Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Ghost Bird: Is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker Extinct—or Not?

This weekend I traveled up the interstate to Maine International Film Festival  in Waterville to see the American Premiere of Ghost Bird, a documentary by filmmaker Scott Crocker about the events surrounding the extraordinary sightings of the ivory billed woodpecker in the swamps of Arkansas in the winter of 2004, a bird that was supposed to be extinct.

This is a thoughtful, entertaining film that should be required viewing for anyone who works in applied science, or for anyone who has ever wanted a window into the remote world of scientific enquiry.  Crocker, an anthropologist by training, takes us through flooded woodlands, where trees stand in silent memorials to a forgotten primeval landscape and then into the economically depressed town of Brinkley, where the alleged sighting (or sightings) of the ivory billed woodpecker has catapulted the town and its residents into international fame.  Can financial prosperity in the form of thousands of avid bird watchers be far behind? 

The story starts with the announcement that the ivory billed woodpecker has been discovered and then follows the controversy backwards and forwards as questions are raised about whether the indistinct video of a large bird flying away and the reports of visual sightings constitute proof of that the woodpecker does indeed exist.

Among my most memorable images of the movie are these:

Memories shared by Nancy Tanner–the only person living today who recorded and photographed the last known ivory billed woodpeckers with her husband, ornithologist Jim Tanner.

The careful and heart-wrenching analysis by Dave Sibley (author and illustrator of the Sibley bird guides) who initially searched the Arkansas forest for signs of the ivory billed and later would be one of the scientists who raised questions about the validity of the evidence.

The interviews of the residents of Brinkley, Arkansas who found often hilarious opportunities to capitalize on the public’s sudden thirst for all things woodpecker.

The sterile trays of dead ivory billed woodpeckers revealed in the vaults of university collections.

This is a tale told with intelligence, exquisite tact and gentle irony.  Does the bird exist?  Crocker lets the viewers decide for themselves whether the evidence is convincing.  In the end most are likely to conclude “we just don’t know.”

The visual imagery paired with a killer soundtrack made this watchable for anyone, but for those work on a daily basis to use science to inform public policy, this is a movie that will make us think and think again about the impact of our decisions on the natural world and society.

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