gloomy, though. He says that as long as the situation "doesn't blow up into some conspiracy theory or scandal that's going to damage conservation, I think that in the long run some good will come out of it. I have a lot of faith in people and our ability to move on from things like this. I think that the attention that has been focused on the Big Woods and the habitat is good." That attention is what Cornell's John Fitz patrick was talking about when he said, "This is a conservation story and a science story, not a bird-watching story." Skeptics charge that Fitz patrick is guilty of "mission creep," changing the focus of the project to distract from the possi bility that the ivorybill doesn't exist. It might be partly true-but I will testify that he's been saying the same thing from the day I met him back in March 2004. In that time of excitement and confidence, he repeatedly used the analogy that "the media totally missed the story on the spotted owl." The issue wasn't "the poor little brown-eyed bird," he said, but the ongoing destruction of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The issue with the ivorybill, he said, is expanding the protected areas in the Big Woods of Arkansas. "Is it possible," Fitzpatrick asks, "that we could bring back in the United States of America one big piece of land that looks like it did when Audubon was here? The answer is yes. There's the place to do it. And whether or not the ivory bill ends up persisting out there is totally irrel evant. What the ivorybill tells us is not irrelevant. It tells us that we have opportunities that we can take, or we can not take. We should take them." Many would agree that conserving the Big Woods is an admirable goal. It might be argued, though, that the existence of the ivorybill is hard ly irrelevant to the people who cried when they heard of its rediscovery, or to the people linked to the story. Melanie Driscoll was recruited for a secret assignment and watched a bird fly across a forest opening for about four seconds. She believes in the sightings that were the basis of the rediscovery announcement, but she's also realistic enough to give voice to the possibility that, if the ivorybill isn't seen again, history will say that "this was mass hysteria, that nobody saw what they thought they saw, that the ivorybill did go extinct 60 years ago, or 25 years ago, and we just didn't know it at the time."