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The Lord God Bird Comes to Film


The Nature Conservancy put out this hat in 2005 after birders said they saw an ivory billed woodpecker.

The Nature Conservancy put out this hat in 2005 after birders said they saw an ivory billed woodpecker.

We caught a screening of The Lord God Bird up at CU Sunday night. The director, George Butler, was there to answer questions afterwards, and the director of Pumping Iron and The Endurance: Shackleford’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition hopes that the documentary about the ivory-billed woodpecker will be in theatrical release and on television sometime next year.

The Lord God Bird is required viewing for anyone interested in endangered species. The demise of the ivory bill, a black, white and red woodpecker larger than a crow with a three-foot wingspan, is certainly one of the most compelling, saddest chapters in American history. In a capricious example of wasting natural resources, the United States clear-cut the great forests of the American Southeast in the late nineteenth century to satisfy a nation’s urge for wood products. The ensuing loss of old-growth habitat doomed the  ivory-bill, which was considered extinct by some in the early twentieth century.

The ivory bill reappeared in Louisiana in the late 1930s, when W.W. Allen and James Tanner conducted the only studies of the bird, and sightings of ivory bills have persisted into the 21st century, most not officially reported because, especially if you are a professional, you are considered a little wacky to say you have seen one. Saying so out loud can ruin a career.

Tim Gallagher, the editor of Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison, know something about that. The pair reported seeing an ivory bill fly before  their canoe in Bayou de View in eastern Arkansas in 2004. The sighting and a short video taken by David Luneau that seemed to show an ivory bill in the same area convinced the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology to authenticate and announce the rediscovery in 2005.

Though nobody is calling Gallagher and Harrison liars (at least out loud), not everybody agrees with Cornell’s conclusions when it comes to Luneau’s film. Some, like noted bird author David Sibley, saw a pileated woodpecker, a slightly smaller, ubiquitous bird mistaken for an ivory bill, in the film. Jerome Jackson, a respected ivory bill researcher and author, said he thinks the Arkansas birds are pileated.

The plot deepened. An ornithologist named Geoff Hill and a small band of researchers, though offering no proof beyond visual sightings and some interesting nesting cavities, say they observed a group of ivory bills in a remote, western Florida old-forest swamp.

That’s where Butler enters. The black-and-white footage of Tanner’s scientific study and the mammoth destruction of the forests graphically tells the story of the birds’ startling decline.  Butler mixes breathtaking aerial footage of what’s left of the deep swamps with on-location shots of the researchers themselves, capturing the rapture that deep obsession brings in a forbidding world of water moccasins, alligators and shifting currents.

Although Butler said he has no reason to disbelieve Gallagher and Harrison’s visual sighting, the film leaves the question of whether ivory bills are still with us open. There has been no further evidence from Arkansas after four seasons of well-funded expeditions, and nothing beyond enthusiasm in Florida. I know that the researchers and obsessives want to help this incredible bird, but deep down I kinda hope they don’t find evidence, and that remaining colonies, if they exist, can live their lives without our interference. We’ve done enough damage already.

Earlier posts on ivory bills here and here.
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