Film

Birds Ring the Environmental Alarm—and Inspire Action—in New Documentary

“The Messenger” tells us that the world’s songbirds are disappearing—and we need to heed their warning.


Some of Canadian filmmaker Su Rynard's fondest memories revolve around birds. As a child she spent hours being mesmerized by Barn Swallows, Cedar Waxwings, and Evening Grosbeaks at her family’s cottage, a few hours north of Toronto—all while her mother scribbled down notes in the margins of an Audubon field guide. At night, Rynard says the songs of Eastern Whip-poor-wills often lulled her to sleep.

But as she grew up and stayed in Toronto to pursue film and video, Rynard saw and heard fewer birds. After reading Bridget Stutchbury’s 2009 book Silence of the Songbirds, which traces the migration of many species and tells of all the ways they can perish, she realized the sorry state of songbirds worldwide, and felt compelled to take action. So, in 2011, Rynard teamed up with producers Dianne Woods and Joanne Jackson to form SongBirdSOS Productions—a movie company dedicated exclusively to chronicling the intricate bond between humans and birds. “Humans especially have always used birds as an indicator species,” she says. “Within the story of songbird’s decline is the greater story of our environment’s decline. What if their fate is inextricably linked to our own?”

That’s the daunting question that Rynard’s new documentary—SongBirdSOS Productions' first feature film—The Messenger hopes to answer. The 90-minute movie, which opens in multiple cities tomorrow, explores the many different threats facing passerines today, from larger obstacles like pollution and climate change to local dilemmas like hunting and human development. The takeaway from The Messenger is clear. “Songbirds are disappearing—we’ve lost half the global population in the last 40 years alone,” says Rynard. “For me this was a deeply emotional revelation, having my personal experience validated on this scale.”

The Messenger is particularly effective at sounding the alarm because it makes the issue highly personal. With exclusive footage (the film was shot on three separate continents), and high-tech cinematography, the movie offers an intimate look at the plight of the songbird. Stunning flight sequences—shot in near darkness in the University of Western Ontario’s flight tunnel—are conveyed in slow motion, making the complexities of wing movement, control, and rhythm visible to the human eye. In one CGI-enabled scene, viewers are taken on a dizzying journey through a city at night to experience the disorienting effect of lights and glass on a migrating passerine. 

The film also cites figures from the North American Breeding Bird Survey to show how many species have dwindled over the last 50 years. Populations of Boreal Chickadees, Blackpolls, and Golden-winged Warblers have dropped 80 to 96 percent, while other staple species, such as Canada and Wilson’s warblers and Bobolinks, have lost more than half their ranks. Tree Swallows, White-throated Sparrows, and Eastern Phoebes have seen slightly lower losses, but they're also struggling to adapt.

The documentary cushions these harsh stats with the narratives of 19 people who are working to understand and reverse this decline. There’s ecotoxicologist Christy Morrissey, who’s investigating how pesticides affect insectivores in Canada’s prairies, anthropologist Andrea Rutigliano, who’s liberating Ortolan buntings in France, and German DJ Dominik Eulberg, who’s transforming birdsong into house music. Their stories are not just meant to be uplifting; they also add to the overall message of the film—that unique ideas and tireless efforts could help bring the songbirds back.

The Messenger has already become a festival mainstay, screening at 11 major events worldwide. So far, the songbird saga has taken home top honors at Canada’s prestigious Hot Docs forum and won the prize for Best Conservation Program at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. See here for a full list of screenings—if your city isn't on the list, local screenings can also be arranged through tugg.com.

Correction: The efforts around songbird conservation are tireless, not tiresome. Hope we didn't offend anyone!