The Thing with Feathers, by Sarah Brinks
Film maker Judy Irving grew up having dreams about flying. She first saw a pelican in Florida with her grandfather and she felt a special kinship with the birds. She even thinks she looks a bit like a pelican; she grew up tall and awkward and she thinks she has a long face. Irving made the award winning documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill over a decade ago and her fascination in birds has continued.
Pelican Dreams is a nature documentary at its core. About half the film is about a specific California Brown Pelican named GG. She’s named GG because she was rescued off the Golden Gate Bridge and taken to a nearby animal hospital. GG is a three month old pelican who was severely underweight when rescued. Irving saw the arrival of GG as an invitation to explore the world of pelicans through the medium of film.
Irving explores the lives of pelicans in the wild and in a variety of other locations. There are many, many loving shots of pelicans on land, in the air, and at sea. Irving also spends time in various pelican rehabilitation settings. She spends time at the wildlife hospital where GG is recouping under the care of Monte Merrick. They find out she has tapeworms and that is why she is so underweight. She also goes to the home of two wildlife enthusiasts, Billy and Dani, who help birds rehabilitate and return to the wild. One such pelican is named Morro. Morro had a wounded wing that ultimately never healed well enough for him to fly. They couldn’t find a home in a zoo or an educational facility for the bird so they got a license for him and use him as an educational bird. He does live with them but they respect that he is still a wild animal.
Irving does the majority of the voice over in the film, combining hard facts with her personal feelings and observations. She also interviews the various experts we meet throughout the film. Those experts also get to share their personal feeling as well as their professional facts. This technique of using their expert opinions and personal feelings gives the film a more personal feeling while still making it informative. Unlike other documentary filmmakers Irving is not afraid to insert herself into her film.
Irving focuses on the bird’s life cycle but she doesn’t ignore the environmental concerns. In 1970 the California Brown Pelican was put on the endangered species list. Due to ocean pollution with DDT the pelicans’ habitat became toxic and they were nearly incapable of raising young. Using film footage from the 70’s about the pelicans she doesn’t spare you the ugly truth about that time; you see underdeveloped eggs and dead pelicans. Irving also addresses the modern dangers to pelicans such as climate change and fishing. She shows how commercial fishing boats endanger the birds not only by depleting their resources but by getting caught in nets. It’s not all doom and gloom though; we meet Captain Jackie, who runs a fishing boat off the California coast. Captain Jackie, a plucky senior citizen, knows that where there are pelicans, there are fish. She goes out of her way to protect the birds from the fish hooks, educate her clients about pelicans, and doesn’t throw the fish remains in the water. Pelicans swallow fish whole so if they are too big and often choke to death. Irving does show one poor pelican saved by Billy and Dani that had swallowed a huge tuna head. We also see a rescued pelican that had to be disentangled from a fishing line and two hooks removed from its beak by a wildlife rescue team.
For the most part, though, Pelican Dreams is a lighthearted nature documentary that strives to educate and entertain. Pelican Dreams does both successfully. It supplies hard facts about the birds while also demonstrating their beauty and skill. It highlights the unique charm of these unique birds. They are beautiful and skilled fishers but are also clumsy and awkward. Irving’s love for these birds comes through the film and it is hard not to share in her love.