Thursday, 26 March 2015

Birdwatch - latest editorial

April 2015 | Issue 274

Ten years ago this month, the world woke to news that Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long thought extinct, had been rediscovered in the southern United States. Amid great fanfare, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology presented the findings from a year-long search by field teams in Arkansas. However, the initial excitement was soon followed by debate about the ‘evidence’ – largely difficult-to-interpret video clips and sound recordings captured by remote devices. For many, the euphoria was replaced by doubt, and ultimately – in the absence of any subsequent sightings – disbelief. Today, the evidence “remains highly controversial”, in the words of BirdLife International.

A decade on, another ‘rediscovery’ is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. But the saga of the Night Parrot in Australia is altogether different, revolving around claims from a controversial figure who has largely withheld evidence from public scrutiny on the grounds of a media tie-up – despite concerns that the species may persist only on unprotected land owned by commercial interests.

Perhaps the key point here is that, while there is an accepted peer-reviewed process for describing species new to science, rediscoveries lack the same procedural scrutiny. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker claims were central to more than $20 million being spent by federal and state governments on recovery efforts before the saga descended into the realm of cryptozoology. In Australia, the future of the Night Parrot appears closely linked to the motives of its ‘rediscoverer’, who reportedly took thousands of dollars in admission fees at his last ‘presentation’ event but continues to keep most of the facts private.

These episodes point to a need for some kind of ornithological ‘treasure trove’ agreement, applicable internationally, which ensures that evidence for claimed rediscoveries is assessed and verified independently, and through which plans to protect such species are developed and publicly embraced. That way, such iconic birds on the edge surely have their best chance of survival.

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