Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: The Scientific Process and How It Relates to Everyday Life

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

The Case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: The Scientific Process and How It Relates to Everyday Life

Article excerpt


In this case study, based on the reported rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in April 2005, students examine a real-world example of the scientific process and explore the practical implications of their conclusions. The case tells the story of Brad Murky, a student and research assistant who must decide whether the available evidence is sufficient for him to accept the bird's existence. In a series of e-mails, Brad and his sister debate the evidence, and Brad is left to wonder whether the press conference called to announce the rediscovery of the bird has been scheduled in haste.

The case

Part I--Background

Brad Murky, a graduate student in conservation biology at Cornell University, had been involved for nearly a year in a highly secretive research project taking place in a tupelo swamp of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. In the early 20th century, the eastern

Arkansas forests were heavily logged to remove most of the large, old trees for timber. Along with the trees went one of the most majestic of all birds found in Arkansas, a bird so impressive that people exclaimed "Lord God" when they saw it fly. Now and again reports of the bird were made, but dismissed as rumors. But now, Brad's efforts and those of his mentors had paid off, yielding a huge discovery--a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker--a bird not documented in North America since 1944. The elusive bird had been captured on video a year earlier, and Brad's team had decided that they now had enough evidence to go public. Brad's elation was unrestrained as he envisioned the history he and his team were making.

Those jubilant feelings, however, had been invaded by a trace of doubt that was increasingly bothering him. Brad stared vacantly at the camera lights for the upcoming press conference and thought back to the e-mail exchange with his sister that had occurred over the past two days.


What evidence would convince you that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not extinct?

Part II--The main evidence

Message 1: Brad's first e-mail to Mary

4/26/05 12:15 p.m. Hey Mary---Things have been crazy here since we decided to go public with our evidence. I wish you could be here---it is so amazing to be part of this huge scientific discovery!!! I am sending you one of our key pieces of evidence, a video clip of "Elvis." This will confirm what we've believed all along--that the "Lord God Bird" is still alive!

The video is pretty short, but it clearly shows that this bird is quite large and has the distinctive white wing patterns of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. You can see the extensive white feathers on the trailing edge of the wing as the bird flies, and the white shield on his back after he lands on the tree. Don't you dare tell anybody about this---it is still top secret! Later, Brad.

With hands shaking from excitement, Mary clicked on the video link: data/1114103/DC1/


(1.) Evaluate the merit of the video as scientific evidence.

Part III--E-mail exchange

Message 2: Mary's reply to Brad

4/26/05 9:00 p.m. Hi Brad, You've got to be kidding??!! All I can see is a flapping black-and-white bird!! How can you be so sure it is an Ivorybill? Why not a Pileated Woodpecker? They have big white patches on the underside of their wings. You guys can't possibly stake your reputation on this!?! I have to go study for my bird-class final. Cheers, Mary


Message 3: Brad's rebuttal to Mary

4/26/05 11:00 p.m. Mary, Come on---it is very hard to get high-quality videos in the field. Some of our guys are the top birders in North America and have spent years trying to find an Ivory-bill. And as you can clearly see from their field notes (see Figure 1), they saw the white trailing wing patches characteristic of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. …

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