Dear Bird Folks,
Last week you wrote a column about birding games, but what about birding movies? A few of my family members would rather watch stuff on TV than play games. Any suggestions?
– Jason, Munson, MA
Yeah, okay, Jason,
First it was games and now it’s stuff to watch on TV. Okay, I’ll suggest a few bird movies, but this is the end of it. I don’t want to become the next Rona Barrett (remember her?) or the social director on a cruise ship (remember cruise ships?). Who would have guessed I’d now be writing about staying home, playing games and watching TV? It’s a strange time, but we’ll get through it.
Birding movies fall into three categories: Movies about birders, movies that focus on a single species, and documentaries about birds and their environment. There are also scary bird movies (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds), but I’ll leave those for Rona to discuss. I’m also not going to tell you how to watch movies at home. Between DVDs and streaming, the options are endless. You might find these movies on services you already subscribe to, while other times you may have to pay a little to rent them. If you have to pay a few bucks to watch a bird movie, just pay it. It’s still cheaper than going to a movie theater (back when they were open) and paying for a ticket, plus the popcorn…although I do miss the popcorn.
The Big Year is the semi-real story about three top birders competing to see who can spot the most species of birds in a single year. I really like this movie and it’s not just because the production people bought props from my shop…but it didn’t hurt. The film features Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. With such comedic stars, you might think this would be a full-blown comedy, but that’s not really the case. It’s mostly a “smile-comedy,” with some sweet parts and life lessons thrown in. By contrast, A Birder’s Guide to Everything is an independent film about young birders who may have discovered the long-extinct Labrador Duck. This is a coming-of-age story, but it’s not one of those Hollywood partying teen movies. It’s just a group of bird nerds trying to find a rare duck, while also trying to negotiate the issues common to all kids in high school. I give this movie a thumbs-up, mostly because the characters are amusing and believable, often reminding me of my high school friends, and perhaps even myself at that age.
The last movie in this group is called, The Birder (also sometimes, The Bird Men, for some reason). It’s about a local schoolteacher who wants to become the next ornithologist at Pelee Region Provincial Park, but loses the job to a younger hotshot birder…if such a thing exists. This is the total opposite of the previous movie. Each character is freakier than the next, but a funny kind of freaky, not Tiger King freaky. Think Napoleon Dynamite. In fact, if you enjoyed Napoleon Dynamite, you’ll probably like this movie as well. If you didn’t dig Napoleon Dynamite, or have never heard of it, then The Birder might not be for you. (I liked both movies. That should explain a lot.)
All of the movies I have just mentioned have one flaw: the birds take a back seat to human issues. There’s a huge lack of bird info. With that in mind, there isn’t a better bird documentary then Sir David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds. Released back in 1998, the ten-episode production is noted for its “spectacular imagery and impeccable science.” I’ve probably seen the entire series five hundred times (we used to play it all day long at work) and if someone put it on right now, I’d sit and watch it again. It’s that good. Winged Migration, from 2001, is another first-rate option. Here we see migration from the bird’s point of view (or bird’s-eye view as it were). We are also made aware of the perils birds continuously face on their annual journeys, and, sadly, things aren’t getting easier for them.
If you want a movie about a specific species, search out 2005’s March of the Penguins. While somewhat common knowledge now, back then we had no idea that male Emperor Penguins spent the Antarctic winter sitting on single eggs, while enduring blizzards and frigid temperatures, all without either food or cable. Morgan Freeman’s narration is informative, although at times a bit sappy (he claims the birds are “in love”). Not to be outdone, the folks at Disney produced a similar penguin documentary, cleverly entitled Penguins. Only in this case, Disney features Adélie Penguins and it is narrated by Ed Helms. The cinematography is breathtaking, but the narration is rather sophomoric (the birds have names, such as “Steve”) and that kind of spoiled it for me. But what do I know? I liked Napoleon Dynamite.
While Disney missed the mark with Penguins, they totally nailed it with Crimson Wing, a documentary about Tanzania’s two million breeding Lesser Flamingos. Americans tend to look at flamingos as being tacky, but this film is stunning and a long way from tacky. Even the narration is perfect. (There’s no talk of love or Steve.) It’s the best nature doc I’ve seen in years. FYI: These birds live in one of Africa’s harshest climates and not all of the chicks grow up to be in the pink, if you know what I mean. Just look away.
My top three suggestions for birding movies, Jason, are The Big Year, Crimson Wing and The Life of Birds, but all of these movies are worth a look. In the meantime, be safe and let’s hope we can get away from the TV soon. Also, if you are a baby flamingo, don’t go to Africa.