Film Review

Why the Cagey Woodpecker Sings

Strange things happen when America’s favorite avian MIA returns from the dead.

By Eric Scigliano October 15, 2010

David Sibley was among the first to question the ivory bill’s resurrection.

The idea is just weird enough to make either a great documentary or one stretched thin as spaghettini. The Ghost Bird, showing tonight only at the Northwest Film Forum, is overdrawn at points. But it’s mostly mesmerizing, occasionally hilarious, and in the end haunting.

The Ghost Bird chronicles the hope and hype that rise when that most charismatic of missing mega-species, the ivory-billed woodpecker, is apparently rediscovered in an Arkansas swamp after 50 or 60 lost years. Locals flock to cash in on birder tourism—40 charter flights from England alone! Cornell ornithologists claim to have not just seen but filmed an ivory bill. Bush administration officials, led by Interior Secretary Gail Norton herself, gleefully announce millions in funds to protect the born-again wonder bird.

Filmmaker Scott Crocker just as gleefully replays the Bushies footage in creepy Errol Morris-style slo mo as the happy tale unravels. Scientific reputations are wrecked and tourist-boom plans dashed; the “confirmed” sighting was really a common pileated woodpecker. The Ivory Bill Motel resumes being Motel 8.

Crocker notes how hundreds of other bird species are vanishing, how museums helped exterminate the ivory bill through over-collecting, and how the Bushies swiped funds for it from less glamorous but definitely existent endangered species. Still I wish he and his on-camera voices of reason (notably the master bird painter David Sibley) had gone further and asked why the back-from-the-dead story captures so many imaginations and serves so many interests.

Those who think they’ve seen or heard the ghost bird call it transformative, a “spiritual” experience. But greed for glory clearly draws the binocular-slinging hordes, at who-knows-what cost in extinction-wreaking greenhouse emissions. And back-from-the-dead tales give cover to officials who meanwhile block other endangered listings and open vast wildlands to mining and drilling. Such myths suggest we needn’t worry about habitat and climate; nature will take care of herself. And so nature will, one way or other, in the end. The Ghost Bird shows Friday at 7 and 9pm at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave, Seattle, 800-838-3006. Director Scott Crocker will attend at 7.

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