The ‘Lord God!’ Bird and the Power of Suggestion

A couple weeks ago, Levitt wondered about the crowds that buy the slew of anti-religion and anti-God books that are so popular these days. His argument included an analogy — which many commenters found lacking, I should say — about bird-watching books: even if you hate bird-watching, you’re not prone to buy a book that bashes it.

By strange coincidence, I had just started reading a book that’s about God and bird-watching. It’s an advance copy of The Life of the Skies, by my friend Jonathan Rosen. It includes an interesting chapter about the famous search for the ivory-bill woodpecker, long thought to be extinct. (Rosen had written earlier on the subject, in both The New Yorker and a Times Op Ed in 2005, after the apparent rediscovery of the “Lord God bird,” so named because it’s allegedly so beautiful to behold that you can’t think of anything to say except “Lord God!”)

The book contains a passage about a young forestry student, David Kullivan, who thinks he’s spotted the elusive bird. Rosen writes that he was “afraid to go public,” since he’d seen the bird on April Fool’s Day and didn’t want to be thought of as a kook. So he waited a bit, and then told his professor of zoology, Vernon Wright.

The subsequent passage is a nice discussion of the power of suggestion, a concept equally important in bird-sighting, religious belief, and behavioral economics. Here’s what Rosen writes:

Wright was in many ways already a believer in the continued existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He’d been fielding reports of sightings for twenty years, and though he himself had never seen the bird, he firmly believed it was out there. It was Wright who had told his class about the ivory-bill, along with several other animal species presumed extinct but still rumored to live in the heart of the swamps and forests of Louisiana. In some sense, he had prepared his students for a sighting by telling them the bird was still out there, which, depending on your point of view, increased the likelihood of a credible sighting or diminished it by planting the image of the bird already in his students’ minds.

Almost nobody sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary without first having a mental image of what she might look like. On the other hand, a great deal of birding is based on knowledge acquired before you go into the field. This paradox is amplified a thousand times when birding for extinct birds.

Daniel Cecil

So maybe Moses just walked up to a naturally occurring forest fire and declared himself a prophet.


I think this raises an interesting debate around people's "sightings" in general. It is likely that the Virgin Mary and many Biblical figures had olive skin (if not darker) and dressed in contemporary desert clothing. However, most drawings today of Biblical figures, especially Jesus, paint a very white, Western-looking portrait. I am not interested in debating what Jesus actually looked like or the biases that might be at play - but I do think this raises an interesting point.

If people are just responding to pre-planted suggestions, then their sightings should always look like what was suggested to them. In the Jesus example, a sighting might be considered more interesting if a young Western child saw a Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich that looked completely different than most of that culture's portrayals.

By constantly talking about the bird in question, that raises the same bias questions, but less of an issue, I would think. If the bird is found, one could empirically test if it was in fact the bird in question. When someone sees an impression of the Virgin Mary, it is not only not verifiable, but it also only an impression.



"Almost nobody sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary without first having a mental image of what she might look like. On the other hand, a great deal of birding is based on knowledge acquired before you go into the field. This paradox is amplified a thousand times when birding for extinct birds."

How is that "on the other hand"? These two sentences make the same point: You won't know what you are looking at unless you already have an idea of what it looks like. And where is the paradox? You need to know what you are looking for to know when you've found it. How is that a paradox?


I have seen such a bird (". . . so beautiful to behold that you can't think of anything to say except 'Lord God!'"), and the first thing I did was figure out a way to marry her.

Badda Boom, Badda Bing


Any update on fixing the RSS feed previews? I don't want to unsubscribe to one of my favorite blogs...


There's another end to the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker story: ornithologist James Tanner, who wrote the most authoritative study of the bird based upon his survey in Louisiana's Singer Tract in the late 1930s, spent much of the rest of his career discounting and dismissing any other reported sightings.

I'm agnostic about the survival of the Ivory-Billed. But flying birds very rarely went extinct prior to the invention of firearms, for understandable reasons. Anyone who wants to ridicule the possibility of the bird's survival ought to spend a long weekend traveling through one of the many undeveloped southern swamp-forests in this country before opening his mouth: it isn't all that difficult to believe, for those who have actually explored the matter, that there are vast, remote areas in this country where a species of bird might have survived almost undetected for sixty years.

Mostly, though, it sure would be nice if the Ivory-Billed had survived our predation and wanton habitat destruction. It would lend hope that we might avoid the consequences of some of our other idiocies.



so you heard about this couple with the jesus imprint on their cabinet?

i think it looks a little more like He-Man or Conan the Barbarian. whatever.

hope we get those full feeds soon. i read these posts less and less each day.


"So maybe Moses just walked up to a naturally occurring forest fire and declared himself a prophet."

Well of course, it also seems more likely that a girl name Mary lied than actually conceiving a child out of “virgin birth”. Compound in the probability of distorted narrative accounts across a long time horizon and tadaa! you have the Bible.


Reminds me of that old Borges story where and archeology professor makes up an ancient civilization, tells his students about it in detail, and sends them to a dig. Sure enough, they find artifacts from the made up civilization.

It turns out that in that universe reality was created from thought. Of course, once some people realized this they went about systematically changing the past to fit their wishes, to the point where we don't know if this story is true or just fiction.

Chris S.

#8: I thought it looked more like Chewbacca...


Birds are beautiful but lets not forget their most noble contribution...the way they taste.

John Dawkins

Well I couldn't have said it better. The power of suggestion is extremely powerful in moving the "masses" and it is probably the reason why we believe in god and subscribe to religion. Just think of it, the reasons why these terrorists kill is like a house of cards made in the middle of a hurricane even though it's intellectual foundation has been washed away but it still persists thanks to the power of suggestion.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

"Almost nobody sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary without first having a mental image of what she might look like."
It's an archetypal image in our minds (or souls: take your pick; I favor the latter). It's okay if she's white for some and brown for others. It's not about the historical reality of a woman who lived long ago, it's a spiritual reality of the soul's desire for a deeper "reality". Many dismiss this, but I find relevance in not simply acknowledging the reality of science, alone.

Bruce Klutchko

Of course the effect of preconceptions on observations is real, and has been known for a very long time. So none of this should at all be a surprise. Modern scientific research nearly always takes into account the effects of bias, both in its researchers and subject (when the subjects are human). To the great satisfaction of researchers and the chagrin of partisans everywhere, the gold standard in research is the "double blind" study.

ils vont

People see what they want to see. Look at crime scene interviews, everybody sees it different because their interpretations are subject to their personal biases.


in the case of the Ivory-bill, the power of suggestion cuts both ways -- the long-and-strongly-held suggestion that the species is extinct causes many to immediately discount any sighting claim that comes along, and can also cause a sighter of the bird to either doubt their own eyes or simply never report what they saw.

Ivory Bill

The Woodpecker's Prayer

Woodpecker in Heaven,
let your holy self be seen,
let your visage come,
and not only to some,
and please! On earth rather than heaven.
Give us today the sight that we need,
and forgive us our misidentifications,
as we forgive those
who have misidentified others.
Do lead us into swamps,
but save us from Elvis.


To Basho

I am from Australia and I can tell you that you are quite right that species can go for significant periods of time without being documented, not just in a forest.

The sourthern kangaroo mouse was first collected in 1871, it was thought that the introduction of foxes and cats drove the mouse to extinction from its rather narrow habitat in the Great Sourthern Desert (an area of just over 500 square kilometers). It then appeared in the mid 70's, after one hundred years, to a pair of English Backpackers who had broken down on the nullabour highway.

Life is much more resilient than most of us imagine.

Glossy Grakle

In my mind, it is just as probable to me that the Lord God bird exists as it is in your mind that we came from a rock. To each his own. I would rather have the capacity to believe by faith alone than have the tenacity to believe nothing at all.


I don't care about birds but if they kept pecking holes into my house at 6am and hurling themselves into the windows, I might just want to find out a little bit more about them if only to defend myself against them.