the lord god bird

A Work in Progress

The report in the spring of 2005 that the ivory-billed woodpecker, supposedly extinct, had been discovered deep in the swamps of Arkansas made front-page news across the country and even around the world. The rarest of rare birds, the ivory-bill is so spectacular that according to folk legend those who see it spontaneously cry out - "Lord God!" The reports were read not only by the 75 million enthusiastic birders in North America, but also by millions of others swept up in the poignancy of the rediscovery. These reports, however, told only part of the story. While for the majority of Americans the discovery came as a wholly unexpected bolt-from-the-blue piece of rare good news from the conservation front, to the inner circle of bird enthusiasts it was the latest installment in a very old, indeed legendary tale of hope and survival. It is the whole story, not just the recent headlines, that our film The Lord God Bird tells. It also is one of the first films to deal with the full implications of the issue of extinction -- an issue that follows in the wake of climate change as a matter critical global importance.

The story is embedded in the history of America itself. The ivory-billed woodpecker was once common throughout the Southeast, frequenting hard-to-reach old growth cypress swamps. Following the Civil War, the devastated South began a vast rebuilding effort, for which thousands of tracts of primary forest were sacrificed. Countless photographs of this era show proud loggers and developers standing beside felled trophy trees. The loss of much wildlife accompanied the loss of the forests, and the range of the ivory-bill shrank to scattered pockets in the surviving forest. The bird, which had been admired and coveted as long as it had been known, vanished and was believed extinct.

Then, in the 1920s the ivory-bill was credibly sighted in Louisiana, and thus begun the determined, relentless pattern of the bird's assertion of its existence. In the 1930s, the 40s, the 50s — in every decade up to the present — the ivory-billed woodpecker has been written off only to appear again. Some of the reappearances have been caught, clearly and unambiguously, on film; sometimes only its distinctive voice has been recorded. At each stage, an inner circle of believers has had their faith vindicated, and the bird has reawakened hope for threatened species and environments everywhere.

The latest rediscovery was reported only after two years of highly secret investigative studies had been made of the original sighting by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the leading institute of its kind in the world. Nonetheless, skeptical voices have been raised, and these too are central to our film. The story of the ivory-bill is not merely a quaint piece of natural history, but a story about faith and doubt, despair and hope regarding our own relationship with our environment: How much have we lost? Is it rational to believe in a being whose existence cannot be proved? What can be saved? How central is the natural world to our own existence? Throughout all the years of fickle human activity, the Lord God Bird has appeared like a steadfast messenger from heaven with its cheerful face and cartoonish voice to deliver the news we humans keep forgetting: Never, never, never give up.

Made in association with The Nature Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and National Geographic Feature Films, this strikingly beautiful film, with music by Paul Cantelon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), is the first in a planned trilogy of films dealing with extinction by Butler. The second film, Tiger, Tiger, is about the Royal Bengal Tiger, the third about the Lowland Gorilla in west equatorial Africa.