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A Few Questions For Geoffrey E. Hill

Geoffrey E. Hill author of Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness is the Scharnagel Professor of Biology at Auburn University. Hill spent a year in the swamps of northern Florida looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and his adventures are relayed in his new book. Below Hill takes the time to answer some of our questions.

OUP: Has finding Ivory-billed Woodpeckers been a goal of yours for a long time?

Geoffrey E. Hill: Yes and no. I teach ornithology at Auburn University and every spring I do a section on extinct birds. I’ve always included the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in this discussion, instructing my classes that this is one “extinct” bird that might still exist.

Every spring during the week of that lecture I’d read about ivorybills and think about looking for them in some of the little-known swamp areas south of Auburn. I never actually acted on these daydreams, though. Until I heard the announcement that ivorybills had been discovered in Arkansas, I had spent zero time looking for them. As part of a songbird study I had even spent a couple of weeks in 2001 in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile, a spot with ivorybill potential, but while I was in that forest, ivorybills never crossed my mind.

hill-jacket.jpgOUP: What guides do you use when you’re birding?

Hill: When I’m teaching novices how to identify birds, I refer either to eastern Peterson (A Field Guide to the Birds: Of Eastern and Central North America) or the eastern Sibley (Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America). Sibley shows more plumage variation and I find his illustration style very pleasant, but nobody draws a bird like Peterson. I think Peterson captures the essence of a bird better than any other field guide illustrator and I think that Peterson is still the best guide for beginners. Eastern Peterson is not particularly good for tough bird identifications like when you’re sorting through flocks of shorebirds or gulls. When I’m faced with identification challenges, I usually refer to the National Geographic Guide or Sibley Guide to Birds.

OUP: If there is a population of ivorybills in Florida, why are there no efforts to protect the land like in Arkansas?

Hill: We haven’t proven that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers exist in Florida. The groups and individuals that might be willing to purchase land to protect a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers like the Nature Conservancy, Nokuse Plantation, and state and federal agencies are all waiting for us to come forth with definitive proof. There is no imminent threat to most of the forested wetlands along the Choctawhatchee River. About 80% of the swamp forest is owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, and they will preserve the forest whether or not we get definitive evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

OUP: Have you invited any professional photographers down who are well known for photographing illusive birds?

Hill: In the year of searching that my book covers, our small search team included mediocre amateur photographers using poor equipment. We had several opportunities to photograph ivorybills and we missed every chance except the poor amateurish video that I captured in May 2006.

For the 2006/2007 search season, we invited anyone who was interested to join our search, and several excellent photographers have been in the swamp. My friend, Dr. Bruce Lyon, is an excellent professional bird photographer as well as an ornithology professor, and he has spent about three weeks searching for ivorybills with my crew. Alan Degan, a well-known wildlife cameraman, has also been working with my crew for much of the winter. No professional photographer has yet had an opportunity to photograph an ivorybill.

OUP: What do you think will happen if years go by and there is no visual evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers? Do you think there could be a backlash?

Hill: If we go a couple more years without proof that at least one Ivory-billed Woodpecker still lives in North America, I think that claims of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will lose all veracity. Certainly funding for further searchers for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will dry up completely. Arguments for preserving forested wetlands for ivorybill habitat will no longer be taken seriously. I wouldn’t call this backlash. I would call it a reasonable response to the failure of the academic and bird watching communities to prove the existence of a vertebrate species.

There has been some backlash from the premature claim of proof of ivorybills in Arkansas in 2005. The failure of the Luneau video to bring the ornithological community to a consensus regarding the existence of ivorybills means that any future evidence will have to be of exceptional quality before it will be widely accepted as proof. Even a pretty good photograph or video of an ivorybill showing one or two diagnostic features may now be rejected because we simply can’t have further published claims of proof that end up being reasonably questioned.

OUP: The cynic would say this is not science. This is pr fundraising at its best. Do you have a word or two for them?

Hill: In my book I state emphatically that ivorybill hunting is not science—that’s not really a biting criticism. The criticism that is biting is the accusation that ivorybill searches have been dishonest and deliberately misleading and that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been used as an excuse to raise money, enforce conservation agendas, and make people rich.

In our search for Ivory-billed Woodpecker, we have been as honest and open in our search as possible. We show the evidence that we have and present our interpretation, but all the evidence is accessible for alternative interpretations. We have run our search on a modest budget. I’ve taken no salary or personal money for my part in the search; my grad students get paid the same RA salary as any other grad student at Auburn University (which isn’t much); and the technicians who live in the swamp make $1200 per month with no benefits, no housing allowance, no food allowance. No one searching for these birds in Florida is making money off the ivorybill.

Dr. John Fitzpatrick and the ivorybill team at the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell are as honest and devoted a group of ornithologists and ecologists as exists in the country. In my opinion the Cornell group made one honest mistake—they convinced themselves that the Luneau video constituted definitive evidence for a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker and they published it as such. This was not a conspiracy. Every person who put his or her name on that Science paper claiming proof of ivorybills was certain that the bird in the video was an ivorybill. The assertion by the authors of the Science paper that the bird in the video is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker has not been proven wrong. What has been proven wrong is that the video constitutes indisputable evidence.

There is nothing unusual about this sort of argument among ornithologists. If the Cornell group had published “definitive” DNA evidence that Yellow-breasted Chats are wood warblers but other ornithologists looked at the data and published strong dissenting opinions that Yellow-breasted Chats are buntings, no one would claim a conspiracy. It would just be a difference in interpretation of data by ornithologists. The argument about the identity of the bird in the Luneau video is really the same sort of academic debate—its just played out in the media and it’s the one ornithology debate that the lay publics has actually paid attention to.

OUP: Can you tell us what were the key things that refuted the evidence of an ivorybill in Arkansas?

Hill: I can’t provide any technical comments on the Luneau video. It basically comes down to whether you see a white trailing edge on a black wing. Some see it. Some don’t. I see it some days. Some days I don’t.

The thing that I feel is most damning to the Arkansas evidence, and now to our claim of ivorybills in Florida, is the failure of large organized searches to obtain a clear photo or video of the bird. I think skeptics can reasonably point to that failure as evidence that ivorybills no longer exist.

OUP: Do you think it was fair to come forward before you had irrefutable proof?

Hill: I’m not sure to whom we may have been fair or unfair. We didn’t come forward until we had made a hard effort for an entire winter to attain definitive evidence. At the end of that first year’s search, which is the end of IVORYBILL HUNTERS, we had a lot of evidence but no proof. Without funding we couldn’t continue to search, so our choice was either to bury our evidence or come forward. I felt that it would be irresponsible for me as a professional ornithologist not to present our evidence for the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. I still have not heard a reasonable explanation for the sounds that we have recorded other than the presence of ivorybills.

OUP: Are you still out in the field actively searching?

Hill: Since New Years 2007 I’ve been able to search about three weekends per month. I have a lot of organizational duties that distract from my time in a kayak, but I participate in the search as much as I can.

OUP: What was your best day in the pursuit of the ivorybill?

Hill: My best day was January 21, 2006, the day I got a clear look at an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

I have enjoyed most days that I’ve been in the forest along the river. Search days in 2005/2006 were especially pleasant because the region was so peaceful. We were the only birders within 50 miles of Bruce Creek. This year there are a lot more searchers in the swamp, but I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the members of our team. They are a wonderful group of people and evenings around the campfire this year have really been a lot of fun.

Recent Comments

  1. Don Hendershot

    Wow! where to begin?

    Hill avowed in his book on page 230 “……First, I still think there is at least one pair on the west side of the river at Bruce Creek and one pair across the river along Carlisle Lakes. Then I’d say a pair at Cow Lake, two pairs in that vast forest along the channel we paddled yesterday, a pair at Lost Lake near Tilley Landing, a pair in the Reason’s Lake area, a pair on Cowford Island, and a pair around Horseshoe Bend. That’s nine pairs, and I’d say we’ve glimpsed less than 25% of this swamp…”

    So that’s 18 crow-sized woodpeckers in the region that Hill et al are searching with not only foot troops but remote cameras & remote listening devices and they have no definitive evidence.

    Now, I only have a BS in biology not a PHD but unless there is some kind of ivory-billed “immacualte conception” those 18 birds had to come from somewhere.

    Acording to Tanner ‘ Between 1931 and 1939, at least 19 young in 9 broods were observed out of the nest, averaging 2.11 young/brood.”

    So with 9 pairs averaging 2.11 brood your looking at 36.99 crow-sized woodpeckers that defy being photographed.

    But zero IBWO probaly = zero book sales. Somebody help me here.

  2. Dan Jones

    I hope Don and others who appear so doubting will admit maybe they were wrong on this one and shift their dubious nature to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Nascar. Who knows, maybe even Mr. Sibley might say they exist.

  3. David Cree

    I searched Tilley landing, Bruce Creek and a few other likely locations in Jan of 2008. I met with Dr. Hill, Brian Rolek and the rest of his team.
    I also met several other volunteers such as myself including Mike Collins with the Navy Dept in D.C.

    After spending a week with these folks, talking with Mike Collins–even though I personally neither saw nor heard an Ivorybill, am TOTALLY 100% convinced these birds do indeed still exist.

    As a bird photographer with $15,000 + in the finest equipment one can buy, I was prepared to get that ONE, DEFINITIVE PROOF shot for Dr. Hill.

    It did not happen–but someone is going to get that picture–some day. I used amplified directional listening devices with attached recorder. I heard Barred Owls and Pileated Woodpeckers EVERY DAY throughout the day.

    I NEVER saw either species!!!! Let alone get a photo of either.

    The Ivorbill is one WARY bird—You’d be too, if all anyone wanted was your skin for his bird collection cabinet!!!!

    They are SUPER FEARFUL of MAN!!!! That’s why they are in areas where there’s NONE of US!!!!!!

    Be patient. We are going to get that photo!!!

    David Cree
    Peachtree City, GA

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