The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #50: Learn to Live with Bird Errors in TV and Movies

Don't let the frustration drive you insane.

As a kid, I remember watching Die Hard with a Vengeance with a friend’s dad who grew up in New York City, where the movie was set and I had never been. The plot of the film has the two main characters racing all over the city at the direction of a criminal mastermind, and I was totally hooked. My friend’s dad, on the other hand, was furious that the film’s producers took some liberties with the characters' routes. He kept scoffing and saying stuff like “They took the FDR to get from Central Park West to Herald Square!?” and “How did they just get to Hunter College?” These inaccuracies, totally lost on me, totally ruined the movie for him.

Well, I hate to say it, but birding can do the same thing to you. Once you start learning to identify birds, and especially once you start learning calls, you’ll realize that your entertainment choices are littered with avian errors. I've talked a bit about this problem before when I assessed the accuracy of the bird cameos in last year's Oscar contenders, but I feel like this is a topic that deserves its very own column. 

Now, there are two ways you can handle these media screw-ups. One is to embrace the errors, which will allow you to shake your head and laugh when you see or hear something out of place. The other is to let the stupidity of these errors drive you insane. To help you achieve the former and not the latter, let me give you some tips on what to look out for, so at least you’re prepared.

Bald Eagle Making a Red-tailed Hawk Call. This has to be the most frequently encountered bird error, and yet it still makes me angry whenever I hear it. Nearly every single time a Bald Eagle is shown on screen, it’s accompanied by the iconic scream of a Red-tailed Hawk. Here’s an example I found in a recent commercial (at the bottom of the linked post), and here’s a great one in a Nike ad. But there are many, many others. Remember The Colbert Report 

This occurs because producers are lazy, and because a Red-tailed Hawk sounds much cooler than a Bald Eagle does. It’s as simple as that. Bald Eagles have sort of a dopey chuckle for a call, and Red-tails have that heart-stopping scream. People making movies want to show the eagle and have an impressive call, so they just put the two together and hope no one notices. Most people don’t, but birders do. Learn to laugh, because this happens way more than you realize.

Out of Place Species. This is the most obvious of all bird-in-media errors. You’ll be watching some movie set in the United States and then a bird will appear on screen—except it’s not an American bird. It’s a bird that has probably never been seen in the United States at all, a bird that would cause a heart attack among hardcore birders if it actually showed up.

I’d venture to say that the majority of the time a bird appears on screen, either as a live actor or a CGI creation, it’s not a species that should appear in that setting. Some of the errors are even international. Here’s a Mexican Blue-throated Magpie Jay standing in for a Blue Jay in an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Here are some African Pied Crows with New Jersey accents trying to sell you Windex from a suburban American yard. Here are some American duck hunters, and, uh, Dale Earnhardt Jr., scaring up a whole international menagerie, including Black Swans, Swan Geese, Muscovies, and lots of other stuff that shouldn’t be there. Here’s a screenshot from that terrible The Lone Ranger movie showing Eurasian Griffon Vultures in the American West. I could go on.

Until recently, these kind of blatant errors would make me irate. How hard would it have been to do a simple check and see whether the bird was native to the area? It would take two seconds!

I learned later that there’s actually a reason behind this phenomenon: It’s the law. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the possession of American species for commercial use, such as acting. The reason behind the rule harkens back to the earliest days of avian conservation, when American egret populations were decimated by hunters looking for plumes to adorn fancy hats. Now, most all birds used on-screen are not native to this country and come from licensed companies who look out for their clients. (It’s perfectly legal to film a wild bird and put it in your movie, but as any birder will tell you, good luck getting them to sit still long enough to get the camera rolling!)

Background Noise. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act doesn’t prevent producers from using appropriate bird noises, of course. Yet bird calls in movies are almost always wrong.

Again, a lot of examples. The first season of the show Bloodline, set in the Florida Keys, had Northern Parula singing in the middle of the night and Black-capped Chickadees way out of range. Last summer’s blockbuster, The Revenant, was a complete auditory mess, with Yellow-billed Cuckoos singing in the middle of a Montana winter and a ton of European birds that had no business being on the same continent. Wood Thrush seem to be singing in every outdoor location, whether it’s a golf course or a snowy forest. I remember hearing Common Loons sing in the background of last decade’s King Kong, which is set . . . well, I really don’t know where. But it’s not a place with Common Loons, that’s for sure!

There’s really no excuse for this in my opinion. All these people have to do is conduct a quick check on Xeno-Canto to figure out which birds should be chirping in that scene set in the woods. In the same way you would make sure that a Toyota Prius doesn’t drive in the background of your movie set in the 1970s, you don’t want to have the wrong bird calling, either. It can't be any more expensive to use the correct sounds (Right? How could it be?), so why not? Constant frustration.

When They Get It Right. There are so many inaccuracies when birds appear on screen that when someone does get it right you want to start applauding right there in the theater. Last year’s The Martian had Texas-appropriate bird calls in one scene back on Earth. A hummingbird, I think a female Black-chinned, serendipitously flew into a shot in Better Call Saul and made the final cut. The first season of WestWorld was pretty good with background noises (granted, they’re all robots). That’s, uh, most of the good ones I know.

As a birder, you just have to learn to live with these on-screen errors. You won't ever stop looking and listening, so embrace them and push yourself by trying to identify as much as you can—that faint warble in the background or the gull on the beach. Not only will it help you become a quicker, more observant birder, but it will also keep you from losing your mind.

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