The New York Times has a brief article on the latest news regarding the rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Is Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Alive? A Debate Emerges.
Basically, David Sibley, author of the best field guide to North American birds, has a brief item in the current issue of Science questioning the validity of claims for recent sightings of the bird in Arkansas (Comment on “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America”).
The authors of the original Science article on the rediscovery have a response in the same issue (Response to Comment on “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America”).
Basically, Sibley’s all wet. If you read his (and his co-authors’) criticisms, and the original authors’ response, he really just flat-out loses the argument.
Since Sibley is in some ways the leading expert in the country on bird identification, his criticism is getting a lot of attention. But speaking as someone who’s been involved, at least peripherally, in the world of obsessive birders for more than 30 years, I’ve got my own take on what’s going on here.
Basically, Sibley represents the extreme example of something that turned me off from competitive birding (and yeah, for a certain type of person it actually is a competition) a long time ago. Really obsessive birders tend to be skeptical of claims made by anyone less expert than themselves. Being better at finding and identifying “good” birds (by which they mean, rarities, either birds that are locally rare because they are occurring outside their normal range, or absolute rarities, because there just aren’t very many of them) is how they measure their status, and in that scheme of things, the Ivory-Bill really is the holy grail. For someone like Sibley, the fact that he hasn’t personally seen and identified an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, while someone else claims to have done so, represents a significant challenge to his sense of self-worth.
This is the same thing that annoys me about certain way-committed skeptics of the paranormal. You can be wrong by being too skeptical, just as you can be wrong by being too credulous. Being skeptical to the point of error isn’t a virtue; you’re still wrong. That’s the trap Sibley has fallen into here.