More Options

Chasing the Ghost Bird

Ben Radford

Volume 34.3, May / June 2010

Science, Skepticism, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Interview with Scott Crocker

Strangely enough, the ivory-bill has captured the imagination of people the world over for a very long time.

The chance sighting in Arkansas's Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of a presumed extinct woodpecker led to a 2005 scientific expedition that confirmed that the birds still live. The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), last known to exist in 1944, was supposedly sighted in eastern Arkansas in 2004. A blurry video clip showed the bird's distinctive size and markings. "The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker. Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives," said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The discovery of the bird spawned international headlines and an article in the journal Science (see "Rare Woodpecker, Presumed Extinct, Found in Arkansas," SI, March/April 2006). The rediscovery was also trumpeted by believers in Bigfoot and lake monsters as proof that animals thought long extinct may still exist.

Yet after five years of searching (at a cost of over $10 million) the ivory-billed woodpecker's existence remains unproven. Not a single bird has been found. A discovery once touted worldwide as a hopeful environmental miracle has turned into a complex and fascinating tale of environmentalism, anecdotal evidence, and scientific debate. What happened is the subject of a new documentary film titled Ghost Bird. I interviewed the film's director, Scott Crocker.

Benjamin Radford Why was the story of the rediscovery of an obscure woodpecker such a big deal?

Scott Crocker Strangely enough, the ivory-bill has captured the imagination of people the world over for a very long time. They were truly striking black and white woodpeckers, the males having bright red crests, and they were once the largest woodpeckers in North America. Full grown they were two feet tall and had a wingspan of nearly three feet.

The alleged rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in 2005 made headlines around the world. That a species of this magnitude had returned from the dead after being presumed extinct for over half a century was both miraculous and astonishing. A kayaker's sighting was confirmed by a search team from Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology, one of the world's leading institutions devoted to studying all things avian. Their rediscovery in Arkansas was perceived as a kind of environmental miracle suggesting that mankind was getting a second chance to save a species he had singlehandedly exterminated. And just maybe, the efforts of conservationists were beginning to turn the tide of human-caused extinctions.

Radford The tiny town of Brinkley, Arkansas, was the epicenter of the furor over the ivory-bill. What effect did all this international publicity have on the town?

Crocker Brinkley played a central role in both receiving and reinforcing the rediscovery hype, partly because they had nothing to lose.

Radford Many towns that have a local "monster" are quick to capitalize on their local mystery (for example, Bluff Creek, California, has a booming Bigfoot-related business, and Inverness, Scotland, earns a lot of money from Nessie tourism). Brinkley, quite understandably, did the same thing.

Crocker They tried. While some locals were quick to capitalize on the publicity by selling ivory-bill burgers, haircuts, and T-shirts, the influx of birders and their fat wallets never quite materialized. The world's only ivory-billed woodpecker gift shop has closed, and there was only one Annual Ivory-bill Celebration in Brinkley's new convention center.

Radford How did you get involved in making Ghost Bird?

Crocker I heard about the ivory-bill's rediscovery like everyone else, when then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton announced it had been seen in Arkansas. And as fascinating as the rediscovery was, I was equally intrigued by the descriptions of the yearlong top-secret search and the many hours birders spent deep in the snake- and mosquito-infested cypress swamps of Arkansas waiting for a glimpse of the largest and rarest woodpecker in North America. It sounded like a Samuel Becket play, Waiting for a Woodpecker.

I didn't get personally pulled into the story until the following September. I was attending the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival where I met a cameraman who had practically lived in those swamps waiting for the ultimate money shot. Fourteen months later he emerged with a couple brief sightings and a few compelling bird sounds only to discover his second wife had left him. I thought, wow, these people are seriously obsessed. I needed to find out why. While I didn't go into it as a skeptic, I also didn't unquestioningly accept everything the search team announced or claimed about their very blurry video of something flying through the swamp.

Radford One person in your film described the debate as about "hope versus skepticism."

Crocker That was [bird expert] David Sibley's distillation of the whole issue, and I think he hit the nail on the head. The sightings by top ornithologists, their scientific documentation, and the controlled media campaign announcing the ivory-bill's rediscovery created an atmosphere that was not unlike G.W. Bush's doctrine of "Either you are with us or you are against us."

Radford That doesn't sound like open, scientific debate.

Crocker Well, some of that exclusiveness came down to the good intentions of protecting the species from being "loved to death" by birders. However, it was also driven by the need to raise money and acquire local land inexpensively. Questioning the evidence was a threat to the $10 million in federal, state, and private money the search team raised. Questioning the sightings also meant questioning the integrity of the ornithologists and birders who made those sightings—and the birding community heavily relies on individual integrity. Since the search scientists didn't invite any real critique of their findings, in the end you were either on board and hopeful, or you were a skeptical outsider. And no one wanted this iconic bird's rediscovery not to be true.

Radford Political grandstanding and bird expert squabbles aside, the ivory-bill's rediscovery was given scientific credibility by a high-profile cover article in Science, right?

Crocker Absolutely. The Science article in many ways is the lynchpin to all of this. Without that article and the magazine's enormous clout, I don't think the rediscovery would have had much traction. That their editorial staff seemingly looked the other way and gave the ornithologists the benefit of the doubt raises some of the more interesting questions about the whole rediscovery fiasco. How much of this had to do with selling magazine issues? How much had to do with everyone hitching a ride on a career-making moment?

Radford What does the story of the woodpecker say about how science works?

Crocker I think the most disturbing message of the rediscovery is the central role money plays in driving scientific inquiry and research. One academic who has been tracking this trend described to me the process of acquiring funding for research as being akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall: whatever project sticks gets the green light. This "stickiness factor" of proposals is often determined by very unscientific agendas having more to do with commercial and public relation interests.

Radford How did the search for the ivory-bill become so politicized, with agendas and egos?

Crocker Territorial squabbles are of course nothing new to academics. And there was a healthy amount of slinging from both sides in the ivory-bill debate. However, the real anger surrounded the redirection of scarce funding from existing endangered species recovery programs to the search for a ghost bird. It's one thing to run around in the swamp seeing things. It's another thing entirely to do that with money "rediscovered" in the research accounts of other scientists. This brings us back to the legacy of the Bush administration: they promised $10 million in funding for the search but then robbed Peter to pay Paul; it wasn't new funding.

Radford What's been the response to your film? Is there any current funding for the search, or is it effectively dead?

Crocker Cornell continues to maintain that they saw an ivory-bill and documented it on video. They admit that the bird has not been quite as "persistent" as they had hoped. As of this year they are no longer actively searching for the bird in Arkansas, though they were one of two groups looking in Florida last year.

Radford Does it matter if the ivory-billed woodpecker exists or not?

Crocker If there's only one of them, no, not really. I think what matters is that we collectively come to grips with taking responsibility for the species mankind is causing to go extinct. Ultimately, perhaps the most lasting significance of the ivory-bill is how it has become a mirror that reflects back to us our difficult relationship to the natural world and our uncertain place in it. We can look deeper into that mirror and change how we inhabit the planet, or we can look away and go about our business as usual.

Ghost Bird opened in New York City at the end of March for a week at Anthology Film Archives. The DVD should be available in June; find more details at www.GhostBirdMovie.com.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and an avid fan of documentary films.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Ben Radford's photo

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.