An air of mystery pervades the expertly constructed Ghost Bird, and like any good ghost story, what is and isn’t real is hardly apparent at the end of the film. In this documentary by Scott Crocker, the ghost is a huge woodpecker and its haunt is the swamps of Arkansas, where birders hope to spy the rare creature with the enthusiasm of schoolchildren venturing into a supposedly haunted house.
Crocker’s film manages to be both deeply informative and undeniably engaging at the same time—no small feat considering the convoluted and specific nature of its story. It all began in 2004 in Brinkley, Ark., where the previously thought extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker was captured on video.
Simple enough, right? Well, not exactly, as the brief flash of wings the actual video shows is anything but conclusive. Nevertheless, the news sets off a firestorm in two very different worlds—the ornithology community, which approaches the sighting with a mixture of skepticism and excitement, and the town of Brinkley itself, where the citizens transform every familiar small town vestige—the diner, the hotel, the barber shop—into a woodpecker destination. You can get a woodpecker T-shirt, eat a woodpecker burger and even get a woodpecker haircut. Nothing can dampen the fervor.
But a consensus seems to emerge from a number of ornithologists that the bird captured on the video probably isn’t an Ivory-billed, but the similar and much more common Pileated Woodpecker. No one wants the Ivory-billed to be extinct, but not a single subsequent sighting is recorded.
A divide begins to emerge between the educated scientists and the townspeople, who have divergent opinions and motivations, but the film doesn’t condescend to either side or create a class rift just for thematic purposes. For some, birds are a profession, for some, a hobby, and for some, an element that defines a town’s identity. Crocker ensures that we hear from representatives from each world—fascinating characters each playing a part in an eco-mystery that might never be satisfyingly solved.
Ghost Bird possesses sharp acumen in regards to the science surrounding the mysteries of the phantom bird, sympathy for its cast of characters and a slightly detached wit that acknowledges the quirks of the obsession without condemning them. The search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker leaves the searchers wanting; the film doesn’t follow suit.
The DVD of the film comes courtesy of Microcinema, and includes more than 40 minutes of deleted scenes.