at the Movies
Five films offer a kaleidoscopic view of ivory-bills, obsession, science, and conservation
By Miyoko Chu
February 3, 2011
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been featured in five films in recent years, each with a unique perspective on the bird and those who seek it.
The Birdpeople (2004) by Michael Gitlin
This film looks at birds and birders as curiosities—interweaving artistically rendered footage, sounds, and narrative: live birds and the people watching them; live birds and the people engaged in the scientific ritual of capturing and banding them; stuffed birds and the people who glean new knowledge from specimens. The tale of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker surfaces throughout in book passages, voiceovers of modern-day scientists, offbeat third-person commentary, and a foray into the field with a team of top birders looking for ivory-bills in the Pearl River area of Louisiana in 2002.
The Birdpeople premiered in 2004, seven months before the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and partners announced the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery in the Big Woods of Arkansas.
Woodpecker (2008) by Alex Karpovsky
Woodpecker is a blend of fact and fiction, a so-called “ficumentary” that tests the boundary between real and unreal as the story unfolds. The film’s real-life characters include David Sibley, renowned bird expert and ivory-bill skeptic, Allan Mueller, a wildlife biologist with The Nature Conservancy, and citizens of Brinkley, Arkansas. The story of obsession develops through the film’s two fictional characters, Johnny (an Army veteran/house painter/poet/birder) and his bewildered pal Wesley (who comes along on the ivory-bill quest to keep his mind off his recently failed marital engagement). Against the story’s backdrop—Johnny’s inability to find and photograph a bird that may or may not be there—Karpovsky reveals the humor, hope, despair, and resilience in the ivory-bill’s story—both in fiction and in reality.
Ghost Bird (2009) by Scott Crocker
The premise of Ghost Bird is that when people hope to see a vanished species, it leads them to see “ghosts” of species that are gone. It tells the story of hope through interviews with the residents of Brinkley, Arkansas, and their excitement about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery revitalizing their town. It develops the story of doubt through interviews with skeptics David Sibley, Richard Prum, Jerome Jackson, and others. “Ghost Bird” tells the larger story of the loss of an iconic species and the bottomland hardwood forests of the South, yet it presents a divisive angle on endangered species funding and omits perspectives from the greater conservation community working to save birds and habitats. For more information about the scientific evidence and actual expenditures, please see Q&A: Ivory-billed Woodpeckers at the Movies.
The Lord God Bird (in production), directed by George Butler
The Lord God Bird is a documentary film now in production by White Mountain Films in partnership with National Geographic, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and The Nature Conservancy. It presents an expansive historical perspective on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and humans’ relationship with our environment, told through the story of the bottomland forests of the South. The film also explores the scientific debate surrounding the announcement of its rediscovery in 2005. It includes interviews with skeptics Jerome Jackson and Richard Prum as well as Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher, who claimed they saw an ivory-bill—and the search team members, scientists, and conservationists involved in subsequent search efforts.
Terrebonne (2011) by Jeremy Craig
Terrebonne is a fictional film that begins with a reported sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and ends (as all too many real-life stories do) with lingering questions about the bird’s existence. The storyline revolves around the poignant notion that Terrebonne Parish is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, a modern extension of the disappearance of the southern swamps over the past century, along with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and a whole way of life. In just 14 minutes, this short film explores the tensions between an eleven-year-old boy, his older sister, and a local ornithologist as they search the swamp together, each for different reasons.
When I was growing up, the only bird movie I’d ever heard about was Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie, “The Birds.” It’s amazing that since 2004, five different filmmakers have been inspired to make films about a single bird species—the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Whether their approach is artsy, funny, controversial, historic, or poetic, these films demonstrate the power of a bird to affect personal lives, politics, and an entire nation’s consciousness.
Miyoko Chu is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s director of communications. She is the author of Songbird Journeys and Birdscapes.