Lord God Bird
Starz Denver Film Festival
Directed by George Butler

Hell, it wasn’t just grown men crying at the thought of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker. I cried too, for all the times that some piece of land where I used to wander had been developed, for the fact that I’ll never see a flock of passenger pigeons darkening the sky.

And please understand, the men crying in these movies are hunters, backwoods types, comfortable traveling through swamps where they could float past a crocodile in their canoe. They know the area so well they “have the trees named.” (I think I saw one female researcher in this movie.)

Butler must like tough guys—his first movie was Pumping Iron, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star. His next movie will be about Bengal tigers in the Sundarbans (India), which he says are quickly going extinct. He hopes Lord God Bird will draw attention to the problems of extinction.

This movie is thick with the politics of ornithology. Who’d have thought there was such a thing? But in the mid-twentieth century, saying you’d seen an ivory-billed woodpecker was death to your career.

It opens with John Dennis, Jr., son of a man who said he saw the ivory-bill in the 1960s and was mocked for it. Everyone thought it had gone extinct in the 1940s.

John Dennis, Sr., became obsessed with proving himself and kept going to the Big Thicket in Texas year after year. One year he made a recording of the call, which sounds like a cartoon character saying meep, meep, and sent it off to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to compare to their 1944 recording. They dithered around and then eventually implied he’d somehow made a copy of the 1944 recording of the bird’s call.

To his son, the search for the ivory-bill is the “search for a lost part of American heritage” and also a chance for him to vindicate his late father.

Even if you’re not a birder or would shoot a woodpecker as soon as look at it, go see this movie for the landscapes and their light. Most Americans won’t get a chance—or wouldn’t be caught dead—floating through cypress swamps, but they do make for great armchair traveling. The cinematography is stunning.

There’s so much more I could say about this movie. I could tell you about all the reported sightings, about the lone female ivory-bill calling and calling with no answer, about the men crawling up trees and vacuuming debris out of holes in the hopes of finding a feather, about the Singer Tract and the airport in the Florida panhandle that will destroy habitat (in which ivory-bills might live), about the trays and trays of dead ivory-bills shot for museum collections in the nineteenth century.

But I’ll leave you with the final image of the movie: a big man covered in shredded camouflage, sitting at the base of a huge cypress, his ivory-bill decoy moving back and forth above him, calling. He sits there, and he listens.

Best quote from a movie so far
“Get on the pecker bench.” (Florida)

Bird continuity
Count Basie’s band used to play at Birdland.

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Leave A Comment

  1. BernardL November 21, 2008 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    I’m for conservation as long as we all remember we’re part of nature too. Many times when they decimate cities and industries with a fiasco like the spotted owl mess years back, people adapt with cruel efficiency. When they spotted the spotted owl, it was shot and buried deep. Survival is a rough mother.

  2. Beth Partin November 21, 2008 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Yeah, there’s a lot of that shoot-first mentality around, and I think the government contributed to it by being heavy-handed. Have you heard of the Safe Harbor program? It was designed by Environmental Defense and now there are millions of acres enrolled in it. It gives landowners a measure of security–if they agree to take certain measures to improve habitat on their land, then they won’t be penalized if endangered species show up after the agreement is signed.

  3. Amber's Crazy Bloggin' Canuck November 22, 2008 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Beth, I have to tell you that your left-hand column completely covers up your top entry every time I come visit so I can’t read it. This hasn’t happened on any other blogs so I’m wondering what the deal is with the formatting?

  4. Beth Partin November 22, 2008 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    Amber, I’m not sure what the problem is. It doesn’t appear that way on my desktop or my laptop. My husband checked it in Firefox and Safari and it looked fine. Are you using Internet Explorer to read my blog? Maybe that’s the problem?