Friday, September 07, 2007


bOOK review by your correspondent... published in British Birds

Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness.

Geoffrey E. Hill

Oxford University Press, 2007.

ISBN 978-0-19-532346-7

260 pp.

B+w photos and line figs.


This book describes year 1 (winter of 2005/6) of the search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers Campephilus principalis along the Choctawhatchee River woodlands in Florida. Written by the leader of the search team, ornithologist Geoffrey Hill from Auburn University, it is a personal and partly autobiographical account of the background to Hill's interest in ivorybills, culminating in the surprising claims of sightings of the birds. The narrative also tackles the political and human aspects surrounding the birds: openly critical of Cornell University's overstatement of the evidence for the persistence of ivorybills in 2004/5 in Arkansas, and with more than a hint of envy at the political clout carried by big names at fashionable Ivy League Universities. It is, as stated by the author, primarily a human story. That much is true - it is nothing to do with the birds, which almost certainly went extinct many years ago. It is a birding tale, and anyone who has ever found themselves lost and miles from the car as dusk starts to fall will feel for the book's characters as they navigate their way by looking for a banana they left hanging in a tree on the way out. You cannot help but like the people involved and admire their determination. There is an argument that the book could have waited for a year or two until a more reflective assessment of the search and its results could be made. But when ornithological archaeologists of the future pick over the wreckage of the ivorybill 'rediscovery' they will be grateful for the immediacy of the moment captured here. Maybe it will go some way to explaining the psychology of birding, and how expectation and excitement can potentially bias the records of experienced and competent observers.


John said...

So would it be fair to say that the lessons you took from the book were not one the ones intended by the author?

Considering that the ivory-bill undiscovery seems to be the real story here, I don't see how this book could be relevant (now or in the future) to anything except the history of blunder. But I admire your didn't come right out and say it sucks...

cyberthrush said...

until comprehensive searches of several areas are completed the Ivory-bill saga is far from over (indeed it's barely begun); it's all-too-easy to criticize from the comfort of an armchair those in the field doing the necessary difficult work or those making IBWO claims, but passing final judgments based on such limited and controversial data isn't good science. More reports, plans, and searches are on the way, as the scientific effort proceeds.

dnolin said...


While Cyberthrush has a point I gather from your blog that you don't spend much time in an armchair but do spend a lot of time in the field birding.

That said, if you want to join me on an ibwo trip this spring I'll put you up at my place. You'll be able to experience the challenges and rewards of searching in a southern river swamp. I can guarantee prothonotary warbler and a whole bunch of other stuff that doesn't get to that side of the pond.

Martin said...

Mmmmm I rather fancy a couple of weeks in the swamp. Of course, if I see an IBWO I'll suppress it.