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The Case of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The Scientific Process and How it Relates to Everyday Life


Kathrin F. Stanger-Hall
Department of Plant Biology
University of Georgia
Jennifer Merriam
Biology Department
SUNY Orange
Ruth Ann Greuling
Office of the Provost
Northern New Mexico College


Based on the disputed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in April 2005, this interrupted case study tells the story of a fictional character, "Brad Murky," a student and research assistant who must decide whether the current evidence is sufficient for him to accept the bird's existence. Brad and his sister debate the issue through a series of emails leaving him to wonder whether the press conference to announce the rediscovery of the bird was scheduled in haste. Designed for an introductory biology course, this case would also work well in an ecology, environmental science, environmental public policy, ornithology, or science and society course.


  • Apply the scientific process to a real life situation.
  • Recognize that science is an ongoing process, not a one-time method to find the final answer.
  • Explain the importance of the rejection of alternative hypotheses in the scientific process.
  • Give an example of how science affects decisions in every-day life.
  • Be familiar with the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker.


Ivory-billed woodpecker; Campephilus principalis; birds; Cache National Wildlife Refuge; Arkansas

Topical Areas

Policy issues, Scientific method, Science and the media

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Interrupted



Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Environmental Science  |   Natural Resource Management  |   Science (General)  |   Ecology  |  

Date Posted


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Diane Herr
Science Department
Waterford High School
Waterford, CT 06385

I used this case in an upper level environmental science class to review the scientific process. The students came up with some great pieces of evidence for Part I and named physical evidence that they could repeatedly test for authentication. For Part II they made great observations, but then for Part III they seemed to totally forget the evidence that they came up with for Part I and were swayed by the video as sufficient evidence. The students also had problems applying their discussion for this case to other types of environmental problems/policy (Part III, Question 5).

I think it would be helpful to have students also examine another environmental issue like global warming, and go through what evidence they would need, what evidence we have, and how to interpret the data.