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.
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.