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Ancient bird, modern world

Filmmaker Judy Irving follows a wayward pelican from the Golden Gate Bridge into care at a wildlife rehabilitation facility.
Filmmaker Judy Irving follows a wayward pelican from the Golden Gate Bridge into care at a wildlife rehabilitation facility.
Betsy Sharkey Los Angeles Times

Whatever you think you know about pelicans, “Pelican Dreams” will surprise you.

I like that filmmaker Judy Irving names one of the stars Gigi, short for Golden Gate Bridge, which the injured bird shut down for a while in 2008. I also like that Monte Merrick, the wildlife rehab specialist charged with Gigi’s healing, refers to her as Pink-193, the color and number of the tracking band clipped to her leg. His task is to get her back to the wild and, for him, the emotional distance is important to maintain.

In a sense, both have a point.

Irving makes the pelican’s plight personal, while Merrick and others make it pragmatic. The hope is that Gigi, and others like her, will recover and live the life for which she was meant. As Irving’s lens captures so beautifully, there is nothing quite like seeing a pelican soar high above the Pacific, making one of those death-defying ocean dives for fish, to remind us of the birds’ prehistoric past.

The wildlife photography in the documentary is exceptional, as it was in Irving’s award-winning 2003 “The Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” The slow-motion shots of a pelican dive allow you to see, rather than merely sense, the precision involved. The close-ups of hatchlings and their struggle to survive long enough to learn to fly and dive bring you into the heart of the pelican world.

What “Pelican Dreams” lacks is a captivating character like “Telegraph Hill’s” Mark Bittner, the unemployed, blues-singing bird man whose fascination with the parrots gave Irving’s earlier film a natural spine. Without it, the filmmaker at times struggles to stitch the story together as seamlessly as she did “Parrots.” (Bittner, now married to Irving, provides “Pelican’s” sound recording and makes a brief cameo.)

Irving uses footage from a variety of sources to integrate with her own. Interviews and mini-vignettes with various “pelican” people outline the story of the birds, from their dinosaur days 30 million years ago to the realities of life in a modern world where fishing nets are as dangerous as any natural predators.

It’s when the film detours into Irving’s personal attachment to the birds, including photos of her as a child on the beach, that “Pelican Dreams” gets seriously off track. Fortunately, pelicans are interesting creatures, and the time spent with the lens focused on them is payoff enough.

Although Gigi kicks off the journey, Irving soon travels to the Channel Islands off Southern California, a major nesting spot for the brown pelican, to trace a typical life cycle. But it’s not long before the documentary travels to Morro Bay, California, to pick up the story of Morro, a brown pelican living in Dani and Bill Nicholson’s backyard. Dani’s the rehab specialist, but both help care for the injured bird.

Morro’s story puts in sharper focus the realities of recovery. Like Gigi, his fate is tied to being able to return to the wild; pelican pets are not allowed, euthanasia too often the last resort. But unlike Gigi, Morro is comfortable enough in the Nicholson’s backyard that his very distinctive personality begins to emerge.

If you think you couldn’t possibly fall in love with one of these birds, prepare to be wooed. Watching Morro get captivated by the tassels on a lampshade one day when he wanders through an open door is both funny and sad. Morro is very much a pelican out of water. One by one the other injured birds Dani worked with are released, returning to the ocean and their own kind. Morro is left behind, his wing keeping him grounded.

The film ends as it should with Gigi and Morro’s fates decided. Like a pelican’s life, the answers are not always easy.

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