Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: Ghost Bird (documentary)

Ghost Bird is an outstanding look at the controversy of the alleged reemergence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Filmmaker Scott Crocker conscientiously evaluated the evidence and circumstances surrounding a handful of claimed sightings in Arkansas beginning in 2005, and explored the consequences for one small town that stood to benefit greatly by becoming a major birding destination.

What it all adds up to, unfortunately, is a consensus that the last of the Ivory-bills is truly dead and gone, but that doesn't mean that everybody is willing to give up their conviction that they've crossed paths with one. Interviews with locals and press conferences by leading ornithologists who should have known better both help to reveal the power of wishful thinking, by showing how strongly people hold fast to desirable beliefs despite of incredibly weak evidence. What little evidence did exist was of questionable value, and even that failed to receive the level of scrutiny that it deserved in order to support such an important claim. But once a person had decided that they definitely had evidence of an Ivory-bill, they distorted new evidence to confirm their initial bias.

We all wish we could see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but wishing doesn't make it so. This is especially important to bear in mind since so many competing interests were at stake. In this instance, certain parties exploited the situation to their own advantage, further clouding the issue of whether the woodpecker actually existed in the area at all. Money that had been earmarked for various science and conservation projects got diverted toward protecting an extinct species, causing a number of worthy projects to suffer as a result. My opinions of a handful of individuals and organizations have become tarnished by their failing to rise above the spectacle, and by letting their judgment influence their perceptions of the evidence, rather than the other way around. Ultimately, they, and all of the parties affected, would have benefited from a healthy dose of skepticism.

Notably, however, my opinion of David Sibley -- high as it was -- came out even higher at the end of the film. At all times, he remained cool, evaluated the evidence as it came in, and had the presence of mind to go beyond the obvious clues of sight and sound. While everybody else seemed to rely solely on examining each and every Pileated Woodpecker for certain field marks, Sibley read about the lives of Ivory-bills, researching what was known about their behavior and the ways that the interacted with their habitat. He reasoned that, if there were indeed Ivory-bills in a given area then they would leave behind certain telltale signs, and noted that these signs were conspicuously absent. This is precisely the approach that others should have followed, and is one that will hopefully be utilized during future outbreaks of Ivory-billed fever.

I whole-heartedly recommend this documentary, whether your interest is in birds or in human nature. It says a great deal about how we see birds and how we want to see birds, and about how we let ourselves be deceived. I'm not sure whether the average video store chain would carry the film, but it's currently available to stream on Netflix.

For more on how Ghost Bird relates to skepticism, in general, I also recommend this interview with the director, Scott Crocker, which was conducted for the MonsterTalk podcast:


  1. I caught some of this the other day. Its well put together, but I think some (certainly not all) of the criticisms of evidence are flimsy at best...its very informative but I was not overly impressed. The filmmaker seemed very biased that there never were any Ivory-billeds in the first place, and that comes through pretty clearly in the film. Hopefully time will tell!

  2. I didn't think the film was particularly biased either for or against. The way to approach any positive assertion is to expose it to criticism and then see what survives. The way that most people are portrayed as reacting is to have reversed the burden of proof: 'if you don't think this is an Ivory-bill, prove that it wasn't', which allowed people to see the evidence as more compelling than it really was.

    In that way, the film is really more about the types of reactions that were elicited than it was about the actual objective solution to the controversy. After all, if there do turn out to be Ivory-bills in the area, would that be a vindication of everyone who so readily jumped to the conclusion that they were there? I would argue, based on the film, that it would not. The whole spectacle was ultimately still about wishful thinking and the failure to properly evaluate evidence. If they turned out to be right, it would have been mere coincidence - in other words, they would have been right for the wrong reasons.

  3. Great review, Nick! I'm adding it to my queue now.