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Eureka! Dilemma dissolved

I can’t understand how imminent ornithologists, in particular, and biologists, scientists and researchers in general have overlooked the obvious truth regarding the newly rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker. By borrowing a well established principle from the arena of philosophy and applying it to the biological world it is easy to see the reality here. “Ockham’s razor” a theory named after 14th century philosopher William of Ockham basically states that the best explanation for almost any puzzling phenomenon is usually the simplest one.

The announcement of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, in the Big Woods of Arkansas in the spring of 2005 — the discovery was actually made in 2004 but for various reasons wasn’t announced until 2005 — has definitely presented a quandary for ornithologists and biologists.

The lack of irrefutable physical evidence documenting the Big Woods bird has left a growing number of skeptics questioning the claim. The problem seems to be the bird’s innate ability to escape detection. Despite dozens of reported sightings, researchers have only been able to produce one fuzzy video and a few suspect sound recordings.

This is in direct opposition to the last known — documented — population of ivory-billeds from the Singer Tract in northeastern Louisiana in the late 1930s, early 1940s. Late Cornell ornithologist James Tanner spent a couple of years in the Singer Tract studying, photographing and recording the gregarious noisy woodpeckers.

So, here is the dilemma: from the 30s and 40s we have ivory-billed woodpeckers documented and photographed by Cornell ornithologist James Tanner; from the 2000s we have an announcement of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker by prominent ornithologist John Fitzpatrick of the same esteemed institution of Cornell, only the bird now is a will-o-the-wisp, virtually impossible to document.

Apply Ockham’s razor and, voila, the dilemma is solved: The ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis is extinct. Long live the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus willowispis. Face it, the Singer Tract birds were positively identified and surely Cornell couldn’t be mistaken about the Arkansas birds. The answer: We’re talking about two different species.

It is not uncommon in the birding world to have species that are virtually indistinguishable in the field except for vocalizations. Here in Western North Carolina we have alder flycatchers, Empidonax alnorum and willow flycatchers, Empidonax traillii, that can only be distinguished in the field by voice. This could account for the fact that recordings of “kent” calls from Arkansas don’t match kent calls from the Singer Tract.

The blurry video can be explained by another biological oddity known as the Sasquatch phenomenon. Over the years there have been hundreds of reported sightings of Bigfoot, Sasquatchii blurryious. But each time the image is captured by camera or video it comes out blurred. Scientists are not sure, but there is evidence that points to a “blurry” gene that may be responsible for this. They believe it may be a type of biological mimicry. But instead of mimicking other species, this gene mimics aspects of the environment allowing the blurry Bigfoot to blend into the forest undergrowth and the blurry ivory-billed to be virtually invisible when perched on a tree trunk.

This helps clear up a lot of the skepticism. The bird reported from Arkansas is the smart ivory-billed woodpecker, C. willowispis. It is wary, it has always been wary and that is why it has never before been documented.

Whenever you are in the forest and think you hear, or “feel” or just somehow get the sense that there is a large (30-inch) woodpecker present but when you look up you see nothing it is most likely the newly discovered “smart” ivory-billed. If you are fortunate enough to see a large blurry woodpecker flapping away through the treetops — that is definitely C. willowispis.

It’s easy to see how this wary bird escaped detection for so long. They were smart enough to hang out with the dumb ivory-billeds, C. principalis, so when people would hear large woodpeckers and look, they would see “dumb” ivory-billeds.

If it weren’t for the extinction of C. principalis, C. willowispis would probably never have been discovered.

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