What do we lose if we don’t write about nature? What might we gain if there were no museum specimens of extinct species? It’s an intriguing question. One I hadn’t given much thought.
I missed seeing the film, Ghost Bird when it was first released. The official opening of the documentary happened on Endangered Species Day in 2010 (May 21st). Sadly, this film wasn’t successful enough to make the mainstream theaters. This movie is much more than a quest for finding the truth about a February 2004 sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that had been presumed extinct. This movie is a story of hope, of science, of ego, and of moral dilemma. It also raised my awareness of the importance of books amidst this discovery.
The skeptics, comprised of credible scientist, soon claimed the video documentation of the bird was not the extinct bird, but rather a similar woodpecker species, the pileated woodpecker. Seemingly, innocuous facts, such as when the bird was observed vocalizing, became key facts in deciphering the possibility that the sighting of the ivory-billed was not real. Fortunately, the detailed biology of the bird was documented in James T. Tanner’s 1942 thesis, The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This important report was later published in 1966 in unabridged form and became available to the general public. In our current day publishing environment, I can’t help but wonder if his book would have been considered marketable enough to warrant publication. Even if Tanner had managed capture the interest of a present-day publisher, would they have asked Dr. Tanner to cut his work to some specified word count? Would the economics of today’s publishing world have resulted in the loss of critical information?
The film doesn’t ponder this particular financial aspect, but it does explore the human connection and the economics behind the sighting. The town of Brinkley in Arkansas, a causality of hard times, expected an economic windfall. The mayor hoped to open several bed and breakfasts to handle the anticipated influx of tourists eager to see the bird. Shops created souvenirs. A local hair dresser advertised that she gave Ivory-billed haircuts.
The movie also explores the question of whether museums in their zeal to collect specimens to display might have contributed to the extinction of the woodpecker. The Harvard Museum of Natural History houses over 61 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. I mean really, how many dead birds do you need? If they had only killed a few would the species have survived?
According to the website, ghostbirdmovie.com, since announcing the Ivory-Bill’s rediscovery, Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, The Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal, state and local agencies, have attracted over 10 million dollars for the search expedition as well as habitat acquisition, preservation and rehabilitation. On the surface, this might seem a positive outcome, but the film soon reveals the money had been diverted from other program funding allocated to help endangered species actually known to exist. I wish I knew how much, if any, of that money, was designated to fund publications so that if the species end up going extinct, more than a few elite scientists would know how the animals behaved when they were around. I fear the written word may be the only way to save some of these species for future generations.
For more information on the movie, Ghost Bird, visit: http://ghostbirdmovie.com/