The Ivory Billed Woodpecker: Beyond the Field Guide
An interview with Dr. Jerome Jackson, author of In Search of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, A NatureSkills.com exclusive.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you encountered something truly odd, unbelievably amazing, or possibly impossible while out in nature? On top of that, what if you could not verify what you observed with information from any field guide? What if, for example, you sight an animal that everyone believes to be extinct?
If that day ever comes, your growing ability to make observations beyond what the field guides say, and your ability to describe in your own words the details of what you are seeing, will serve you well. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend an afternoon with Dr. Jerry Jackson, known as “Mr. Ivory Billed Woodpecker,” author of In Search of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
Jerry is a recognized leader engaged in a lifelong search for what many call the ornithologist’s “holy grail,” a bird that may or may not still exist on this earth. Since the Ivory bill has been a quest for many birders and organizations for decades (and has been front-page news recently), I knew Jerry’s office must be flooded with reported sightings. I figured if anyone could answer my questions about what makes an amateur sighting of a supposedly extinct creature credible to top scientists, he could.
First, Jerry assured me, you don’t have to be a recognized “expert” or have any fancy degrees or credentials to be able to contribute. By virtue of living where you live and knowing what is going on in your backyard, you should feel empowered to share what you see if you find something to report. “People like you and me are citizens,” Jerry insists, “We should be listened to and respected.” Jerry is a leading scientist who prefers to be called by his first name. I have met other scientific leaders like him who are in fact very open to information from anyone who can make a case for what they are saying. We should all be encouraged by this.
However, I knew Jerry’s office couldn’t possibly have time to follow up on all the reports he receives. I figured he must have a way to sort the most reliable citizen reports from the rest. I asked, “Jerry, how do you filter out the promising sightings, ones you will follow up on, from all the others? For example, what’s a red flag for you that a reported sighting is probably not worth following up on? ”
“If they quote verbatim from the field guide.”
“Why is that a red flag?”
“Because people can convince themselves of anything. For example, I’ve been birding since the 1950s. In the mid-1960s I was asked to accompany some older birders on a Christmas Bird Count. They wanted someone with some ‘expertise’ and knew that I had just taken a course in ornithology. It was a snowy winter day and we were driving along a dirt road next to a harvested corn field. Across the field, I spotted what I was sure was a wild turkey. We stopped the car and the six of us cautiously slipped out of the doors on the opposite side of the car. We all viewed the bird through our binoculars, and we all agreed it was a turkey. We enjoyed watching it for awhile. We got back in the car, and drove another hundred yards when I saw there was a lane that crossed the field towards our turkey. I suggested that we slowly drive down that lane and that perhaps I could get a photo of the bird. When we got within about 70 yards and raised our binoculars, we were most surprised to find our “turkey” was a stump with a branch sticking up next to it that had two red leaves blowing in the wind!” We laugh together. (I do not mention the time I mistook an armadillo for a bear.)
“Well then,” I asked, “at the opposite end of the spectrum, what kind of citizen report would get you to bolt out of the office to follow up in the field?
“The most convincing report I ever got came from a lady who lived at the edge of the Pascagoula Swamp in Mississippi. She said she had just seen two of the biggest woodpeckers she had ever seen. She described their behavior, and the white on the wings. But that could still be a pileated woodpecker. But then she said something really interesting: that these birds made strange noises, like the honking of a goose. I had never heard or read of anyone who described the “kent” calls of an Ivory billed woodpecker as sounding like the honking of a goose, but indeed, they do sound like that. I left for the Pascagoula Swamp immediately. To this day I believe she may have seen them.”
Jerry is known for his questioning of the controversial new evidence regarding recent Ivory billed woodpecker reports from other scientists. But he is obviously still moved and shaken by this woman’s amateur sighting some time ago. “Jerry, why was hers such a compelling report?”
“It was her statement about the ‘honking woodpeckers.’ Pileated woodpeckers make no sound like that, but Ivory billed woodpeckers do. Her description was perfect—and not in any field guide.”