It started when the police apprehended her on the Golden Gate Bridge. Gigi was waddling along in the southbound lane when patrol officers and a tow-truck driver scooped her up, put her in a squad car and sent the suffering bird to wildlife rehab.
When a friend told Judy Irving, creator of the 2003 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about the Brown Pelican’s misfortune, Irving knew she had the opening of her next film.
But the idea for Pelican Dreams hatched long before Gigi. Irving has loved the elegant yet clumsy birds since she dreamed of flying as a kid. She even thinks she looks like one, noting that she’s “tall and gawky too” and has a long face. “The start of it was just my own curiosity,” Irving says. The end result, which was partially funded by Audubon California, premiers in the San Francisco Bay area Oct. 24, and elsewhere in early November.
In Pelican Dreams, Irving explores the modern lives of these flying dinosaurs (the pelican is about 30 million years old). While filming Gigi’s treatment for dehydration and tapeworms, Irving explores what Gigi’s childhood might have been—from hatching 350 miles south on the Channel Islands to her eventual migration to San Francisco. Viewers also meet Morro, a male Brown Pelican grounded by a wing injury who’s fascinated with his own reflection.
These protagonists’ stories are mixed throughout the movie with countless facts about the peculiar birds: Pelicans are found on every continent except Antarctica. Brown Pelicans’ eyes switch from brown to blue when they’re breeding. The birds can’t vocalize and only make breathing noises—or as Irving puts it, “they have no voice.”
It’s the kooky human characters who elevate Pelican Dreams from an ornithology lesson to a charming film with heart. There’s Monte Merrick, a wildlife rehabilitator, who doesn’t name the pelicans he cares for to avoid treating them as pets, even though he says they remind him of dogs. “They’re all really good looking, but I think she’s got an especially cute face,” he says about Gigi. (Irving named Gigi after the Golden Gate Bridge incident for narrative purposes.)
And there’s Dani Nicholson, another rehabilitator, who has a pelican tattoo on her shoulder and three live pelicans—Morro, Toro and Chorro—recuperating in her backyard. A high point in the film comes when Morro, lonely after his buddies return to the wild and curious about his human hosts, drops in on Dani and her husband Bill as they read by a fire in their home. “This is total unfamiliar territory—it’s kind of like us being on the moon,” Bill says of Morro’s indoor exploration, which included an amusing interaction between the bird and a tasseled lamp.
In its gentle playfulness and ability to make wild birds relatable, the film will be familiar territory for fans of Wild Parrots, which chronicled Mark Bittner’s relationship with a flock of San Francisco Red-masked Parakeets. (And yes, anyone wondering what happened to Mark will find an answer in Pelican Dreams.) But while the compelling narrative arc of Parrots makes it a film that not just animal enthusiasts enjoy, Pelican's more disparate story lines and environmental leanings may appeal more specifically to bird and nature lovers.
Indeed, the numerous ways humans complicate the birds’ lives are front and center. “I came to understand how many hurdles and basically nightmares pelicans face out there in the world,” Irving says. Brown Pelicans were removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list in 2009 after recovering from the DDT disaster of the 1960s and 1970s. But Audubon’s Climate Report predicts more than half of current Brown Pelican habitat could be lost to climate change by 2080. (The American White Pelican’s habitat is threatened too.)
The 2010 BP oil spill happened halfway through filming, providing an unfortunate opportunity to explore one of those human-caused nightmares. Images of pelicans covered in petroleum and unable to move are as upsetting now as they were four years ago. While the California Brown Pelicans that Irving features were relatively unaffected by that spill, the film reminds us that oil and other pollutants are a major hazard everywhere.
The same is true of fishing. A fishing captain Jacky Douglas, who’s known as Wacky Jacky, laments the common fishing practice of fileting a catch and throwing the scraps back to the birds. Pelicans are only meant to eat small fish, like anchovies, so fishermen are doing them a disservice—and images of pelicans with bulging, geometric necks drive the message home. In one sequence, Monte pulls a tuna skull out of a bird’s bulbous neck. It’s a relief to see, but disheartening to think of all the birds Monte and his peers can’t reach.
Still, Pelican Dreams is mostly an upbeat reverie, filled with beautiful shots of pelicans soaring over gulls, seals and even a surfer. A sequence of young pelicans learning to dive for fish and exceptional underwater footage of the birds scooping up dinner are as impressive as they are entertaining. Irving says in the film she wishes she could have a pelican in her backyard. For at least 80 minutes, you’ll likely wish so, too.