Not quite a phoenix, but still possibly risen from the ashes

Ghost Bird

on April 30, 2010 by John P. McCarthy
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What can make a grown ornithologist cry? One answer, as seen in Scott Crocker’s Ghost Bird, is the belief that the Ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct after all. A few seconds of blurry video shot in eastern Arkansas around 2003 is enough for the Cornell scientist in question to shed tears of joy yet doesn’t convince his peers—or, ultimately, convince Crocker, who has fashioned an eco-doc that acknowledges the complexity of conservation issues without diluting its own activist stance. Manhattan birders should turn out for the movie’s brief run at Anthology Film Archives, where it will unreel alongside other avian flicks.

Ghost Bird is a story about wish fulfillment and judgment being clouded by hope, although the setting is not Bill Clinton’s birthplace, Hope, but rather the town of Brinkley, Arkansas, near where alleged sightings of the majestic woodpecker earlier this century caused a kind of hysteria. No one had spied an Ivory-billed woodpecker in well over fifty years. The impact on the community was enormous. Businesses geared up for an influx of eco-tourism. The proprietor of a local BBQ joint lists dishes he named after the bird and various hunters and outdoorsmen from the area testify about the phenomenon, likened by one to Elvis being found alive. The head of Brinkley’s Chamber of Commerce provides entertaining quotes (“The UPS guy said he saw it, and I kinda trust him.”) while discussing the anticipated and much-needed economic windfall.

As a result of the many sightings and the credibility they were given by certain overeager scientists and officials, the Bush administration’s Fish & Wildlife Service poured $10 million dollars into the surrounding wilderness to preserve the pecker’s habitat. The funds were siphoned-off from other efforts to help endangered species, which makes the lack of hard evidence for the bird’s miraculous rebirth all the more troubling. Two leading academics, author and bird illustrator David Sibley and a blogger from Minnesota, weigh in challenging the flimsy proof that Ivory-billed woodpeckers had migrated from the land of the extinct back into the swamp forests of southeastern America.

This was more than an intramural skirmish within the ornithological community. In addition to examining the evidence (people were probably spotting Pileated woodpeckers) and interviewing experts, Crocker places the ensuing controversy within the broad history of the environmental movement. The demise of the Ivory-billed woodpecker led directly to the establishment of The Nature Conservancy and to the passing of the Endangered Species Act. Visiting a few Ivy League labs, we glean how collecting scientific specimens likely hastened the bird’s extinction and learn about other species, such as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, which are also no longer extant. Crocker employs title cards to relay factoids designed to drive home the need for immediate action to save the many kinds of birds that are threatened at present (he points viewers to the film’s web site www.ghostbirdmovie.com).

The movie’s main pitfall is that Crocker tips his hand too early and doesn’t leave his narrative and argument anywhere to go. It’s apparent from the beginning that he doesn’t completely believe and is at least partly in debunking mode. One result is that he scoops himself and undercuts the suspense. Some viewers will find his attempt to link the Bush administration’s actions regarding the Ivory-billed woodpecker to the invasion of Iraq as tendentious and unnecessary. Along with footage of Donald Rumsfeld, he flashes the Defense Secretary’s infamous line about WMD, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,” which is, of course, a rephrasing of the axiom that you can’t prove a negative. On the bright side, the lack of conclusive evidence for the bird’s existence hasn’t led to any deaths that we know of.

Despite its flawed structure and D.I.Y. feel (Crocker wrote, edited and produced the piece, in addition to directing), Ghost Bird has teeth. The overarching lesson is twofold: environmental issues are never as simple or as cut-and-dried as we would like, and the first order of business is to get the science right. One interviewee pithily expresses a practical message for conservationists seeking funding for their pet causes: “If you don’t believe, you don’t receive.” Another memorable if, sadly, more fleeting slogan from the film is seen plastered around the town of Brinkley—“The Bird is the Word!”

Distributor: Anthology Film Archives
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Scott Crocker
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 85 min.
Release date: April 28 NY

Tags: documentary, environmental, nature, extinction, animals
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