For those of us who don’t get all weak at the knees when we glimpse a golden-crowned kinglet, the notion of sitting through a documentary on bird-watching might fall somewhere between watching taupe-colored paint dry and alphabetizing our thoroughly disorganized spice racks. It would take something monumental to justify a feature film that focused on the practice, which is where the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker comes in. This species was thought to be extinct, until an outdoorsman in Brinkley, Arkansas, spotted an unusual-looking bird, beak-knocking away on a tree, in 2004. Soon, enthusiasts (peckerheads?) and the media started flocking to the area to see this magnificent creature. The area’s local economy perks up, and the ornithological community cries hallelujah. (One birder admits to openly weeping.) Then a few skeptics expressed doubts that, due to certain contradictory evidence, ol’ Woody may not be an ivory-bill. That’s when the guano hits the fan.
Thanks to Scott Crocker’s crisply edited balance of scientific backbiting, naturalist noodling and a macro-philosophizing of what this possible rediscovery might mean, what could have been a niche-specific doc becomes something oddly compelling even for people with no interest in our feathered friends. Still, the film’s tone still occasionally skews a little too dry, which neither a rock soundtrack nor the is-it-or-isn’t-it question can entirely stave off. Ghost Bird has a bad habit of briefly taking flight and then crashing back down into NPR-like stodginess.—David Fear