Scott Crocker’s marvellous film “Ghost Bird” got its World Premiere this week at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. The story of the rediscovery of the ‘holy grail’ for birdwatchers, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and the effect of the rediscovery on the dying town of Brinkley, Arkansas. Crocker makes parallels of our development of the natural habitat which caused the bird’s extinction and the sad irony of the downfall of these once developing towns. With it’s mix of humour and dramatic poignancy, the film is one of the better docs I’ve seen this festival.
I had a chance to talk to Scott about his film:
DFD: How you first came to the subject matter of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?
Scott: This is the story which crossed over from the birding population into the wider media because it was such an amazing and astounding discovery. It was presumed extinct for 60 years or so and while people had made claims of sightings, none had been confirmed. And so when they finally confirmed in 2005 at a press conference in Washington DC every one just sat up and were amazed. And so the story went from the science section to the front page of the newspapers. That’s when I saw it. Since I’m a fiction and documentary filmmaker I just found the ingredients of it kind of amazing and interesting - almost in an absurdist way. All these people trouncing through swamps to find this giant woodpecker. It had the ingredients of a Samuel Beckett play as well.
DFD: I had never heard of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Had you heard of the bird? Do you have a background in birding?
Scott: My background is in anthropology. I come to my subjects more through a cultural lens rather than, in this case, from a birding background. What appealed to me was the multidimensional nature of the story. Not only the Woodpecker and its rediscovery but the town, the scientists, their work, the birding population and how they were just elated in the rediscovery in this species. Many of these birders had read about it as kids and lived their whole lives thinking they’d never see it, and then to wake up one day to read in the paper that it was alive and well in eastern Arkansas. They couldn’t have been happier. All those things just kind of rung true and appealed to me. And having made a previous documentary in the south, I had an affection for the people and the culture.
DFD: I often find good documentaries are about people obsessed with the minutiae of things. And me, not knowing anything about the Woodpecker, this is how I saw it at the beginning. Gradually as I learned more about the species and more and the history of the town .The world got larger for me. Is that how you saw it?
Scott: Yeah, when I started working on the story it was in Dec 2005, so it was before the real scepticism about whether the bird had been found or not had been made public. It was being felt in the hearts and minds of some scientists but no one had published anything yet. The public had yet to confront that angle of the story, so my principal interest partly had to do with the obsessed nature of the birders. They cultivate this uncanny ability to recognize species with the smallest amount of information. That’s kind of the sign of a great birder is their ability literally identify something from the corner of their eye, because they know how it flies, the habitat it lives in and other identifying features. And as soon as you snap your fingers they’ve identified it. So that level of intense focus and obsession was one of things that appealed to me.
DFD: It seems ironically that that was what caused the trouble, because there’s another bird exactly like the Ivory-Billed. Do you think obsessiveness of the birders caused all this controversy?
Scott: It was the monkey wrench in the hole. The Piliated Woodpecker (which looks very similar to the Ivory-Billed) persists in the same area. In fact you could find them in Tacoma Washington to Arkansas to the east coast. It’s a bird with much wider spread population than the Ivory-Billed ever had. Piliated was sort of the centrepiece around which the controversy started once people started questioning what were they seeing. And going back to idea of the snapshot of something in their minds eye and calling it a species, this is called GISS, which in the birding world stands for General Impression Size and Shape – and the quicker you can do that the better the birder you are as long as you can confirm it. What became an issue here is any of these sightings were birds in flight and glimpsed at various distances. I believe it was Tim Gallagher recounting his sighting of the bird, the distance kept getting a bit closer each time he told the story, if you see a bird and you’re not sure if its 60 feet or 40 feet, that’s the difference in size between the Piliated and the Ivory-Billed. You think its 40 feet and its really 60, if there was an Ivory-Billed there you could misidentify it for a piliated and the reverse is true. So that can trigger too, at least for the sceptics, the toolbox of issues it brought up.
DFD: Talk about the parallel of the dying town with the extinction of the bird. I think those two go hand in hand and makes a great throughline for the film.
Scott: I’m really glad you picked up on that. It was a parallel that I felt and wanted to articulate and bring across in a meaningful way, because in the town’s hope of this bird being out there also hope of their own resurrection. So there was a second coming of the bird and the town. Because Brinkley had once been a somewhat majestic town. I believe it was the Rhode Island Line Railroad that ran through there before it went bankrupt and the Union Pacific perhaps. They crossed paths right there in Brinkley. It was a major train switching area and it brought a lot of commerce to the region. And the main highway also ran through Brinkley. But when the Interstate came though people stopped driving through Brinkley proper and when the one railroad went bust the town started to see its fortunes diminish further. And it’s been kind of the same story for a lot of small rural towns in America. The role of interstate and big box stores like Walmart, Target and this development has really diminished the futures of these small cities. It’s been really kind of tragic. So there is this diminishing of local culture along with a sort of natural world that surrounds it. And the two paths are really interconnected. It asks questions about sustainability. Where there was once a thriving downtown, at what point do you sit up and go, ‘we need to stop the development that’s really gutting our small towns of viable businesses because these franchises are coming in and replacing them.’
DFD: How is Brinkley doing right now?
Scott: As you would predict in seeing the movie things have continued to deteriorate to the extent that the world’s only Ivory-Billed gift shop has closed and tourism has fallen off. The promise that people are going to flood in has not been fulfilled. The search itself has really been scaled back. There was less than 10 people searching this winter, which is my understanding. Actually more people from the same search party have relocated to southern Florida. So in many respects the same scientists who put Brinkley on the map have now decamped to another state. They’ve taken the funding and run.