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ABA-ok?

July 26, 2007

This post is kind of about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but not really in any in-depth way. That topic is covered extensively on other blogs and there’s likely very little I could or would want to add. My take on all that is simple; that the original sightings were exciting but a case of mis-identification gone nuts and the bird is probably extinct. That doesn’t have much bearing on this post though and this blog isn’t nor will it be about whether Ivory-bills are extant or not. This is more of a rubber-necking at a 15 car pileup kind of post.

I recently got the latest issue of Birding in the mail. The American Birding Association sends this publication out bi-monthly, but I’ve never been especially happy with their distribution schedule. They put several articles from the magazine on their website in .pdf format, these tend to go up about 3 weeks before the paper copy goes out, so by the time I actually get the magazine in my hands I’ve already read half of it so I can typically only get one day of bus-reading out of the magazine. That’s just a relatively minor gripe though. I like the ABA, certainly enough to stay a member, and I really admire their efforts to get young people into birding and conservation by extension. I was once one of those young birders and I appreciate what they did to help me.

But in the most recent issue of Birding there’s this (.pdf)

Now I like birding ID quizzes as much as, and perhaps more than, the next guy. The point of them as I see it, is to encourage you to be more aware of secondary field marks when identifying birds. In the field, the bird will move, or you can move to get a better look but practicing with ID quizzes may help you when that’s not possible. That’s all well and good and fun, but I’m not sure what the ABA is trying to do with this one. In all other ID quizzes on the ABA website, they never let you know where the photo of the bird is taken. Location can be a big clue as to the identification of the mystery bird so it makes sense to me that you wouldn’t reveal that information if you want to key on only using field marks available to you. But in this most recent bird quiz it’s explicitly noted that this photo was taken in the Choctawhatchee River basin of Florida. For those of you who haven’t been following the Ivory-bill story, that’s where Auburn University has been focusing their search. Why is the ABA giving us this particular information unless they are trying to lead us to a certain conclusion? And what exactly are they implying about what they believe? My issue is that this is really misleading. And it is intentionally pushing birders into what can be a huge identification trip-up, and what I think lies at the heart of the Ivory-bill situation, observer expectation bias. In other words, you see what you want to see regardless of what you actually see, something all birders are prone to from time to time.

Although it’s impossible now, I would be interested to see how many people would identify those birds as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers not knowing where the photo was taken. My guess is none. As it is, I’m sure that when the ABA prints the results of this photo quiz in the next issue there will be a few people who are sure, sure, that those birds are Ivory-bills based on wing length, or some imagined white patches or that they just don’t look like a Pileated… whatever, the picture isn’t good enough to be sure what those birds are and the best anyone can do is guess (incidentally, they look like Night-Herons to me).

Maybe the editors of Birding are playing on this assumption and trying to make a statement on observer expectation bias, I’ll freely admit that this exercise went over my head if that’s true. But maybe they really believe that these birds could be Ivory-bills and they’re looking for someone to back them up, I’d be disappointed if that’s the case. But what do I know? I’m just some blog-writin’ guy.

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6 Comments
  1. July 26, 2007 2:50 pm

    I saw 25 Cardinals last night. They got eaten by baby bears. I cried.

  2. July 26, 2007 2:59 pm

    Yes, I’m afraid they’ll all be gone by October…or sooner.

  3. cyberthrush permalink
    July 26, 2007 6:16 pm

    I too was initially surprised that Birding stated the location of the birds but I s’pose that:

    1) in this case, they didn’t want folks wasting time guessing species that weren’t geographically likely, and

    2) they’re pushing people to think in terms of why it can’t be an Ivory-bill (much of the recent Luneau video discussion has been in the form of ‘it can’t be an IBWO because…’)… or alternatively, come up with sound field mark reasons why it could be IBWO; and I don’t believe ‘expectation’ or ‘bias’ will play heavily into very many Birding respondents in any event (indeed, I’d expect most readers to be too timid to make a case for IBWO).

    Finally, I’ll just point out the inherent assumption being made that the 3 birds are the same — I too certainly believe they are, but there is no way to know for certain, and the top bird appears at least slightly different from the other two.

  4. July 26, 2007 7:19 pm

    they’re pushing people to think in terms of why it can’t be an Ivory-bill

    I also suspect this is closer to the case. Especially given the other article in the mag about birding by impression rather than traditional field marks.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    July 31, 2007 9:50 am

    I think they are illustrating the pitfalls of brief and highly imperfect views and bad images. Imagine this scenario:

    – The image is taken by a birder in the Choctawhatchee.

    – The photo is of just one bird. (3 Ivory-bills together is a bit tough for just about anybody to imagine.)

    – The photographer claims it’s an Ivory-bill because they saw white secondaries for an instant before they took the photo.

    How do you think this image would be received? Would a hard-core group analyze it to death and proclaim it proof that the Ivory-bill exists?

    I think this is what ABA wants birders to think about. Too many people have proclaimed the Ivory-bill to be “unmistakable”, a term that can not be accurately applied to any bird seen for 1-2 seconds.

  6. July 31, 2007 10:56 am

    I think they are illustrating the pitfalls of brief and highly imperfect views and bad images.

    Right, I hope this is the case. I think you’re saying the same thing as cyberthrush about this image. The ABA is asking us why these aren’t Ivory-bills and by extension, we should question the validity of other sightings, videos, whatever.

    How do you think this image would be received? Would a hard-core group analyze it to death and proclaim it proof that the Ivory-bill exists?

    Given your situation, I think there will always be some that would argue for the bird surviving but that group is getting smaller. From my experience just with birders I know, nearly all would say it wouldn’t cut it. The real question as I see it is whether or not it would be taken seriously by the powers in any position to determine funds for protection of endangered species.

    By referencing Choctawhatchee the ABA obviously knew people would immediately think Ivory-billed. There’s no way to know why they want us to head in that direction though, at least until they clear things up in the next issue. I would be absolutely open to your interpretation if there wasn’t a Cornell e-mail there to send analysis to. I wonder whether they’re backing off or looking to bolster what looks to be a failing argument. I can’t imagine anyone would stake anything on the photo in question though, as unclear as it is.

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