Hitt on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s Existence (or Not)

Jack Hitt has an interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine: 13 Ways of Looking at an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. It does a good job of explaining the way that rare-bird sightings are treated in the world of high-stakes birding.

Soon after the original declaration of the discovery was made last April, controversy broke out, and it quickly got nasty. The ugliness derives from something deep in the heart of birding. Most people think of birding as either a science worthy of a word like “ornithology” or a harmless hobby pursued by rubber-faced old men in porkpie hats. But the act of birding, ultimately, is an act of storytelling. For instance, if someone said to you, “I saw this cardinal fly out of nowhere with yellow tips on its wings and land on the side of a tree,” even the least experienced amateur would counter that cardinals don’t have yellow wingtips and don’t cling to trees but rather perch on branches. Each bird is a tiny protagonist in a tale of natural history, the story of a niche told in a vivid language of color, wing shape, body design, habitat, bill size, movement, flying style and perching habits. The more you know about each individual bird, the better you are at telling this tale.

Claiming to have seen rare birds requires a more delicate form of storytelling and implies a connoisseur’s depth of knowledge. Saying “I saw an ivory-bill’s long black neck and white trailing feathers” requires roughly the same panache as tasting an ancient Bordeaux and discoursing on its notes of nougat and hints of barnyard hay.

If you don’t pull it off, then people presume that you are lying or stupid. And this is where birding gets personal. Telling a rare-bird-sighting story is to ask people to honor your ability as a birder — to trust you, to believe you.

Hitt tells a subtle tale himself about the people who have claimed to see an Ivory-billed recently, offering damning details about their long-held desire to see the bird and their association with the fringe elements of the cryptozoology set. As I’ve described in comments at Tom Nelson’s Ivory-bill Skeptic blog, I don’t think the case against the Ivory-billed’s rediscovery is anywhere near as strong as skeptics have been making out. But this article by Hitt does a good job of explaining why that skepticism exists.

One Response to “Hitt on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s Existence (or Not)”

  1. treehugger Says:

    I actually don’t know much about this brid, other than it is really cool looking. But I read a story about the search for the bird today on CNN:



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