According to the New York Times, David Sibley, the dean of modern bird illustrators, writes in the March 17th edition of the journal Science that a key piece of evidence purporting to show an Ivory-billed woodpecker in the swamps of Arkansas is a case of mistaken identity. According to Sibley and his co-authors, a grainy video made on April 25, 2004, by M. David Luneau Jr., an engineering professor at the University of Arkansas "almost certainly" shows a Pileated Woodpecker and not an Ivory-billed.
Luneau's film is not the only evidence, nor is this the first time members of the ornithological community have challenged the conclusions of the research team from Cornell Labs that announced the discovery of at least one ivory-billed woodpecker in central Arkansas. Like the inconclusive evidence of mountain lions in the northeast United States, there is still disagreement as to whether a viable population of ivory-bill could still persist with the near total destruction of its required habitat, and in the absence of other, expected evidence that is still lacking, such as its characteristic drill holes in the sides of trees. Apparently, the key area of dispute over the Luneau film is whether it shows white wing patches over black on the downbeat, or black patches over white. To me, stopping the video frame by frame, it's a blur of white with black tips, but I am not qualified to make a determination one way or the other.
What I can address is the idea of the ivory-bill, what it represents to conservationists and land managers. It speaks to a powerful theme of Paradise Lost and redeemed that is deeply ingrained in our modern view of the environment. It's a parable straight from The Lorax, a truffula seed tossed to the little boy by the Once-ler. Never mind that one seed does not a viable population make. Otherwise, the last passenger pigeon would not have died alone in the Cincinnati Zoo. When we are so clearly the agents of the extinction of charismatic fauna, a second chance is like the second coming.
Why do many Modern North American bird guides (but intriguingly, not Sibley's) still show the extinct Great Auk, the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon? Should safari guides in Southern Africa illustrate the Quagga and the Black-maned Lion, both hunted to extinction in relatively recent history?
The quagga, incidentally, is thought to have been a subspecies of the wide-ranging Burchell's Zebra with pronounced stripes extending only to mid-flank. A selective breeding program is trying to recreate quagga-like animals with that pattern, if not quite identical DNA. Restoring the American chestnut forest and American elms in our rural landscapes with disease resistant cultivars is another powerful motivator for some conservationists.
The dream of re-establishing lost species is not limited to selective breeding. An embryo with cloned mammoth DNA gestated by a modern Elephant host is the goal of some researchers. A distinctly masculine desire to create new life has deep roots in western thought. The golum of the Hebrew Bible, Mary Shelley's monster, and even Jurassic Park are elements in a continuum of cautionary tales about the use of forbidden knowledge to mimic creation.
We want a world that despite our rapacious consumption and ability to access its most remote reaches can still harbor surprises. What the Dark Continent represented to Victorian discoverers is today echoed in going over old ground to find new frontiers. We seek out the remnants of eastern old growth that somehow evaded our ancestors' axes, eagerly inventory rare species occurrences where none had been previously confirmed. We delight in the discovery today of new species unknown to science, even as we lose unknown species by the tens of thousands to extinction before they will ever be described with scientific nomenclature.
Science must be objective, its methods clearly reasoned and subject to peer review. But scientists are hardly dispassionate themselves. Whether or not the Luneau film shows a Pileated woodpecker or an Ivory-bill will remain an open and hotly contested question. Believing the ivory-bill is still out there has powerful appeal. Whether or not there is irrefutable proof of its existence, the ivory-bill story reinforces the conservation value of ecosystem-scale habitat protection, even when all of its the beneficiaries have not been enumerated.