Fear of flying
Pelican Dreams, documentary, not rated, The Screen, 2.5 chiles Gigi is the kind of chick who stops traffic. More specifically, she is a young California brown pelican who was discovered in 2008 wandering along the Golden Gate Bridge, dehydrated and disoriented, unable to fly, and closing down a lane of busy bridge traffic with the aplomb of Chris Christie while cops and bystanders tried to wrangle and remove her.
Shortly after this rescue, the bird was remanded to a wildlife rehab facility to be nursed and coaxed back to health for release into the wild. If she doesn’t make it, she will, as the film delicately euphemizes, be euthanized. It was at this point that avian documentarian Judy Irving ( The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), who had heard about the incident, tracked her down. Irving had been fascinated by these birds since childhood. “As a little girl,” she recalls, “I used to have flying dreams.” She got hold of amateur footage of the pelican’s bridge capture, which, she says, “felt like an invitation to follow it,” and used it as an opening for the film she had long wanted to make about these extraordinary creatures. “They look like flying dinosaurs,” Irving muses.
“She was found on the Golden Gate,” Irving exclaims to Monte, the bearded young wildlife rehabilitator (who knew?) in charge of the facility. “Let’s call her Gigi!” Monte greets this suggestion with restrained enthusiasm. “We don’t usually name them,” he tells her drily. “We don’t hand-feed them. We try not to even make eye contact.” Monte fits the pelican with an ankle tag and calls her by a number, not a name (reminiscent of an old Johnny Cash prison song: “On this old rock pile with a ball and chain/They call me by a number, not a name, Lord, Lord”). The job of rehab is to make these birds fit to return to the wild, not to make pets of them.
Irving’s documentary takes us to the Channel Islands, home to the only major breeding population of California brown pelicans in the western U.S., and captures some exhilarating nature footage, including early attempts of the pelican young to learn to fly, a tentative process that resembles hang-gliding as they take off from the rocky coastline with wings awkwardly spread and catch the wind and the air. She shows us their early efforts to hunt, and the sometimes brutal, even fratricidal, sibling rivalry in which the chicks engage as they compete for food. She takes us through the recent history of the species — the terrible blight of massive coastal oil spills that leave them coated with sludge and helpless, their near-extinction in the mid-20th century under the now- banned scourge of DDT ( in 2009 they were removed from the endangered species list), and the new threats they face from climate change and industrial fishing. She captures spectacular shots of pelicans diving for fish, a fascinating technique in which they plunge from a height into the water, streamlining their large bodies into the shape of an arrow for an entry that would be the envy of an Olympic diver.
We also visit the home of a wildlife-preservationist couple that has taken in a trio of wounded pelicans and are trying to nurse them back to health for release. Bill and Dani Nicholson do not seem to share Monte’s scruples about naming the birds, and they introduce us to Morro, the one of their pelican charges who never regains the ability to fly. Happily, when it becomes clear that he will never be able to return to the wild, they are able to get him reclassified as a “teaching pelican,” using him for educational talks and demonstrations about the birds, and thus spare him the executioner’s block.
Because Morro has achieved pet status, we spend plenty of time with him, watching as he becomes fascinated with his reflection in a mirror, or plays with a stick, or wanders into the Nicholsons’ house to explore the human habitat. But we do keep checking back in with Gigi as we learn more about the life and times of pelicans, and we follow the suspense over whether she will make the grade. There are a lot of rehabbing pelicans in the facility — pelicans, we learn, thrive on the companionship of their fellow pelicans — but Gigi, with her name and her history and her pink anklet, is the one we’re rooting for.
Pelican Dreams is a sweet and informative documentary about the bird immortalized in Dixon Lanier Merritt’s classic limerick (quoted in the film) that begins, “A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belican.”
Despite occasional speculative anthropomorphizing (“When [in courtship] a pelican swings its head around 360 degrees, it means, ‘I like you. I don’t want to leave. But I will if you want me to’ ”), Irving, for the most part, keeps things nicely objective, and we come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of pelicans. The documentary would have fit nicely as an hour on the Nature Channel. But as a feature film, even at a modest 80 minutes, it feels stretched a bit thin, as though its bill is trying to hold more than its belly can.
— Jonathan Richards