This week’s episode of The History Channel’s cryptozoology series MonsterQuest, “Creatures from the 4th Dimension,” pretty much met my expectations, which were admittedly basement level. The subject was “rods,” hypothetical flying organisms supposedly invisible to the naked eye but frequently captured on video.
I first became aware of the wild speculation about rods (a.k.a. “flying rods,” “skyfish,” etc.) in the 1990s when a videographer announced finding unusual unidentified flying objects in video footage of base jumpers plummeting into Mexico’s Sótano de las Golondrinas (Cave of the Swallows, actually an enormous sinkhole). Any reasonable person with a basic understanding of photography would look at the images and say, “Wow, there sure were a lot of insects flying around the cave that day.” UFO buff Jose Escamilla had captured similar images and interpreted them as a previously unknown life form capable of supersonic speed and/or interdimensional phase-shifting. So much for Ockham’s Razor.
This phenomenon has already been thoroughly debunked as videographic distortion of flying insects and other fast-moving, out-of-focus objects, but MQ was obviously going to milk the “mystery” for as many ratings points as possible. Milk it they did, from interviews with self-described “Rod Man” Escamilla to largely unsuccessful wind-tunnel tests of model rods at Iowa State University.
One of the funniest segments was a TV news cameraman’s story of noticing a “rod” while reviewing tape of a tornado in progress. He interpreted a tiny bright streak of light as a huge object traveling at enormous speed into the storm. (To me, it looked like a small insect or wind-blown debris passing through a beam of light.) The idea that something would deliberately fly into such a storm freaked him out, and he managed to spread this hysteria to other station personnel. The incident climaxed with the station manager’s call to the FBI and confiscation of the tape by federal agents (Men In Black, one imagines) as possible evidence of a threat to national security. Naturally, the feds had no comment on the incident, either out of embarrassment at wasting taxpayer money or to avoid tipping the government’s hand in the search for Arthropoda bin Laden.
The saddest segment, as well as the one of most interest to me, covered MQ’s investigation of the reasonable explanation that at least some “rods” are out-of-focus birds in flight. The producers recruited a birder and an ornithologist to help them capture images of a hummingbird using a normal video camera and a high-speed camera mounted side by side. Much to the birder’s embarrassment, her feeding station was deserted thanks to an accipiter that had been hanging around. The intrepid MQ crew soldiered on, making do with video of her and the ornithologist speculating that hummingbirds would be the birds most likely to be a source of rod phenomena but noting that their exclusively Western Hemisphere distribution precludes them as an explanation for the Chinese video the producers were using as an example. They also noted that the images in the video looked more like insects than birds of any sort.
In its last few minutes, the program finally got around to taking the dual-camera setup to a likely location for insects. It was at night, and they had to literally beat the bushes, but once the bugs took flight the normal camera captured perfect images of “rods.” On the high-speed camera, one particularly classic image was revealed to be… a moth.
Case closed? Of course not. Escamilla dismisses the debunkers by saying that he’s presented only the “visual evidence,” so the skeptics are not basing their analysis on all of the data. Well, where’s the rest? If there’s more compelling evidence than the easily-explained video images, why not put it out there for the scientific community to examine?
Obviously, people have a huge appetite for such nonsense, and the format (a dramatic buildup followed by a low-key debunking) guarantees an audience among both the gullible and skeptical (they lured me in, didn’t they?). It’s too bad that The History Channel is so desperate for ratings that it’s willing to run sensationalistic fluff with so little connection to its other programming.
But back to the bird connection for a moment. MonsterQuest also includes an episode on reports of gigantic birds in which the evidence includes footage of an obvious Turkey Vulture. The sheer number of reported sightings of animals that shouldn’t exist or at least shouldn’t be where they were reported demonstrates the all-too-human desire to apply extraordinary explanations to ordinary phenomena. Naturally, this carries over to birding. Haven’t we all tried at one time or another to make a poorly seen and/or unusually plumaged bird into something rarer than it actually was? To paraphrase the immortal Harry Nilsson, sometimes we see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear.
I regularly field inquiries from people who believe they’ve seen unusual hummingbirds, but some are more unusual than others. The typical description is of something noticeably smaller than a run-of-the-mill hummingbird but behaving exactly as a hummingbird does. Some believe that they’ve seen “baby hummingbirds,” while others have read or heard about the Bee and/or Bumblebee hummingbirds and interpret the names a bit too literally (neither of these birds is as small as its insect namesake) . Sometimes a report comes from outside this hemisphere, where hummingbirds don’t exist in the wild (at least not in the last few million years).
For many of these inquires, all that’s necessary is to steer the person to illustrations of a likely candidate among the hawk moths. Other times it helps to explain that baby hummingbirds are virtually full grown before they’re capable of feeding themselves, that Bee and Bumblebee hummingbirds don’t occur anywhere near the sighting location, and/or that no hummingbird species anywhere in the world has antennae or more than two legs. In some cases, no evidence I can present will shake the notion that the critter in question was a rare bird and not a common insect. It’s not hard to imagine these same people hearing a debunking of “rods” and saying, “Well, maybe some of them are insects, but what I saw definitely wasn’t.”
This familiar scenario strayed even closer to cryptozoology last year when I received a forwarded request for help in finding a photo of a particular kind of hummingbird. The person making the inquiry had rescued a hummingbird in western Montana years before and wanted a photo of such a bird as a memento of the event. She described it as “as red as a cardinal” and had already rejected the possibility of Rufous Hummingbird. I assured her that the adult male Rufous was the only logical candidate given her description as well as the area in question, and that no hummingbird anywhere in the world is the same shade of red as a cardinal.
“That you know of,” she retorted. “Tell your people up north to keep their eyes open. We are still finding new animals every day.”
True, even the occasional new hummingbird, but these discoveries take place in remote tropical wildernesses, not in Montana. A bright red migratory bird with an attraction to garden flowers and feeders would have a vanishingly small chance of escaping notice for two centuries in such a well-studied corner of North America. It’s a similar problem with giant birds, Sasquatch, and the Loch Ness Monster and its kin. Even the “black panthers” reported in the U.S. and Canada are mostly domestic cats whose dark color makes them appear larger, not escaped exotic cats or near-mythical melanistic Mountain Lions.
I suppose it does no harm for someone to believe that she held an unknown species of hummingbird in her hand, as long as she doesn’t make a cult out of it, but it’s always a letdown when even the most persuasive evidence fails to convince.