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  • We at Old Birds Welcome Messages from God, Even if Unverifiable
  • Annie Sheppard (bio)

Perhaps you are not aware that the United States are home to 35 lake monsters. Most are of the ordinary "Nessie" type, but we also have webbed hominids, giant eel-pigs, winged alligator-snakes, aquatic lynxes, and a goat man. If you were so inclined, you could probably make a career out of investigating lake monsters—or you might devote your retirement to it. It would make a nice focus for one's waning years, I think. It's good to have a purpose, after all, and gardening is not for everyone.

If lake monsters are not your bag, there are plenty of alternatives. You might find it more rewarding to seek out UFO landing sites—or lost gold mines, buried treasure, or sasquatches. If you prefer fact over conjecture, consider missing species. Worldwide, there are over 1,200 species of animals and plants considered not extinct but lost. Myanmar, for example, has a missing pink-headed duck. Rumor has it that a small flock of pink-headed ducks yet survives, paddling about in a remote swampy area. If you were to sell all your worldly belongings and move to Myanmar in order to devote your remaining years to finding the missing pink-headed duck, you would not be the first person to do so.

My retirement plan involves searching for the Lord God Bird, which has been more or less missing since 1940 or 1944, depending upon whose claims may be believed. This is one of the hallmarks—and charms—of missing things. No one can quite agree on the facts of the matter.

Another name for the Lord God Bird is the ivory-billed woodpecker, though of course it's more fun to say Lord God Bird. Its habitat is the hardwood swamps and pine forests of the southern U.S.—forests once so vast they blanketed [End Page 13] entire states. Though conservation efforts are underway, only a few pockets of original forest remain. No one has taken a definitive photograph of the bird since 1938, but a few visitors to these forests in the intervening years have reported glimpses, usually fleeting, of a bird that appears to be the bird. Then, beginning in 2005, several reliable and otherwise trustworthy people—experienced birders, teams of ornithologists from universities like Cornell and Auburn, a solitary scientist from the Naval Research Laboratory—have reported with some certainty sightings of a bird that looks and sounds like the Lord God Bird. Unfortunately for science, none of these otherwise reliable people have managed to collect a feather or droppings that would make it possible to verify the bird's existence with DNA testing. None have taken a photograph that can be said without doubt to be of an ivory-billed woodpecker. One searcher did capture a short, blurry, indeterminate video of a bird that might be the bird. Others have made audio recordings featuring what may or may not be the Lord God Bird's signature double knock.

Other experts have expressed doubt. They question the lack of concrete evidence. The pileated woodpecker, they say, is easily mistaken for the ivory-billed, which, they add, is obviously extinct. Misidentifying a pileated woodpecker, these skeptics say, is an unfortunate but understandable mistake, made possible by hope—which, as any scientist knows, introduces an element of uncertainty into every rational inquiry.

Imagine being a member of one of those expert birding teams. Imagine that you yourself sighted the Lord God Bird, that you are almost certain of it. You can describe its white rump and distinctive white wing patches, visible only in flight. You know that the bird you saw was absolutely not a pileated woodpecker. You know your woodpeckers, and you would not have made such an amateurish error. You firmly believe that the bird you saw was an honest-to-God Lord God Bird. So are the others who sighted The Bird. One of them sat down, after he saw it, and cried.

But is it possible that you just really, really wanted to have seen it? This keeps you awake.


Though we tend to lose...


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pp. 13-22
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