Early on April Fool’s Day, a message was posted on several social media platforms. The post contained photographs of what appeared to be a possibly extinct bird nestled in the grass near a pond at the Andrew H. Hulsey State Fish Hatchery in Hot Springs.
The bird was a lookalike of the Eskimo curlew, a species last verifiably seen in 1962, when one was photographed along a beach in Galveston, Texas.
The same photos were emailed to over 50 birdwatchers. The email asked them to share the photos and identify the brown and white bird, which was only an inch or two smaller than a crow.
Within 16 hours, more than 40 people responded.
Most of those respondents had used an app birders have on their phones to identify a bird from a photograph or audio recording. Applications claimed that the bird depicted was a Godwit, Whimbrel, Willow or Sandpiper – birds commonly seen along the coastline.
None of the apps correctly identified the curlew. Two of the humans did.
Later on April Fool’s Day, the prankster posted a message on ARbird-L, a bird discussion board, under the title: “Unusual Bird Stumps Arkansas Birders”:
“Arkansas has some good birders, but today they hit. I took pictures of a bird at Andrew Hulsey Hatchery yesterday. of my friends, some who regularly post to this mailing list, asking them to tag it for me. Most of them got it wrong. Many said they put my picture in Merlin or one of them. other programs that use facial recognition technology to identify birds and that they were also wrong. It’s not a whimbrel, or a willow, or a godwit, or a sandpiper from another continent, it’s is an American bird.
“I photographed this bird while it was perched on the ground yesterday. Today I went back to the hatchery and, can you believe it? – snapped a photo of it while it was flying. It is even a better photo than those of the bird So if you can’t find it by Sunday afternoon I’ll post this flying image which I’m holding back for now because I think the image might have a significant commercial and/or scientific value.
“What is that?
“For size reference, the ‘No Fishing’ sign posts are 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches thick.”
The prankster signed his message “Peace and the birds”.
CAUSE OF CAUTION
The fact that popular birding apps like Merlin have failed to reliably identify an unusual bird is somewhat disconcerting. If birdwatchers become dependent on such devices, databases built on citizen-scientist sightings, to which birdwatchers contribute, could also be flawed or given unjustifiable credibility.
Others who have received emails or read the messages have not been so quick to treat them as genuine.
Some, like Joe White, who lives near Washington, DC, replied succinctly when asked to share the messages with others on the East Coast, “I will (remembering today’s date of course). April Fool’s Day.”
[Gallery not showing? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/411prank/]
David Luneau, the videographer who recorded a bird suspected of being an ivory-billed woodpecker, also understood everything. He replied tersely and correctly, “I’m no one’s shorebird expert, but I guess it’s the same sculpture of an Eskimo curlew in all the photos.” He added a smiley face emoji.
YOU MUST PLEASE
Two days after April Fool’s Day, more than 140 people had connected with the prankster via email. And probably many more had seen the posts on Facebook. He had been playing the trick long enough, so he posted this message on ARbird under the title “April Fowl Joke”:
“The photos of the bird that were posted on ARbird and several other social media platforms last Friday and purported to have been taken near Hot Springs were an ‘April Fowl’ joke. The bird depicted in the photo is not a living bird, but a woodcarving The sculpture was made by Dean Hurliman, famous woodcarver of extinct birds.
“Only about 25% of the 140 people who, reading the messages and responding to me, detected that it was a decoy and not a real bird. Only six people recognized it as an Eskimo curlew Many guesses include: whimbrel, godwit, sandpiper, snipe, snipe, and willow Many different images have been posted on different people and platforms, and the poses and photo quality of the sculpture have been modified so as to explain some of the variety of species identified. .. .
“Since many of you have not accepted that the standing Eskimo Curlew is real, would you believe it if you saw one flying? OK, here it is. Peace and Birds”
Even after the truth surfaced on ARbird, funny reactions continued to pour in.
An ornithology professor said, “It’s an interesting bird. The beak is clearly curved, which excludes several potential species. The facial markings are quite distinct and the size is clearly large. ).”
Hot Springs Village’s top birder replied, “Merlin’s photo ID says Whimbrel. That seems fair to me. Let me know what the conclusion is.”
Mitchell Pruitt, Arkansas’ most notable young birdwatcher, simply said, “Happy April Fools.”
Gabe De Jong of the Nature Conservancy said, “You got me! That’s a beautiful wooden bird.”
David Arbour, considered the best ornithologist in all of Oklahoma, was not fooled. His response: “It looks like a decoy to me. Not a real bird.”
Fayetteville’s Kate Chapman said, “My best guess would be a long-billed creamer. I might have guessed Hudsonian godwit (or bar-tailed godwit) but you said it wasn’t a godwit.”
[RELATED: More about Eskimo curlews]
The wisest and most experienced naturalist among us, Bill Shepard, said: “It’s an Eskimo, okay, but not a real one. It’s carved out of wood and painted to look like the extinct shorebird.”
John Crabtree, land manager for Westbrook Farms in Little Rock, said: “You could be onto something even bigger than this ivory-billed woodpecker.”
Kelly Hightower, author of the nature fantasy “Runner,” replied, “I think it must be a woodcock or a wood duck or something or some other kind of wood.”
Someone going through the Autum13 handle guessed, “Maybe a dowitcher? But I can’t tell a short beak from a long beak.”
Dan Scheiman, Audubon’s chief ornithologist in Arkansas, asked, “Why did someone put a beautiful wood carving next to a fish pond?”
A client of fly-fishing guide Evan Smedley (an accomplice to the prankster) who posted the misleading photos on his website claimed the bird was “an Ouachita Snipe, a bird I’ve seen on many occasions”.
A Facebook comment from Iowa said, “Actual documentation of an Eskimo curlew would be more amazing than an IBWO” (birding lingo for ivory-billed woodpecker).
[RELATED: Sculptor donated wooden birds]
Dottie Boyles only learned of the prank after the prankster confessed. She is the editor of Snipe, the newsletter of the Central Arkansas Audubon Society. She observed, “I can only see now. Very clever to put ‘the bird’ in shadow to hide the carving marks. Very good woodcarving and painting job. Looks real!”
The April Fool’s Day trick fooled many, but it could have fooled more. Most of the photographs sent were probably too sharp. If the images had been taken in the shade, the shine of the varnish would not have been so apparent and the trick would have worked better. It would also have been better if the photographer had been farther from the decoy so that when a viewer zoomed in on the image, the lack of feather detail and the presence of painted brush marks wouldn’t have been so clearly views.
Overall though, the prank had the desired result of teaching others about extinction and the remarkable long-migrating Eskimo Curlew.
Extinction is no joke. Birdlife International reported that “182 species of birds are thought to have become extinct since 1500. Avian extinctions continue, with 19 species lost in the last quarter of the 20th century and four more known or suspected to be extinct since 2000. The rate of extinctions on continents appear to be increasing, primarily due to widespread and increasing habitat destruction.”
Ken Kaufman, one of the nation’s leading bird experts, concludes: “So to sum up the answer to the original question: how many bird species are extinct? We don’t know and we will never know. But we know that the number has been tragically high and that humans have played a role in almost every modern extinction.”
Those who want to see endangered birds survive can take action. One way to achieve this is to settle for artistic depictions of these birds, such as Hurliman’s sculptures. Another way is to discourage scientists and public institutions from taking live specimens from the wild for taxidermy specimens to be displayed in dusty glass cases or for skins to be stored in drawers in comparative anatomy labs.
The Eskimo curlew sculpture is no longer at the hatchery. It is on full display at the Garland County Library, 1427 Malvern Ave., Hot Springs.
Jerry Butler writes frequently about the birds of Arkansas and the people who enjoy them. Share your stories with him on
Gallery: April Fool’s Day Stuffing