Arts & Events

Pelican Dreams: If You Love Birds, This Movie Fills the Bill
At Berkeley's Elmwood Theater

Gar Smith
Friday October 24, 2014 - 11:36:00 AM

Note: Director Judy Irving will be on stage for a Q&A after Saturday's 7:20PM screening. 

It's hard to follow a film like The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. After all, how often does a documentary feature an eccentric guitar-plucking parrot-protector who is so charming that the director falls in love with him and they get married? As a story, Pelican Dreams doesn't rise to the emotional heights of Parrots but, as a visual treat, it stands on its own two legs—as does "Gigi," the film's feathered protagonist. Pelican Dreams is a visual poem of serene, primordial beauty. 


Director Judy Irving named the bird "GG" after watching a TV news report that captured the "arrest" of a confused pelican trapped in the middle of the Golden Gate bridge. The young three-month-old female was thin, dehydrated, and clearly confused. Who better than Judy Irving to lead us through the trials and tribulations of a wayward bird? 

Since there is not that much of a story arc to deal with, Pelican Dreams, leans into the emotional The director confides that she has always wanted to be a pelican. As a kid, she recalls, "I even thought I resembled a pelican." And, like many children, she had "flying dreams." 

There is something awesome and just plain weepingly beautiful about watching pelicans gliding through the sky. Pelican Dreams includes some gorgeous slow-motion footage of pelicans in the sky doing acrobatic quarter-twists before diving toward the ocean—and folding like a closing switchblade at the very last second before slicing into the water. 

Irving, who narrates her film, begins by describing pelicans as "flying dinosaurs." The comparison in not convincing. In this wonderfully filmed documentary, Irving's pelicans are more like strange, feathered ballet dancers. Even better, while they are elegant in the air, they are goofy-looking and endearingly clumsy on the ground. Pelicans are also inquisitive creatures. They are alert to their surroundings and they readily make eye-contact—like puppies. 

After visiting GG at an animal recovery outpost north of the Golden Gate, Irving travels to GG's birthplace on Santa Barbara in the Channel Islands off southern California. 

We learn why GG was "lucky to make it to SF." Irving's cameras zero in on the harsh life of a newborn pelican. The battle for survival begins at birth. The sibling rivalry is harsh and, often, lethal. More often than not, only the first chick survives. Chick number two might make it but chick three is most likely doomed. 

During a visit in June, Irving's camera records a chick having a convulsive seizure. The behavior is bizarre and troubling: the cause remains unknown. Starvation? No one knows. After about eight weeks, the surviving chicks begin experimenting with their first flights. Irving's cameras catch a lot of these first flights, capturing the magic moment when an initial tentative attempt suddenly turns into an instinctive ascendant transformation. 

Pelicans may be brown and white for most of the time but, during mating season, their bodies go ablaze with striking carnival colors. Their bills turn deep red; their eye go blue. (Warning: This film includes bouts of uncensored, wing-flapping pelican sex.) 

Unlike most avians, pelicans have no voice. Adults are nearly silent but for a muted breathing sound and, of course, the noise of their great beaks, which clack with the authority of a clapboard on a Hollywood film set. Instead of sounds, pelicans must rely on gestures and pantomime. Irving gives an example: If you want to tell a pelican "I like you!" just swivel your head in a 360-degree circle. 

"Pelicans, when they are sleeping, look extremely comfortable." The film footage bears this out. 

Monte Merrick, GG's caretaker explains why the birds are referred to by the numbers banded on their legs. Important to keep a distance from these recovering birds because they are wild creatures. Still, he adds, "Who wouldn't want to have a pelican for a buddy?" 

Pelicans are 25 million years our seniors on this planet and they are found on every continent but Antarctica. But they almost disappeared from the West Coast, thanks to the impacts of humankind. 

In 1969, studies at UC Berkeley found high levels of the chemical pesticide DDT had nearly wiped out the state's pelicans. Only one egg was found to have survived intact. Pelicans were declared endangered in 1970. DDT was finally banned and the brown pelicans have slowly made a comeback. Fortunately the California Brown Pelicans were able to survive because of a protected colony that was thriving off the coast of Mexico. As a result, California colonies of 17,000 big-billed birds ("Like Coney Island for pelicans") are not uncommon. 

But new problems threaten pelicans. As one of the caretakers in Irving's film notes: "There's something weird going on" with pelicans. Climate change is most likely involved. Pelicans are migratory: they fly north and they fly south south. Recently, with rising global temperatures, the pelicans' northern nests stayed warm well into the fall and, when the birds finally made their unusually delayed departure, they flew smack into a snowstorm. Many died. 

And no film about pelicans could avoid including footage of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The ghastly sight of a pelican barely breathing beneath a chocolate-colored cloak of oil. 

Pelican Dreams also captured footage of another troubling development: hundry pelicans attacking neighboring birds. It is unnerving to watch scenes where famished pelicans pounce on smaller common murres—sometimes pausing to devour the young chicks.. 

Other problems include plastic fishing lures and metal hooks stuck in beaks. Pelicans nearly choked to death from eating over-large fish thrown to them by fishermen. (The larger, bonier fish can clog a pelican's beak and throat.) 

Food left in garbage dumps attracts the birds and then exposes them to grease and oil, which can damage feathers and the protective coating that keeps cold ocean water at bay. 

Since GG's story is one of a slow and uneventful recovery, Pelican Dreams turns its lens on another pelican-in-recovery. Morro—a pelican found near Morro Bay—proves to be so badly injured that he will never recover the ability to fly. What happens when an injured pelican can't recover? The word a caregiver offers (reluctantly) is: "Euthanasia." Will this be Morro's fate? And what awaits GG? 

There is a wonderful scene of lonely, grounded Morro, who has had to watch as one pelican after another recovers and takes of into the sky, leaving him behind in the backyard of a caretaker couple. One day, desperately alone, Morro tentatively clambers up the steps to the couples' house and slowly taps open the door to his with his beak. Like Willie Wonka discovering a chocolate factory, Morro steps into this strange new world and explores the premises with a combination of fear and wonder. The word here is: "entrancing." 

Added bonus: Mark Bittner (the human star of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and the director's mate) makes a guest appearance.