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Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker really gone? Or do recent claimed sightings put the bird back on the range map of the southeastern United States? In 2005, a brief, video clip of a woodpecker flying in the Cache River NWR, near Brinkley, Arkansas, was publicly welcomed by some local birders, plus ornithologists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as evidence that the Ivory-bill, known to many as the “Lord God Bird,” still lives. Ghost Bird (2009), directed and produced by Scott Crocker of Small Change Productions, documents the ensuing controversy that pitted ornithologists against each other (for example, Ivory-bill expert Jerome Jackson versus the Cornell Lab’s John Fitzpatrick) as the residents of the economically depressed town of Brinkley wonder if the bird’s purported rediscovery will be their ticket to better times as birders begin to converge on the area.
Crocker’s film employs music evocative of the region and reflective of the environmental degradation that has left conservationists and nature-lovers with a profound feeling of loss, while offering vintage and modern-day visuals to tell his story of apparent ruin and possible redemption. Old Ivory-bill footage from the days of Jim Tanner’s groundbreaking 1930s studies of the 20-inch, tin horn-voiced, red-crested icon in the Singer Tract of Louisiana, eerily gorgeous scenes of today’s eastern Arkansan bayous, and interviews with ornithologists and birders reflecting on the reliability of the alleged 2004 rediscovery, as well as Brinkley townspeople hopeful for an improved future, combine for an affecting tale.
Recently, Scott Crocker, the producer and director of Ghost Bird, made time for a few questions about his award-winning film.
Q: What made you decide to make a film about the possible rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?
A: There’s something about … the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and this particular rediscovery at this particular time that is really revealing about us as a people…. It reveals this uneasy relationship we have with nature where we’re watching species disappear, and not just in some random wave of extinction, but as a result of our doing. We’re collectively responsible for this wave of extinctions, and we have to come to grips with it. In that respect, the bird becomes a mirror that we look into.
Q: Your portrayal of Brinkley’s economic problems was moving. Do you see a parallel between the demise of the Ivory-bill and the decline of places like Brinkley?
A: I certainly do. Brinkley becomes its own sort of Ivory-bill, doesn’t it? The people there become like a disappearing species, [with] the disappearing population, jobs being outsourced and sent overseas, and generational differences that are reshaping the fundamental warp and woof of this country.
Q: Is there a culprit common to the demise of the Ivory-bill and Brinkley’s economic straits?
A: One thing that was important to me in making this film was that it not end up leveling a finger at a particular scapegoat. It’s easy for us to step out of the theater after seeing it and feel as though it’s someone else’s problem, that we are relieved it isn’t ours. What I really want people to do after seeing the film is become a little more connected to the fragility of the world and of life, to really have an appreciation for loss, … that inspires people to get involved.
The pivotal scene in the film that addresses this for me is the scene where the hunters are out in the soybean field shooting at Snow Geese. We wrestled with this scene…. Because on the one hand you have these people who are shooting geese out of the sky – isn’t that an awful thing – and maybe [hunters] were responsible for the Ivory-bill going extinct. But when you look into it, you realize that hunting may have taken its toll on the Ivory-bills but [the deciding factor] was really the loss of the forests…. If there is an Ivory-bill near the swamps of Brinkley, Arkansas, it’s because the duck stamps and the hunting licenses have helped pay for those trees to remain standing. There’s irony there.
Then you’re left with a soybean field that used to be a forest. We need the food that’s grown in the field, but where did the trees go, and who cut them down? Of course, you can find a logging company like Chicago Mill and Lumber that cut down the Singer Tract. You can find a company like the Singer Sewing Machine Company that was making those trees into products. But it’s not any one company. It’s not any one sewing machine, or any one person who buys the sewing machine. That’s where it becomes harder to chase the culpability. Our footprint is so large because there are so many of us and we have such a large appetite. Until we can start to address those issues – the number of us and the appetites that we have – it’s hard to have a really meaningful conversation about conservation and extinction.
Q: It was exciting to see the old clip in Ghost Bird of Roger Tory Peterson, who was among the last ornithologists to witness the Ivory-bills at the Singer Tract in Louisiana, urging outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts to “stand up and be counted.” What were you trying to say in using this clip?
A: I just got chills from this film, which looks like it’s from the 70s, when the environmental movement started to get some traction in this country and have a popular face that most people could understand, whether they agreed with it or not. It had a presence in our lives. Seeing [the clip] now, you look back and say, ‘Well, we’ve known the message for going on 40 years now….’ We just haven’t been able to embrace it collectively.
Q: I was teary-eyed watching the 1930s images you included in Ghost Bird of the last Ivory-bills going about their daily business in the Singer Tract.
A: That was part of the first Arthur Allen [Cornell Lab] expedition…. They had a very limited amount of footage from the roost hole of at least one bird coming and going. It’s remarkable how little they got, but, as you know, the thrust of that mission was to record the last [individuals] of species of birds.
Q: Would the passion that birders have for finding the Ivory-bill be there without Arthur Allen’s clips?
A: That’s an interesting question. It goes to the heart of what moves us and how we are emotionally compelled. Certainly, images play a huge role in that. On the other hand, this bird has been so iconic…. Going back to [John James] Audubon and [Mark] Catesby, it had this hold on so many bird artists. I would have to say that the moving images of it only further amplify the connection people already feel for it…. Probably what made it so iconic was that it was unique in its size and striking appearance. Apparently, Native Americans used the bill in the pipes they smoked, as though they were inhaling the spirit of the bird. It had a real totemic power…. If you were Mark Twain on the Mississippi, you would have seen watch fobs that had the skulls of Ivory-bills. The bird had a large hold on the hearts and minds of people.
Q: Will the upcoming Ghost Bird DVD have extras?
A: Yes. One version of it will have a series of scenes that I’d love to have included in the film…. They’re all stand-alone scenes. One is on the [2005-06] discoveries in the Florida panhandle. One scene involves the previous  discoveries of the bird by John Dennis in the [east Texas] Big Thicket. The photographs up in the tree that George Lowery saw [in 1971] and promoted as rediscoveries of the bird. The 2002 Pearl River [Louisiana] expedition. Then there’s another really delightful scene of Jerome Jackson going through his enormous collection of Ivory-bill ephemera and memorabilia.
Scott Crocker’s latest project is called The World’s Fastest Submarine, which examines mankind’s assumption that science will find an answer to humanity’s insatiable need for energy resources. Ghost Bird is on a Cinema for Conservation 2010 Biodiversity Benefit Tour in North America and will be available soon on DVD. For more information, go to http://ghostbirdmovie.com
Editors note: We at BirdFellow would like to thank Elizabeth J. Rosenthal for continuing to lend her writing talents to this journal. Her enthusiasm for digging into complicated issues and personalities is once again on display as it was in "Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson" (published in 2008)) and "Help the Delmarva Ornithological Society Help the Red Knot," which appeared in this journal on 28 April 2009 (http://www.birdfellow.com/journal/archive/2009/4 ). While we will leave it to the professional ornithologists to debate the merits of recent claims of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, we encourage readers to seek out this film. More importantly, we would hope that this article and Scott Crocker's film inspire you and all who read/see these works to think about our relationship with the natural world and take action on behalf of those other species being pushed towards extinction by human cultures that are increasingly less connected to and less aware of the avian beauty in their midst.
All images above appear courtesy of Scott Crocker and Small Change Productions
Have you ever been looking at a bird that you see regularly and suddenly realized that something is amiss and just can't put your finger on it? It's like seeing a friend or a co-worker for the first time after they get new glasses, or change hair styles. When things are familiar to us we take their appearance for granted, causing us to not notice subtle differences that we've probably looked at unconsciously many times.
A couple weekends ago I was taking pictures of a Cedar Waxwing on the North Spit of Coos Bay, Coos County, Oregon and realized that something wasn't right. After a few moments of looking at the bird, it occurred to me that it had no red on its wings. I pointed this out to the others in our group (veteran birders all) and none of us could recall seeing an apparent adult waxwing without the waxy red tips on its secondaries. There was some speculation that perhaps the red tips wear off late in the plumage cycle (waxwings molt once a year in the fall), but none of us knew for sure why this bird was missing the very feature for which it is named.
Upon returning home, this episode slipped my mind until I started editing the pictures I had taken that day. Figuring that there had to be some logical explanation for the absence of red in this bird's wings, I consulted Birds of North America Online (BNA) and found my answer.
A Cedar Waxwing does not acquire waxy red-tipped secondaries until they are replaced during the bird's second prebasic molt, approximately 15 months after hatching. Although waxwings go through a prebasic molt in their first fall (3-4 months after hatching), flight feathers are not replaced. Thus, a first summer bird, which otherwise presents the appearance of an adult, will be sporting flight feathers from its juvenile plumage -- the first full set of feathers after the downy hatchling stage. Like many first year birds, one-year-old Cedar Waxwings generally don't breed. In fact, the BNA account (Witmer et al. 1997) suggests that the waxy tips may be "status symbols" that have some function in mate selection. In our case, we can use this visual clue to know with some degree of certainty that we are looking at a one-year-old bird.
Funny the things that you notice when you take the time to look closely at birds that are normally dismissed with little more than a passing glance. I can't begin to count the thousands of Cedar Waxwings I've seen over the past 30+ years, or how many of those, like this one, were seen during late summer and early fall while I was looking for rare shorebirds along Oregon's outer coast. Sheepishly, I'm left to wonder how many were first summer birds that I looked at without realizing that they were missing something...until now.
Witmer, M.C., D. J. Mountjoy and L. Elliot. 1997. Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedorum), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/309doi:10.2173/bna.309