original format: 16mm / color / sound
running time: 61:00
A loosely-knit community of birdwatchers in New York's Central Park; ornithologists with their specimen collections at a dozen different natural history museums; bird banders gingerly extracting birds from mist nets and collecting data in upstate New York; six people searching for an extinct bird in a Louisiana bayou: these are the strands that are woven together by The Birdpeople as it documents a passionate fixation. Part cultural history, part self-reflexive anthropology, by turns humorous and elegiac, The Birdpeople examines the pleasures and problems of looking and naming, and investigates the social construction of nature, centered on ornithology and its amateur counterpart, birdwatching.
One thread of the film centers on the interiorized ecology of urban birdwatching. For birders, the loss of nature is compensated for through the pleasure of naming. This taxonomic delirium presents itself in birding's obsessive attention to minute differences of morphology and markings, and underlies such birding rituals as the Life List, an individual birder's comprehensive database of all species seen.
Another strand of the film concerns the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, an iconic species of the Southeastern swamps and bottomlands. Though it was long presumed extinct, there were numerous unconfirmed sightings over the years, each one setting off a new round of frenzied speculation about the bird's possible survival in some hidden and undisturbed pocket of its old habitat. The Birdpeople, which was completed before the announcement of the bird's apparently definitive re-discovery in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas, documents the January 2002 search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the bayous near Slidell, Louisiana.
The story of the near disappearance of the Ivorybill is not only about what has vanished, it's also about what remains. There are over 400 Ivory-billed Woodpecker study skins or specimen mounts in natural history museums and university collections around the world. Most of these specimens were collected between 1885 and 1915, during a period in which the bird's disappearance was already becoming evident. Filmed in museums around the eastern United States, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, The Birdpeople gathers together dozens of Ivorybill specimens as a kind of impossible recuperation of the species, an elegiac recovery through images, that uses as its centerpiece the early 19th-century artist and naturalist Alexander Wilson's heartbreaking account of his encounter with an Ivorybill in a Wilmington North Carolina hotel room.
The images of birds in the film, optically printed from kodachrome super 8, form a re-occurring counterpoint to the portraits of the bird people. Rather than bringing the birds into an anthropomorphized and sympathetic relationship to the viewer, these worked-over images foreground the birds' inassimilable otherness and the strange edges of their beauty.