One of the funnest – and I use this word advisedly – things to fantasize about, as a North American birder, is tripping over an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Say on an otherwise vaguely discomfiting trip to your pseudo-in-laws’ place in Florida. The size. The shape. The white in the wing. The stopping of your breath, the moment when something – not your heart, contra cliche, because your heart is hammering out of control down in your breast where it belongs, but something large and round leaps into the bottom of your throat. The moment when you let out a string of expletives that no nice young lady should type. The frantic instructions to the Inimitable Todd, or your personal equivalent, to take a shit-ton of pictures. No, a metric shit-ton of pictures! And some video. God, modern digital cameras are great. Ah….
Excuse me. Anyway, the lure of lost species is strong. And that’s the thesis of Scott Weidensaul’s The Ghost With Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. Weidensaul works the whole spectrum from the totally confirmed (Australia’s Night Parrot*, the black-footed ferret) to the crypto-wacky (the Loch Ness Monster and co.) In the process, he raises some important questions that every birder has to ask herself sooner or later, questions like:
1. What does it mean to see something? Birding is a sport built on eyewitnessing, and eyewitnessing is a lot more wibbly than birders – and cops – would like to admit. Every book I’ve read that purports to give an introduction to birdwatching cautions the rank beginner against seeing things what ain’t there. But any experienced birder will admit that practice doesn’t always make perfect, no matter how long you’re in the game. And as Weidensaul’s section on alleged black panthers in Great Britain makes clear, what people expect or hope to see can play as large a role in what they do see as what’s reflecting light into their eyes. Part of practice in the game of birding is knowing what you should expect and what you can reasonably hope for…
2. What is a species? Like my title, or the issue of free will, or what have you, this seems like a very simple question but once you actually start trying to answer you wind up wrestling with a squid. If you clone a Huia, or a woolly mammoth for that matter, what have you got? A Huia. Or a woolly mammoth. But not a Huia that has learned to sing and make nests from its parent Huias, and not a woolly mammoth that has followed the elderly matriarchs of the herd and picked up their techniques for finding good food supplies and avoiding short-faced bears. Does that count? Whose counting? Meanwhile, on the other axis of time and space, if all the Marbled Murrelets in Oregon are converted into toothpicks and Kleenex by the great engines of commerce but there are still plenty of Marbled Murrelets in Alaska, have we lost anything or not? Who gets to say? If we save a species only in zoos and captive breeding centers, and lose the ecological context it dwelt in, is it still the same species or a new one, some sort of cyborg?
This is not a gratuitously melancholy book. Hope and faith play central roles. But Weidensaul always makes it clear that hope and faith are human things, and the world is not obliged to conform to the narrative they create, no matter how uplifting a flash of white in the wing would be.
*which was rediscovered when a scientist standing at the side of the road realized he was stepping on a Night Parrot road pizza.