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Problems with pelicans*

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In 2008, a California brown pelican flew onto the Golden Gate Bridge, stopped traffic and attracted hordes of onlookers. Finally, it was corralled and placed into the back of a police cruiser. Commented one looky-loo, "Oh, he got arrested."

"He," it turns out, was a she, and if her act wasn't criminal, it was peculiar. Pelicans don't frequent roadways, even ones with awesome views and signature design. This bird was unwell, and ultimately delivered to the Bay Area wildlife rehab center sponsored by International Bird Rescue.

Judy Irving has a thing about birds. The San Francisco documentary filmmaker, who made "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" in 2003, leveraged the bridge interloper's odyssey into her latest fowl film, "Pelican Dreams," which opens in L.A. this week. It wraps the stories of two ailing pelicans around the science and wonder of a species we're lucky to get to know.

Pelican Brief

Salt-water birds are brown, fresh-water birds are white. Head color denotes age -- juvenile heads are brown, adolescents are speckled and adults are white.

The San Francisco bird's rehab was managed by Monte Merrick, most of whose charges are found on beaches, not bridges. He's shown thrusting his arm deeply into her pouch, pronouncing her not injured, "just extremely thin."

Although Irving insists on calling her "Gigi," Merrick refers to her only by number, explaining that it's important for him to create and maintain separation; although irresistibly handsome, with doleful eyes and coy faces that seem to be struggling against bursts of laughter, these birds aren't human companions, they're wounded wild animals Merrick treats in the hope of releasing them one day back from whence they came.

Respecting boundaries, such as no eye contact, Merrick acknowledges, is difficult, because pelicans "look at you; they initiate contact all the time. ... They remind me of dogs."

He says they're unusually curious birds, and there's no better model for that than Morro, a male pelican found with an injured wing in Morro Bay. Recuperating at the home of Dani and Bill Nicholson, licensed wildlife rehabilitators, Morro prefers to play with the other pelicans on the mend. But when they heal sufficiently, and eventually fly away, he turns his attention to the other residents waddling around the yard, including Festus the duck. The attraction isn't mutual.

Pelican Brief

They have no voice. They use pantomime and bowing, head-swinging and bill-clapping gestures to communicate.

One day Morro pushes the front door open and walks into the living room where the Nicholsons, who also cultivate the separation of patient vs. pet, watch in astonishment as he pads around, swinging his bill at the tassels on the lampshade and trying to figure out why anyone would choose to live like this.

Irving, who said in a telephone interview that "maybe I was a bird in an earlier life," spent six years shooting and collecting California brown pelican footage from Baja to the Channel Islands to the Columbia River on the Oregon-Washington border. The result provides not only a treatise of natural history and environmental pressure on a profoundly ancient life form, but soaring visuals of the California coast, above and below the water line.

We see pelicans copulating (don't blink), feathering their nests and raising their mostly doomed young. We watch kids mimicking parents in lessons of survival, we watch them play, their prodigious wings and goofy demeanors articulating their voiceless joy. It's good to be free.

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Pelican Brief

When the birds are mating and nesting, their pouches are bright red.

Like Irving's previous work, the narrative of "Pelican Dreams" evolved from the editing room, not from a script. "The picture is paramount," she said. The storyteller's voice is hers, and she speaks from image, not text. "I edit the sequences first, and figure out what needs to be said and how little can I say. ... To me, a script is putting the cart before the horse."

She shot the diving pelicans from a boat with a high-speed, $250,000 Phantom Gold camera, and slow-mo'ed the balletic bullets into a bird Cirque du Mer. She also purchased two minutes of underwater footage from the BBC for $7,500 which, she says, "might not seem expensive, but it is for a documentary."

With their keen eyesight, browns pelicans are the only pelicans birds that capture prey by diving into the water from as high as five stories. After scooping up their bounty, they tip their bill downward to drain the pouch of water, then swallow the fish whole.

Shooting the feeding frenzy, in which scores of pelicans simultaneously dive for fish schooling in a confined area, was particularly challenging, Irving said, because "they fly so fast it's hard to follow with a camera -- one second, and the dive is over."

It's a stunning sight, birds plunging so thickly bunched you can hardly see the sky behind, and it's fraught with danger. To avoid injury and secure their meal, birds must hit the water at a certain angle with their wings folded aerodynamically in a learned behavior some never master. Morro's rescuers suspect he was injured crashing into another bird while diving.

Pelican Brief

DDT endangered the population because it made egg shells thin. Birds incubate with the skin of their feet, essentially standing on their eggs. In the late 1960s, only 1 egg was hatched for every 1,000 nests.

California brown pelicans moved off the endangered species list in 2009, but contemporary threats continue to make life difficult. Climate change, oil spills, dietary competition, careless human fishing practices and the improper disposal of its leftovers all pose problems.

A pelican commonly lands in a wildlife hospital with a fish hook in its pouch, or fishing line wrapped around its bill. In one particularly graphic scene from the film, a pelican's life is saved when a rescuer, his arm elbow-deep in its gullet, retrieves an enormous tuna head that was choking the bird to death. Instead of grinding it up or throwing it into a secure bin, a fisherman had filleted his catch, then tossed the unwanted body part back into a floating scrum of birds whose eyes were bigger than their throats.

Birds that can't be repatriated to the wild are euthanized, sent to fill the few vacancies at wildlife sanctuaries or allowed to remain with rehabbers if they serve an educational purpose.

As a resident of a semi-rural yard shared by people and a changing cast of wounded waterfowl, "Morro," says Irving the narrator, "lives his life, tolerating what comes and what goes. Not totally captive, but not really free, either. Like a lot of us."

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Pelican Brief

The average bird lives 15 to 25 years. The oldest known was 42. As a species, they are 25 million years older than humans.

There's a lot more need for bird care than resources to provide it, but individuals like the Nicholsons and organizations such as International Bird Rescue, which also has a facility in San Pedro, do their best.

"Nobody's in it for the money," Merrick says, "and when you're covered with animal feces and food all day, you're not in it for the glory."

Later in the film, as Merrick surveys the pelican ward, wondering which birds will be able to fly home, and which won't recover, he reflects: "As wildlife rehabilitators, we have to wonder a couple things...we bring a bird in and we take care of it and we bring it back to relative good health. ... Then we release it. What are we releasing birds into?"

Irving spots Gigi, who remains underweight and unable to fly as well as she must in order to survive in the wild. When, Irving wants to know, will she be released?

"When she can fly and make this cage look small," Merrick replies. Nobody leaves if they can't see and fly well. If it's difficult not become attached to needy birds you're helping to heal, it's more difficult if they don't. As a filmmaker, Irving understands that people need to enter the intersection of tame and wild, but they also need to keep walking. Her art is paying attention while crossing through.

"I love the attachments urban people make with wild animals," she explained. "I like this relationship. ... It's why we -- I -- need it in urban life. It gives me perspective."

The film has a happy end, and closes with a dopey joke apparently making the animal kingdom rounds ("A pelican/horse/choose-your-species walks into a bar..."). And:

"No animals were harmed in the making of this film, and Morro only went inside the house once."

Judy Irving will appear for a Q&A session after evening screenings of "Pelican Dreams" Nov. 7 at the Laemmle Royal in West L.A. and Nov. 8 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. View a trailer of "Pelican Dreams" here.

Photos: Gigi on the bridge, Stuart Jones; nesting pelicans on the Channel Islands and Morro & Dani Nicholson, Judy Irving.

*Corrected to clarify dive behavior.


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