The Birdist's Rules of Birding

Rule #91: And the Birding Oscar Goes To...

It’s not just about the acting. Find out which film should win based on accurate bird depictions alone.

Once you’re a birder, you’re always birding. There is no off switch. Who knows when a rare bird will fly by or sing out? Birds don’t care whether you’re ready for them, so you need to be alert! Driving? Birding. Attending an outdoor wedding ceremony as a guest...or member of the wedding party itself? Birding. In a boring work meeting with a window? Definitely birding.

And of course, you’re birding while watching movies or TV. Once you start identifying the sights and sounds of birds in the real world, you can’t help but identify them on screen. Just be prepared for disappointment.

Birds in movies are almost always incorrect. I don’t know why it’s true, but it’s true. Bald Eagle calls are always actually Red-tailed Hawks (even David Attenborough is guilty of that one!). Birds show up in places they don’t live. Birds calling in the background of scenes are almost always inappropriate for the setting, in anything from dramas to documentaries. And please, do not even get me started on The Big Year (it would need a column all to itself...so, stay tuned).

It’s irritating to see and hear so many bird-related mistakes on screen because it just doesn’t need to happen. You’re pouring millions of dollars into this production and you can’t open a field guide to make sure the bird you’re using fits the scene? To a birder, hearing or seeing an out-of-place bird is like seeing an SUV in a Civil War drama.

On the other hand, correct use of birds on film is an indication of quality, attention to detail, and craftsmanship. In my mind, the accurate deployment of birds and bird sounds tends to signify great care in all other areas, and is a good predictor of a good film.

So, what about Best Pictures? The Academy Awards are this weekend, and in preparation I watched all eight movies nominated for best picture, keeping an eye and ear out for birds. In case you forgot, the nominated films are The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, and Spotlight. Here’s how they did.

Wait, first, some quick disclaimers. There’ll be some **SPOILERS** below. It’s unavoidable, but I’ll do my best to not give anything away that I don’t need to. Second, I can’t vouch for the total accuracy of what’s to come. I saw most of these films in the theater, without the luxury of a rewind button. I did the best I could to ID birds that were only seen or heard briefly or faintly, so there may be things I’ve missed. Go watch them for yourselves and argue with me in the comments if I messed up.

Bridge of Spies and Spotlight

All right, let’s get started with two films in a category by themselves: movies with no birds in them at all. Despite my careful watching, I couldn’t see a single flutter or hear a solitary chirp in either movie. Neither has a lot of outdoor scenes, so I guess it makes sense, but it’s still disappointing to get no avian representation whatsoever.

But a question emerges: Is it better for a movie to have birds but use them incorrectly, or to have no birds at all? I asked Twitter, and things were pretty well split.

I think a complete lack of birds should neither add nor detract from the candidacy of these movies as the category winner. If either wins (Spotlight was great, Bridge of Spies was boring), it’ll be on other merits.

Score: 0 bonus bird points. (Best Picture is determined via a point system, right? It’s not? Oh. Well, too bad.)

The Martian and Room

Birds appear on the soundtrack of both of these films, and are similarly employed. The bird sounds in these films are used symbolically to represent the very idea of life. When Room’s Jack is taken out of the titular shed, the first thing you hear is a bird chirping (though I couldn’t make out the species). The first scene showing The Martian’s astronaut Mark Watney back on Earth after a harrowing escape from the Red Planet is scored with Tufted Titmouse, Acadian Flycatcher, and Red-bellied Woodpecker calls in the background. Both these scenes depict characters seeing the natural world for the first time in a long time, and birds are how that idea is hammered home.

Though both films use birds in the same way, they’re not equal. Room only has the one brief call. I heard three different species in The Martian, each one appropriate for the Houston setting. Well done.  

Scores: +5 bonus bird points for Room; +25 for The Martian.

Brooklyn and The Big Short

Two very good films with solid use of birds. I counted three birds in The Big Short: some species of thrush singing at the very beginning, a quick close-up shot of a House Sparrow, and some species of dark-backed gull out a window in one shot. Nothing incorrect, but nothing particularly impressive, either. (Could have switched that close-up from a House Sparrow to a Le Conte’s Sparrow and we’d be in business.)

Brooklyn had a good number of birds, singing away. There were gulls calling on the boat trip from Ireland to the U.S. (I strained the horizon for Shearwaters with no luck.) There were appropriate Northern Cardinal and even Chimney Swift calls on the streets of New York. Unfortunately, there was a big mistake. Back in Ireland, during a scene in a graveyard, a flock of crows wheeling in the background was scored with the sound of American Crows. Bummer. It’s otherwise an enchanting film, just cover your bird-sensitive ears at the graveyard scene.

Scores: +20 meaningless points for The Big Short, and +10 for Brooklyn.

The Revenant

There’s no doubt that more birds show up in The Revenant—both onscreen and on the soundtrack—than any other Best Picture nominee. Unfortunately, they’re almost all wrong. The film is set in what is to become South Dakota in winter. . . so why is a Yellow-billed Cuckoo chattering during the bear attack scene? Why is there a Common Loon calling? Only the Blue Jays heard during the scene where Hugh Glass is being taken up a mountain on a stretcher is remotely plausible.

But those weren’t the only birds heard in the film. I’m no expert in the calls of UK birds, but Alex Lees (@Alexander_Lees) tweeted about hearing a Greenfinch, Grasshopper Warbler, and Black Hawk-eagle. Henry Cook (@HCbirding) said he heard a Coal Tit. Inexcusable.

That’s not all. Another scene begins panning down from the treetops, and a big bird has been CGI’d onto a branch in the foreground. It’s supposed to be a Common Raven, but its beak is too big and its face looks weird. No.

I wanted to like this movie, but I just didn’t. Give Leo his Best Actor Award if you must, but this ain’t no Best Picture.

Score: -100 bird points.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My favorite movie of the year is also the only one, by my count, to include the name of a bird in the script. In one scene the Furiosa-led caravan of escapees and survivors drives through a swampy hellscape featuring weird stilt-people and a whole bunch of crows. Later, it’s revealed that the swamp was actually ruins of the promised Green Place, no longer a refuge. “The crows,” Furiosa says as the truth is revealed, “the creepy place with all the crows.”

Hey! They said crows! Never mind that unlike in The Martian and Room these birds symbolize death and destruction, they’re major plot points! Plus, other than the two-headed lizard in the opening scene, these crows are the only non-human characters in the whole film. They’re survivors, is what I’m saying. Even though there are no other birds or bird calls in the movie, the out-loud bird mention puts it in a birdy class by itself.

I loved Mad Max because it was the most unique and exciting film of all the nominees. What’s more, it not only put birds on screen but it also put them in the script. What more could I ask for?

Score: +100 bonus bird points, and Best Picture Winner!

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