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Ghost Bird: How a woodpecker united a town hoping for a miracle

3 out of 4 stars


The language is early turn of the last century, but the message is as contemporary as ever.

"When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more," said the early American conservationist William Beebe about extinct animals, "another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again."

The quote appears in the middle of Ghost Bird, an unassuming, clear-headed documentary about the hope that heaven and Earth may have actually produced a miracle, at least this time around, and allowed a species back from extinction - namely, a particular kind of American woodpecker.

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Many of the people in Ghost Bird, particularly residents of the small town of Brinkley, Ark., near where the ivory-billed woodpecker has apparently been sighted, would like to think the miracle is true.

One of the largest breeds of woodpeckers, the ivory-billed was a majestic sight when last observed in close proximity by field researchers in flight in the first half of the last century. Its eyes had a razor-sharp intensity, giving it the exotic appearance of being from a natural world which, even when Beebe said his comment nearly a hundred years ago, is quickly disappearing.

The apparent rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, authenticated by ornithologists at Cornell University and backed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2005, brought a wave of international media attention to tiny Brinkley.

And the town's small rural businesses subsequently did what they could to put out the welcome mat and cash in a little. Apart from rice farming, one of the area's few other economic drivers is winter duck hunting.

So, woodpecker T-shirts were quickly printed and sold. Gene's BBQ started frying up its Ivory-Billed Burgers (a regular hamburger, with mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on a sesame-seed bun, no bird meat). A Super 8 motel became the Ivory Billed Inn. And Penny's Family Hair Care started giving its $25 "woodpecker" haircuts, all this in a community where business after business has closed, like in any other small town in the American south.

Yet for all the optimism, the evidence about the ivory-billed woodpecker's reemergence has been extremely slim. Many claim to have seen it, but only one fleeting, blurry glimpse on video of one of them in flight has been recorded and fully analyzed. The bulk of the documentary is about what exactly that analysis has revealed.

It would be a huge disservice to such a thoughtful, even-tempered film to give it all away here, for the documentary is about so much more than ornithological evidence. It's as much about the loss of a certain quality of human reasoning, as about ecological loss.

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In trips to Yale University and Harvard's immense collections of bird specimens, the documentary offers a sense of the 19th-century's meticulous itemization of species. In stories about field research in the Singer Tract, a tract of land in Louisiana once owned by the Singer company to make wood cabinets for its sewing machines, the film gives a look into the early failures to conserve the land. Just as oak trees with their bark stripped off once revealed the existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers in a forest (the birds would strip the bark with their beaks to get at the beetles which they ate), man's impact has been to disseminate the forests altogether.

And just as the residents of Brinkley are hoping for a short-term economic miracle, the real miracle, as Ghost Bird so thoughtfully shows, would be if the eternal extinction of so much of the nature we depend on for our livelihood, to say nothing of our inspiration, was somehow not true.

Ghost Bird opens Friday at The Projection Booth in Toronto, 1035 Gerrard St. E.

Ghost Bird

  • Directed and written by Scott Crocker
  • Classification: NA
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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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