Scientists thought the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was extinct. And then people began seeing it again.
Dir. Scott Crocker, 2009, 85 min
While extinction is a natural part of the cycle of life, I find very few phenomena more disheartening than animals driven to extinction by human activity. Each final death of a species makes the world a little less diverse, a little less colorful. For people who love animals, or who just, you know, care about things, the idea of a creature thought long gone turning out to not be gone after all is a powerfully resonant one. That possibility of hope is what Ghost Bird is all about.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker once populated the southeastern forests of the United States. It was called “The Lord God Bird” for what people might often say upon seeing it, due to its immense size and beauty. It was the largest species of woodpecker in North America, and one of the largest in the world. With its two-and-a-half foot wingspan, distinctive black-and-white plumage, and striking red crest, the Ivory-billed cut a majestic figure. But logging of the bird’s natural habitat, as well as hunting, severely cut its numbers. By the mid-1940’s, it was generally accepted that the Ivory-billed was extinct.
Fast-forward to 2004. After locals of Brinkley, a small town in Arkansas, repeatedly sighted birds that seemed to match the description of the Ivory-billed, ornithologists swooped in to investigate. Eventually, they believed that they caught specimens on both video and audio, and released their findings to the public. A storm ensued. Birders descended in droves on Brinkley, hoping to catch sight of a woodpecker. Government money was promised to create a conservation effort. But through it all, some scientists disputed the initial findings. A controversy ensued over whether the Ivory-billed was or wasn’t still alive.
This is a story about faith battling science, without any religion involved. In the social spheres that this film traverses, most everyone badly wants the Ivory-billed to still exist. Bird-lovers have one more species to appreciate. Environmentalists have a figurehead to lobby for. The residents of Brinkley have a great, unique tourist attraction. But their wants and hopes can’t will this bird back to life. And as the film goes on, it seems increasingly likely that the Ivory-billed is in fact extinct.
In pursuing this idea of unreasonable faith, the film makes comparisons to the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. While that may sound over-the-top, it’s actually rather appropriate. The hullaballoo over the woodpecker was just as chaotic as the War, albeit on a much, much smaller scale, and with far lower stakes. Like the hunt for WMDs, outside parties opportunistically pounced on the situation to further their own agendas. The Department of the Interior angled for more money, for instance. It was a sad mess of bad intentions, as well as good intentions producing unintentionally negative results. The publicity for the Ivory-billed woodpecker has drawn attention from the plight of critically endangered bird species, ones whom we know we can help, but who have trouble getting it. These are the consequences of allowing heedless hope to override all other concerns.
Fitting in with the inherent melancholy of its subject, the movie has a rather gloomy atmosphere. The Arkansas swampland looks like a cemetery on a moor. The trees rise stark and skeletal out of the mists, appearing sad and lonely. It’s the exact kind of place you would expect to spot a ghost.
Ghost Bird is a mournful film about people desperately trying to reach into the raging river of time and seize hold of a trinket threatening to wash away. It slips through their fingers, but they keep grasping for it. The documentary showcases two sides of human folly: the kind that has us recklessly destroy other living things, and the kind that has us uselessly working over lost causes. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a symbol of both kinds. If we’re smart, we’ll use it as a reminder to not forget the past, and to let it go as well.