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.”

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

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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