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August 26, 2014

Ghost Bird

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Scott Crocker - 2010
Matson Films / Kino Lorber Region 1 DVD

A bird thought to be extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker, is thought to be seen in Eastern Arkansas, in 2004. The discovery brings in ornithologists, reporters, and bird lovers to the small, depressed town of Brinkley. For a very short while, Brinkley is a boom town with gift shops and a couple of new restaurants. There are questions about whether the observed bird was in fact the bird reportedly last seen decades ago. Kind of like the fictional bird, The Maltese Falcon, the ivory-billed woodpecker becomes the stuff that dreams are made of.

Whether that particular woodpecker was seen becomes less important than how the alleged discovery becomes follows a classic trajectory of the fleeting nature of any kind of celebrity, or as the old adage goes, putting one's eggs in one basket. Even without the brief fame from the woodpecker sighting, the story of Brinkley is one of a small community that has its existence based on transitory industries. The forest that once was home for eight species of woodpeckers was cut down by a lumber mill that eventually closed down when there was no more forest. The garment factory that made clothing for Wal-Mart closed when Wal-Mart chose to have their manufacturing done for less money in Third World countries. The forest now is a vast soybean farm. And the nearby Wal-Mart store, the creation of Arkansas native Sam Walton, has devastated Brinkley's small downtown.

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By focusing on Brinkley and the elusive woodpecker, Scott Crocker also provides a better understanding on how changes in the environment, frequently brought about by commercial interests, have caused the extinction of over one hundred species of North American birds. There is also the mind-boggling discussion of proposals to spend millions of dollars to save the ivory-billed woodpecker, some of which is discovered to be at the expense of documented rare birds.

For all of the environmental alarms, this documentary is not without humor. It's easy to see the story of Brinkley's brief brush with fame, and some of the town's more colorful residents, being the source of a comedy by Preston Sturges. That Harvard University has rooms with drawers and drawers of hundreds of stuffed birds almost begs for a reunited Monty Python "dead parrot" sketch.

There is also the clash of egos of the various academics and experts regarding what was seen by various bird watchers. That the woodpecker was thought to be seen in the bayou country for Arkansas makes it a perfect place for a mystery.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 26, 2014 07:47 AM