Scott Crocker’s documentary follows the pursuit of a bird that may or may not exist: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. Once a ubiquitous presence across the Southeastern United States, the bird’s numbers were decimated by over-hunting and the wanton destruction of its habitat. The last confirmed sighting took place in 1944, when a solitary female was observed in lonely flight.
However, many people have refused to declare the bird as being extinct. Unconfirmed sightings, mostly in Arkansas, took place during the early part of the last decade, and in 2004 a research team from Cornell University videotaped what it claimed to be a male specimen. This created a sense of euphoria within the scientific community – but the joy turned to acrimony when the pronouncement of the bird’s rediscovered was bluntly disputed by leading ornithologists that claimed the bird in the video was a Pileated Woodpecker, which looks similar and is in great abundance.
“Ghost Bird” offers a rueful consideration of the circumstances that drive species into extinction. Visits to university ornithological collections present an examination of preserved Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimens, along with the preserved remains of more celebrated extinct birds including the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet. The film also presents very rare photographs and 16mm film footage taken from a 1940 expedition that documented the last remaining flock of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (a mere five birds).
Strangely, the film gives only passing mention (right before the closing credits) to a 2006 sighting of the species in Florida and nothing about an Ivory-billed Woodpecker subspecies in Cuba, which has not been seen since the 1980s.
Crocker allows both sides of the scientific debate to have their say. However, the film also spends a great deal of time absorbing the local flavor of the small city of Brinkley, Arkansas, which briefly cashed in on the news coverage of the alleged species rediscovery. Local businesses began adding “Ivory-billed” items to their product line-up, and a rash of tacky souvenirs were created for the bird watchers and scientists that launched their wilderness search for the species from Brinkley. Although the Brinkley business leaders are a colorful lot and could easily warrant their own film, Crocker gives them far too much screen time, which results in the diluting of the film’s avian focus.
To date, there has been no additional photographic or video evidence to support the bird’s existence. Yet believers in the bird’s survival have not admitted they are wrong. However, “Ghost Bird” clearly suggests that this type of wishful thinking has frayed the basic tenets of logic – this is one film where it is impossible to create a happy ending.