Bird Watching

Scott Crocker, Ghost Bird, 2009, color video, 85 minutes. Production stills.

BACK IN 2005, a couple of birdwatchers kayaking through the swamps of rural Brinkley, Arkansas, managed to capture on their digital video camera the fluttering white wings of a distant woodpecker. After reviewing the images, the amateur ornithologists claimed it was the first confirmed sighting in sixty years of the once-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. American birders—and there are more than fifty million of them—were stunned.

News outlets quickly seized on the story, as did scholars at Science, who published a detailed analysis of the footage and concluded that, yes, the ivory-billed was still alive. Tourism in Brinkley skyrocketed, followed by everything from ivory-billed museums to woodpecker-themed hotels. The US government, after also verifying the footage, shifted millions of dollars from other bird conservation programs to fund a revival of the ivory-billed habitat. Bird experts headed south to spend a couple weeks out in the swamp. Here, some prominent birders quickly became skeptics: They found little evidence of woodpecker presence, and became convinced that the area was not remote enough to explain the six decades of silence. It was these skeptical scientists who returned to the original footage and, after seeing far more white on the bird’s wings than black, agreed that this was not an ivory-billed but a pileated woodpecker. Publicly questioning the conclusions of both Science and the federal government, these dissenters became the pariahs of the mainstream birding community.

In his film on the subject, Ghost Bird, director Scott Crocker proves shrewd in his slow reveal of the hysteria that descends on Brinkley in the months after the ivory-billed discovery. Beginning in the magical silence of the swamp, he unveils a network of crass commercialization. For the Brinkley Chamber of Commerce, there’s a hefty price tag attached to this rare bird. Crocker also lines the film with statistics about other endangered birds, implying that conservation funds are being siphoned away from species in need. But if Ghost Bird begins as a portrait of a quirky wildlife debate, it ultimately concludes that truth itself is under attack in Brinkley. After the Science article is published, Cornell University and the feds announce their verdict on the amateur video, and all scholarly debate grinds to a screeching halt. And when a handful of renowned academics attempt to present contrary evidence, they are not only ignored but shunned.

Far more haunting than the images of profiteering are the larger implications that truth itself has become subjective. To illustrate his point, Crocker abruptly pauses the narrative to turn to well-worn archival footage of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld as he plays a calculated rhetorical game of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” with the press, deflecting blame for military complications during the Iraq war. Apart from an endangered bird and an equally endangered town, Ghost Bird considers the ways in which collegial debate, intellectual rigor, and a collective desire for objective truth are in danger of extinction.

Ghost Bird opens April 28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.