Judy Irving – Pelican Dreams

For a long time filmmaker Judy Irving (“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”) had wanted to make a movie documenting the lives of pelicans. About six years or so ago, when a pelican landed on the Golden Gate Bridge Judy knew she it was time to beginning making her film. The documentary follows the lives of two Pelicans, Gigi, who was taken from the Golden Gate Bridge to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, and Morro, who was rescued and brought to a residence to be rehabilitated. Additionally the film puts into perspective what the lives of pelicans are like when they living outside of captivity. Moviegoers are shown not just the dangers and hardships that fascinating birds face, but the captivating qualities that set them apart from other birds and make them the majestic creatures that we love.

Moviehole’s Robyn Candyce met for an interview with Judy while she was in New York.

You said that you have been Filming Documentaries for 40 years, what made you want to become a documentarian?
Judy: I just wanted to save the world.
I had been a freelance, non-fiction writer for three years before that – after I got out of college – and it was really hard to make a living, so I took a class in still photography and started taking still photographs to go with the articles. That was great, and it was fun, and I really got into photography that way. It was still hard to make a living as a writer. So then I had seen a lot of really great films in the early ‘70’s, some fiction some documentaries and decided I’ll go to film school. I went to Stamford Film School which has a documentary focus. I wasn’t really interested in fiction films, and I didn’t want to go to LA, so that worked out. I got trained in documentaries, in the early 70’s I had to do my thesis in ’73 and been making films ever since.
I love it, because it combines motion pictures, music, voice, sound effects, and then the editing that you have to do. Also the research, and the capturing and the travel; I really still like it a lot.

You said that you want to save the world. What it is about documentaries, that you feel this is your outlet where you can make the world better?
Judy: That’s classic, youthful arrogance, to want to save the world. I now know that you can’t do that, but you can take a little piece of it and work on it and hope that your work improves something. I think that culturally I was affected a lot by the environmental movement in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and so I got interested in environmental issues, the nuclear issue, species extinction, all kinds of things that came up and got started during that time period. It was environmental issues that I was most drawn to.

So Gigi was the pelican that was on the Golden Gate Bridge, there was no way you could have woke up that morning and said “I absolutely know that there is going to be a pelican on the Golden Gate Bridge,” so how did you find out [about Gigi], and how did you start filming?
Judy: You know how sometimes when you put something out into the universe that, that helps is happen? Well, I had lunch with a guy that runs a wildlife rehab facility for seabirds two weeks before Gigi landed on the bridge, and I told him “Jay, I want to make a film about pelicans, but I don’t know how to start. I don’t know what the structure is going to be. I don’t want it to be a boring educational film; I don’t want it to be totally science based. I want it to be storytelling”. He said “fine, whenever you get started, call me again. I’ll let you into this pelican aviary we have up here, and you can just film as much as you want”.

Two weeks later, this friend of mine emails me and says “You’ll never guess why I was in a jam on the Golden Gate Bridge this afternoon; a pelican stopped traffic on the bridge”. That’s how I found out about it, and then my husband Mark, he’s pretty good on the internet, so he started searching around for YouTube videos. A day or two later he found one that had been shot by some bicyclists who were crossing the bridge, so we contacted those folks and I thought this is a perfect narrative beginning to this movie; a pelican landing on the bridge and stopping traffic, getting herself arrested, being taken away in a police car – the whole thing was kind of funny and sad – it made you curious. You know, what happened to the bird. I wanted to know what happened to the bird, and they said “Sure, you can use it,” and I had the beginning of my movie, and its narrative, it’s a story. Coincidentally she ended up at the aviary that my friend works at, and I was able to film her up there.

Why Pelicans?
Judy: I first saw them in Florida. My grandfather pointed them out to me. They were flying along the coast, and I just thought they were fantastic ancient looking birds. They were like flying dinosaurs, and now, we’ve come to find out they really are flying dinosaurs, so they were fascinating to me. They looked ancient, but they were, hanging out at the harbor and not particularly afraid of people…I’ve just really loved them all my life, but I didn’t know anything about them…If you really love and respect something, you want to know more about it. This film was a way of me getting to know what they’re like. One of my aims with this film was to get to know a Pelican. Can you get to know a Pelican? You’ve got to see the film and find out.

Part of your film points out that Pelicans are coming over here more and more, and it seems [in the film] as though it’s because we’re destroying our habitat. Is it because we’re destroying their habitat?
Judy: These birds having been flying up and down the coast of North America, and South America [as well] for many, many millions of years. They are way older than we are. They evolved 32 million years ago and we evolved five million years ago, so they’ve been around way longer than we have. So they’re flying along, and they’re fishing and then at night they roost on land –they can’t roost in the water – so they always come on land to sleep.

So 60,000 years ago people started building boats, and living more along the coast, and started to go out and fish from their boats. So pelicans came into contact and into competition with fisherman starting about 60,000 years ago. Its gradually gotten worse and worse, and now the places they go to roost are mainly housing developments, or harbors, or whatever. So they’re still coming on land, but they’re not finding as many safe spots to roost where there are no land predators.

They are also having a harder time finding fish because of competition with fisherman. There are all kinds of problems that they are running into. I don’t think humans caused any of these problems on purpose, but, you know, there’s climate change issues – they run into early snow storms and get frostbite – and there’s fishing-line entanglements, and all kinds of stuff like that, so it’s part of what it’s like to be a pelican in the 21st century.

I think that making a film about this bird, this iconic bird that all kinds of people love, but very few people know anything about, will help kind of put a focus on not only the bird, but the coastline – the habitat – that they depend on. So people, if they come to love pelicans, they are automatically going to come to love the coast, and hopefully want to protect it, and enhance it not only for the birds, but for us.

Is there freedom in captivity for these animals, can they have relatively normal lives living in a state of captivity, when releasing them back into the wild would mean death [referring to Morro]?
Judy: For Morro he does have freedom within his captivity. That’s what they want for him [his rescuers], they don’t want to impose on him too much.

Monty Merrick stated in the film, that the rehab facility he works with will not take in a bird that they cannot release back to the wild-
Judy: They will take them in. They take in all seabirds, but they will quickly do an evaluation on them, and if they are just a goner because of whatever reason; there is really just no choice for an animal, except the very are case of placing them in captivity – but for pelicans there is really no place they can go, zoos don’t want them – the only other choice is euthanasia. I was so naïve when I started this film, when Monty said that to me in the aviary – I was filming, you saw it – I was shocked. I didn’t know that they kill; they have to euthanize these wild creatures if they can’t rehabilitate them to live in the wild.

In the film it seems like there is sort of this divide on the subject; if a pelican has an injury too extensive to ever be able to live out in the wild, but can make a recovery from the injury and live in captivity do you try to find someone who can raise the animal, or do you say, “no, they can’t have a good life [living] in captivity, and they can’t survive out in the wild, so euthanize them.” [In Pelican Dreams] it didn’t seem like you formed an opinion on that, but now, it felt like you just did.
Judy: As Monty said, there is a variety of opinions on what should be done with a wild bird who cannot be released to the wild. The range of opinions goes from, “keep every bird and try to find a place for it in captivity” on one end to “captivity is a terrible prison do the animal a favor and euthanize it because if it can’t be let back into the wild, this is no life”. That’s a huge spectrum of opinions and wildlife rehabilitators have all the opinions in-between.

But you can say that about a cat and a dog.
Judy: Well, no. Not really. Cats and Dogs are domestic animals. These wild birds are wild, they want be wild. That’s where they want to live. So, Monty was saying “A pelican has to be able to see and it has to be able to and it has to be able to fly, and I mean fly well.” Brown pelicans have this fantastic and unique high dive that they do, sometimes from 50 or 60 feet up down into the water, and that’s how they fish. It’s incredibly difficult. Its acrobatic, it’s olympic. If they can’t do that, they’re going to starve out there, so what are you going to do? There might be places for lions, and tigers and bears, but there are no places for pelicans generally in captivity. So it’s this whole new aspect that I discovered when I got into filming the movie, this aspect of euthanasia.

Was it hard to observe these birds in their natural habitats, and witness all their hardships, and know you couldn’t interfere with their lives, and that you had to stay back and do nothing?
Judy: It is hard to film pelicans in the wild because they’re out there in the wild, along the coast and in the ocean. At night they are always looking for a safe place to roost, which [could] mean offshore rocks where there are no predators, so they are kind of hard to get close to –unless you go to the harbor and you see the ones that hangout at the pier – but isn’t really pelicans in the wild. So, Lori [last name, title] helped me a lot by facilitating my visits to the Chanel islands. I went to Santa Barbra Island, where they nest and breed seven different times to get the footage of these birds birding, building their nests and raising their chicks. So I had to go back at different times to film different stages.
Yes it was hard to see. It was hard to see the little birds ragging on each other in their nests, this intense sibling rivalry where their fighting each other for food. A lot of them died along the way. You know, you can’t do anything about it. It’s what it’s like out there, it’s hard out there in the wild. If I would have tried to help it would have flushed all the adult birds away and then the younger birds and the eggs would get left opened to seagull predators would come in and eat the eggs, and eat the young. So you can’t do [anything].

I think it’s one of the sterotypes so many people have about these birds is that they are unintelligent. You don’t look at a pelican and say to yourself “There’s a bird that’s been around for 30,000 years”. So from observing them, and their resilience, how intelligent do you think these birds really are?
Judy: I think they are extremely intelligent. I think most birds are way more intelligent than we give them credit for. We’re just starting to understand that now, beginning with parrots and ravens and jays. Pelicans are really different because they don’t have any voice. They use pantomime to communicate with each other. One of the fun things with making the movie was trying to figure out what these pantomime movements meant. Very few people have studied this. It was fun to find out what some of the gestures meant.
I think one indicator of intelligence is a lock of aggression. These birds are not particularly aggressive. They basically have a live and let live attitude towards each other and other species. They are not big fighters, and so that helps them survive. Also they know they coast because they migrate up the coast, they know where it’s safe, they probably have very good memories from year one. They fly up the East Coast, some of them all the way up to Nova Scotia in the summer, so you may see them. Most them only fly up to Virginia and Maryland, but some fly all the way up to Canada and back, so you have to have this amazing map in your head of this migratory route.
The best thing I heard about their intelligence is actually not in the movie, but I’ll tell you what happened. There is this lagoon near San Francisco called Rodao Lagoon [fact check) and the pelicans used to go into the middle of that lagoon and bath, and they would flap around with their wings in the water. There were some river otters in that lagoon. Usually it was just a pair with some babies, but one year this pair had seven babies. They were starving and there wasn’t enough fish in the lagoon for the river otters, so they started swimming out to the pelicans and pulling them down. They became predators of pelicans and they started eating the pelicans – I actually got some footage of this, this was after I finished the film, so its probably going to be an extra about predation on the DVD – but it was awful. The pelicans are just taking a bath and all of a sudden these otters just start pulling them down, and the otters were just trying to feed their babies, you know. It’s wild out there. Okay, so what happened?
The pelicans disappeared from Rodao Lagoon for years and years. So how did they tell each other that? How did they know from one year to the next? They just disappeared. Somehow they communicated with each other, “Don’t go there, you’re going to get killed”. How did they tell each other that? I don’t know. Nobody knows. They have just recently started coming back. I heard about this from people who live up there and have been watching. All these years since this river otter predation happened. It’s amazing. It’s AMAZING! We don’t know how animals communicate with each other, it’s just one instance.

In the movie you say that pelicans don’t make noise, they don’t communicate through sound, so for the [potential] audience members that aren’t bird savvy, what’s the difference between a sound meant for communication and a one that’s like a snore, because we don’t communicate through snoring right? So how do you tell the difference? What categorizes them?
Judy: What I mean is that they don’t have a birdsong, they don’t squawk. They don’t have a shriel or a cry. The only sound that they have is actually coming from their lungs and they don’t make it all the time. [It happens] when they do this certain move with their wings. I don’t know that they are necessarily communicating with that sound, but it comes as a result of other motions they are making with their body. It’s not a birdsong by any means.

How long did it take you to make this?
Judy: It took me six years to make this movie from the point when Gigi landed on the bridge up until a couple of months or so ago, when it got finished. I love long projects, when you make a documentary, I at least start out kind of naïve and enthusiastic, and I don’t have a lot of knowledge about the topic and I’m making the documentary in order to get that knowledge and to do the research and to find out about nuclear issues, or pelicans or parrots by filming. So, I don’t mind that it takes forever.

For more information about the film visit Pelicanmedia.org.

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