An enthusiast’s documentary nearly as rare as its very possibly extinct subject, Ghost Bird uses testimony, history, and dialect-driven landscape to successfully infect us with the same awe-saturated curiosity that inspires the film’s impassioned talking heads. As a summary of recent alleged rediscoveries of the ivory-billed woodpecker, and their investigative rebuttals, the movie has a redundantly cyclical structure; we bounce back and forth between confident cries of “We found it!” and subsequent returns to “Oh…I guess we didn’t” sobriety. And pitched aimlessly between a fanatic’s guide (but lacking exclusive information that might make it essential viewing for aficionados) and a layman’s crash course in obsessive ornithology (but featuring a few too many deep-science interviews) the film isn’t likely to satisfy either demographic. The sweet spot Ghost Bird nails with gusto, however, is the individual casually intrigued by biology but content to appreciate its surface aesthetics; the undeniable attraction of the woodpecker is the documentary’s worthy focus.
And it is, truly, a numinous animal, with a proud black-and-white wingspan, intimidating ebony talons, and a bone-like beak suggestive of assiduousness; it’s so breathtaking, in fact, that it earned the nickname “Lord God bird” after observers’ tendency to blurt out ecclesiastical interjections. Even more remarkable, director Scott Crocker manages to impress us with the woodpecker’s mythos and anatomy despite a dearth of photographic representation; a few black-and-white stills exist from the early 1900s, but all that remains from after the bird’s disappearance in the ‘40s are emphatic testimonies from naturalist Arkansas locals. Crocker might linger a bit too long on the latter (his lengthy examination of the recent sightings’ impact on the small town of Brinkley and its newfound tourist economy crescendos embarrassingly with a collection of country bumpkinisms), but discussions with the widow of ivory-billed expert James T. Tanner, and a curator at Harvard’s ornithology department, home to dozens of taxidermically preserved campephilus principalis, provide more than enough apologia for the bird’s rich cult following.
The politics of the search for the woodpecker, led by a team from Cornell University, are far less rewardingly recounted, though their exclusion would have robbed the documentary of its only dramatic arc. As with most scientific studies, the cut-throat competition for further funding is a primary influence, and at one point in the film a group of biologists withdraw a skeptical publication on the ivory-billed woodpecker’s discovery for fear of having conservation agreements concerning the Cache River area reversed. Still, Crocker organizes this information to insinuate a daring ecological message: At a crucial juncture, the race to locate the woodpecker is interrupted by an ornithologist who perfunctorily but convincingly suggests that man’s desire to study the species led to dubiously unsustainable examination practices that may have catalyzed its endangerment. While the inconclusive nature of Ghost Bird is powerfully tantalizing, we respectfully agree with the film’s implied thesis: Knowing definitively that the ivory-billed woodpecker still lives is less important than knowing that it is, or once was, a thing of beauty.