Search the Site

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.