Judy Irving documentary ‘Pelican Dreams’ finally takes wing

Filmmaker Judy Irving has a close encounter with a California brown pelican named Gigi in "Pelican Dreams."
(Shadow Distribution )

San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Judy Irving began working on a project about California brown pelicans in 1998.

But she put pelicans on the back burner, so to speak, to make the award-winning 2003 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” which explored the relationship between unemployed San Francisco musician Mark Bittner and the flock of wild parrots he was interacting with and feeding.

Irving and Bittner fell in love during the film and got married.

Six years ago, she felt it was time to revisit her pelican project. “I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was a standard nature documentary or a science doc or a news-type-oriented movie,” Irving said in a recent phone conversation.


She was looking for inspiration for “Pelican Dreams,” which opens Friday, when a disoriented, tired and hungry 4-month old pelican named Gigi ran into trouble on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“A friend of mine was in the traffic jam,” Irving recalled. “She emailed me and said you’ll never guess why I was struck in traffic Sunday afternoon on the Golden Gate Bridge. A pelican landed on the roadway. Nobody hit it. We were there for quite a while and the bird got herself arrested and taken off the bridge in a cop car.”

Irving’s husband found a YouTube video of Gigi’s encounter on the Golden Gate Bridge that two cyclists had recorded.

“I decided to follow up on Gigi,” Irving said. She called the bridge patrol and the two police officers who took Gigi off the bridge and found that she had been taken to the International Bird Rescue in Fairfield, Calif., north of San Francisco.

“I thought, ‘What is going to happen to this bird when she goes into human hands? What is wrong with her? Will she get better? Will she be released?’ All of those things were open-ended questions in the beginning. I started filming right away.”

“Pelican Dreams” follows Gigi from her arrest through her rehabilitation and release. Along the way, Irving chronicles how Gigi got to San Francisco from her probable hatching in the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, her migration up the coast with other young pelicans and her landing on the Golden Gate Bridge.

She parallels Gigi’s story with that of Morro, a brown pelican with an injured wing being cared for by rehabbers Dani and Bill Nicholson in Cuyucos, Calif.

“I was interested in getting as close to a pelican as I could without harming its wildness,” Irving said. A woman she met while making “Wild Parrots” had suggested she get in touch with the Nicholsons.


“They are essentially pelican whisperers,” Irving said. “They have pelicans in their yard for long-term care.”

Irving learned that most pelicans end up in rehabilitation because they are underweight and undernourished or have been injured by fishing lines and hooks. If a pelican can’t be released back into the wild, rehab centers generally have to euthanize them.

“There aren’t many places that will take a pelican,” she said. “Some zoos are a little bit shy of taking them because, frankly, zoos haven’t been that successful keeping brown pelicans alive.”

Though the brown pelican was taken off the endangered species list in 2009, the birds have faced many challenges in recent years, including climate change, oil spills and ocean pollution.


The food supply has also dwindled due to overfishing and “natural ocean cycles that cause either anchovies to go down or sardines to go down,” Irving said. “Do you know what’s happened this year? Both of them are down. There’s not much food out there.”

Very few pelicans make it past their first year, Irving said, but if they do, “I have been told by various rehabbers they can live easily to 20 to 25. If they learn to dive and do the migration at the right time and the find fish, they can live a long, happy life.”