World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Ghost Bird – Hot Docs 2009

In February, 2004, a lone kayaker was paddling through a swamp in the Big Woods region of Arkansas when he spotted a magnificent black and white bird. It was an ivory-billed woodpecker, referred to as the “Lord God Bird” because that’s what everyone says when they see it: “Lord God!” The woodpecker was considered extinct in the U.S. and hadn’t been seen in decades.

The documentary, Ghost Bird, in the 2009 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, tells the story of that February day and the events that followed. The sighting was a big deal. For many birders and ornithologists, the woodpecker was the “Holy Grail” and seeing one would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. To the residents of Brinkley, Arkansas, it was a goldmine, as residents began advertising “Woodpecker Haircuts”, “Ivory-billed Burgers”, and woodpecker souvenir shops. It was a big funding deal, too, with millions of dollars of government money allocated to confirm the sighting and for habitat conservation. It was a major event for scientists claiming the veracity of the sighting; after all, how many animals come back from the dead? And it was a big deal for those experts whose skepticism threw the sighting into doubt and created controversy.

Woven through the story is one of the few pieces of tangible evidence of the bird’s existence: a video taken after the initial sighting, supposedly capturing the ivory-bill taking off from a tree and flying off into the swamp. It provides only an ephemeral, blurry glimpse. An audio recording of what might be an ivory-bill’s call is also tantalizing but equally inconclusive.

Ghost Bird, produced and directed by Scott Crocker, portrays the woodpecker as a symbol of what nature means to us and, equally, what we have done to nature. (The bird disappeared largely because of habitat loss.) The portraits of the story’s many characters are fascinating: the birders who debate the sighting after doubts surface and who so want the woodpecker to be real; the scientists who analyze the video frame by frame; the residents of Brinkley swept up by ivory-bill mania, each with their own reason for wanting the bird to be found.

But as the press kit for the film says, Ghost Bird is set in a “murky swamp of belief.” It has “less to say about extinct woodpeckers than about our yearning to look for and even see them, whether they are there or not.”

The last script I wrote for the McLaughlin Planetarium was set in the murky skies of belief in flying saucers and alien abductions. The script was never produced (as the Royal Ontario Museum closed the planetarium in late 1995). But I subsequently developed the idea into a presentation for students. The talk was not an examination of the proof for and against the existence of alien flying saucers. I was never interested in the weighing of evidence—in short because there is none.

Instead, I talked with students about critical thinking, scepticism, as well as media and scientific literacy; in other words, how we think about UFOs, aliens and similar ambiguous or enigmatic phenomenon—and why.

That’s what has fascinated me about pseudoscience for years. When it comes to these phenomenon, why is the line between belief and knowledge so blurry? And how do we make that leap from one to the other? Why do we want so badly to believe that the Apollo lunar landings are a hoax, or that psychic surgery works? More importantly, why do we so want to believe that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and that pig factories are the source of the H1N1 virus—to the point that we ignore evidence or see things that aren’t there? Why do we think the way we do about these ghosts?

As I watched the film, it struck me that you could replace the words “ivory-billed woodpecker” with any of the following: “alien abduction”, “terrorist threat”, or “miracle cure.” The blurred, fleeting image of a bird flying through a swamp reminded me of old black and white photographs of a garden filled with fairies; or videos of lights dancing in the desert night sky; or satellite photographs of an ambiguous structure in the desert. These evocative images and ideas shift our emotions and imagination—and our desire to see something—into high gear.

(Interestingly, U.S. Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld makes an appearance in the movie, reminding us that there are “things we don’t know—but we don’t know we don’t know them.”)

In an interview in The National Post during the festival, Crocker said: “It’s similar to the financial meltdown and weapons of mass destruction: at what point is the emperor wearing no clothes? The narrative impulse, our constellation-like desire to connect dots that tell a story that may not necessarily be there—the ivory-bill is certainly a version of that.”

Today, after years of searching, there is still no conclusive evidence. The Arkansas ivory-billed woodpecker remains a ghost bird.

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Filed under: nature, pseudoscience, skepticism, UFOs, , , ,

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