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Are they what?

August 26, 2007

I suppose this(pdf) bears mentioning*. The new issue of Birding is online, which means I ought to get my paper copy in about 6 weeks.

*The link no longer goes anywhere and the “Are they Ivory-bills” photos are nowhere to be seen.

Woodpecker stuff has been coming fast and furious recently. From Hill’s AOU meeting to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s asinine “recovery” plan to the Science article suggesting Cornell’s Fitzgerald was involved in selling the woodpecker story knowing full well his evidence was crap and proved nothing. It’s pretty devastating. It’s perhaps appropriate though, that this latest cycle looks to end where it began, with the ABA’s ill-considered photo quiz.

The editors explain themselves without really explaining themselves. They simply thank those who responded and printed those that met whatever unexplained criteria they held them to. Those that will be actually published on paper in the magazine exclude all that identified the birds as Ivory-bills (I predicted that here) and those that stated the birds could not be identified, an opinion that should not have been restricted to the webextra. I found it interesting the number of respondents who considered the birds woodpeckers at all (a full third of those who responded), as if either Pileated or Ivory-bill were the only options. As suspected those that claim Ivory-bills use any number of imagined and un-substantiatable field marks from white trailing edges (which end is trailing again?) to habitat (as if birds can’t fly) to wings that taper to a rounded point (ruling out the pointy-winged Pileated no doubt).

It reads as though the editors intend to spin this as an interesting look into the psyche of birders with regards to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. They attempt to reserve the right to stay out of the fray, characterizing “The Great Ivory-bill Debate” as uncivil and psychotic. In my opinion, they lost that right when Hill presented the very same photo as suggestive of Ivory-bills at the AOU meeting. They wanted ABA members to corroborate Hill’s evidence, but that ship has long since sailed. Sure the debate has had some moments of high passion, but no amount of internet debate sinks so low as Fitzgerald’s attempt to silence his critics. When real-world money is stripped from studies on real-world endangered species to go to some wild woodpecker chase people are going to get pissed, and not just those who find their projects short on cash, but all those in this and other countries who care about birds, wildlife, and science. Basically, the same sort of folks who form the ABA’s membership. The searches by Cornell and Auburn are different animals to be sure and I’ve hesitated to throw them together, but tacit endorsement of one can be perceived as the same of the other, especially when it’s in the mouthpiece of the premier organization in the nation for birders.

Throughout last year, Birding published a six part history of the ABA. The series was revealing for someone like me, far too young to remember the early years when the ABA was such an influence on the culture of birding as it exists today. It was impossible not to compare that grass-roots organization with the corporate birding behemoth so many of us are a member of out of obligation now. I wonder if those birders involved in the early years of the ABA would have been so accomodating to the game the Ivory-bill searchers are playing. Reluctance to alienate any member has put ABA Co. in the awkward position of trying to find the compromise between a stance that is increasingly correct and one that is embarrasingly wrong. The ABA needs to publically pick a side on this, if for no other reason than to indicate to those of us who are losing faith in the organization that it’s still relevant.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 27, 2007 2:12 pm

    I’m one of those people who was involved in the earliest days of ABA. Long ago I deserted the ship, and I’m hardly alone. Now I can only quote Macbeth, “It is … full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.”

    The picture? Not worth wasting my energy. The three flying images might as well be headed to Roswell, NM.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    August 27, 2007 4:53 pm

    Of all the organizations I am a member of, the ABA is the most consistently a disappointment. I honestly couldn’t give a rip though if “they” enter the fray on the IBWO mess or not. The ABA is pretty much a magazine and newsletter I subscribe to. I don’t pretend that it is a community or an actual interactive group, and I couldn’t care less what the leadership thinks about much of anything. I know that its main purpose is to make cash money off older, wealthy birders through tours and conventions that the bulk of the membership has no hope of affording. My favorite bit of irony–most of the guides and others who pre-scout these events couldn’t afford to attend them if they weren’t working them. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the ABA to say or do anything of any consequence.

    p.s. I had no idea what was in the photo, but after reading the various guesses I think the egret answers make the most sense. What is truly noteworthy is the confidence that some had in IDing them as IBWOs.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    August 27, 2007 5:15 pm


    I’m the same anonymous that wrote comment #2 directly above this comment. I hadn’t visited your blog before today and just now read your July 26 post about the ABA.

    You and I had very different experiences with the ABA and being a young birder. I’m still a relatively young birder–easily one of the 10 youngest active birders in my state despite that I’m a shade over 30. I started birding when I was 18, joined the ABA around 20-21. ABA does some good things to encourage teenage birders. But n8, what is the message someone in their early 20’s gets from the ABA? Despite the fact that this is probably the age where the combination of physical ability, talent, experience, and time in the field start to peak, this age group is pretty much ignored by the ABA. You’re too old for all the young birder stuff. But you can’t possibly afford to attend a conference or tour type event. You are pretty much tossed aside until you are older and making some money and then you are of interest to the ABA again. I think the ABA is a horrible organization for young people; possibly the worst I have been a part of. Yet, they are the only game in town, so they still get my money every year. Reading Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway account of the Kenmare ABA convention and the early days of the ABA made me want to cry. Birders are wonderful people and extremely generous to younger birders–what the hell happened to our organization? Sorry to hog your blog–the ABA just gets me riled up.

  4. August 27, 2007 5:53 pm

    But n8, what is the message someone in their early 20’s gets from the ABA? …this age group is pretty much ignored by the ABA.

    I agree, they’re the only game in town. The ABA helped me as a young birder to attend Camp Chiricahua in Arizona, it still is one of the best experiences I’ve had as a birder, and perhaps my nostalgic feelings from that time temper my anger at what the organization has become. As much as I want to buy books from ABA sales, I take the better deals as I can get them on Amazon. I hear you, I’m a young professional / graduate student, the trips are well out of my reach. A young birder’s conference in Ecuador? Gimme a break.

    They’re more about the money than the birds now, the same thing is playing out in the IBWO mess. $28,000,000 is about to be thrown down that rabbit hole that is the woodpecker hunt. How much good would that do for conservation efforts for actual living birds? And now, the organization that says it’s all about birds, sits back and acts like this is all a stupid photo quiz game when they can rally the troops to stop this boondoggle. They still fancy themselves the top birder’s organization, they should have an obligation to damn well act like it. I’m sure most of the folks that work for the ABA think this IBWO thing is a joke, at least I hope so, but they’re too afraid of losing any more true-believer members to do anything. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

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