Birdist Rule #74: Watch Some Movies About Birding

Stuck indoors for the holidays? Scrutinize these birding movies instead of real-life field marks.

It can be hard to go birding during the holidays. Maybe you’ve eaten too much and can’t get up off the couch. Maybe your weird cousin has cornered you in the living room and is telling you about his recent orthodontic surgery. Maybe it’s just too dang cold outside. Well, if you can’t get out birding, at least you might be able to watch some movies about birding.

Birding and birders are often presented as butts of the joke on screen. We’re eccentrics at best, and downright lunatics (loonatics?) at worst. We’re used to it: I think most birders eventually recognize the fact that non-birders don’t really understand us. Indeed, what we really want in a birding movie isn’t hair-raising suspense or complex characters or a compelling plot; we require avian accuracy. For example, does the film show species that could actually be found in that setting? Do the birders use the right lingo? That’s the stuff that really matters in a film!

Identifying errors in a movie isn’t quite the same as identifying species in the wild, but it does fulfill some of the same needs—and, crucially, can be done from the couch. For your holiday viewing pleasure (or agony), here, in no particular order, are all the birding movies I could find.

The Big Year (2011)
Starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson. Directed by David Frankel.
Runtime: 1h 40min (trailer)

The Big Year is easily the most famous movie about birding. Featuring an insanely impressive cast and based on impeccable source material (Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book), the film follows three obsessive birders racing against each other to see the most species in a calendar year and set a new Big Year record. It’s a fun movie: family-friendly, with a lot of laughs, pratfalls, and general goofin’ around.

Ornithologically, it leaves a bit to be desired. In the few instances where the film diverges from the source material, it makes errors that make any knowledgeable birder cringe. Pink-footed Goose in the mountains of Colorado? Never. Birders waiting to tick Semipalmated Plover and Northern Shoveler on Attu? Strange. But those are relatively minor moments in a movie that otherwise celebrates the excitement and enjoyment of birding.

Watch (for a fee) on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, and others.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013)
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, James Le Gros, Daniela Lavender, Ben Kingsley. Directed by Rob Meyer.
Runtime: 1h 26min (trailer)

This sweet coming-of-age story follows a group of teenaged birders as they attempt to track down a Labrador Duck, a bird long presumed extinct. It’s a nice film with some funny moments and ruminations on love and loss, and from a birding standpoint it’s a real standout. This movie is easily the most accurate birding film out there. Black-throated Green and Canada Warblers show up in the opening credits, matched with their correct songs. Birds heard singing in the background, which Hollywood nearly always gets wrong, are dead-on for the Connecticut woods. Heck, even birding legend Kenn Kaufman makes a cameo! Can’t get any more legit than that.

Watch (for a fee) on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and others.

The Birder / The Bird Men (2013)
Starring Tom Cavanagh, Graham Greene, Fred Willard. Directed by Ted Bezaire.
Runtime: 1h 25min (trailer)

Another birding movie from 2013, this one was released as The Birder, but for some reason they changed the title and it is now found as The Bird Men. The film is a quirky comedy centered around Tom Cavanagh’s character getting mild revenge after being passed over for a Head of Ornithology job at his local park. It’s cute enough, and is respectful towards birding and birders, so that’s good. But it is not accurate. The only bird actually shown in the movie is supposed to be a Prairie Falcon, but is actually a Peregrine in the close-up and some kind of buteo hawk in the flight shot. The movie badly misuses the term “lifer” and gets a bunch of calls wrong. It’s a fun film, but birders should keep their expectations in check.

Watch (for a fee) on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and others.

Rare Birds (2001)
Starring William Hurt, Andy Jones, Molly Parker. Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson.
Runtime: 1h 39min (trailer)

A down-on-his-luck owner of a Newfoundland restaurant (named, fittingly, The Auk) decides to drum up business by faking a rare-bird sighting and feeding the hungry birders who show up to look. Not a bad premise! Too bad this film makes nearly no sense, featuring an assortment of random, unresolved subplots involving espionage, magical lighting technology, an odd young waitress, and a giant package of cocaine that the main character snorts throughout the film. There are moments of good bird content—I never thought I’d see a film that discusses the comparative identification of Hairy and American Three-toed Woodpeckers—but it’s lost in nonsense. This is one rare bird you shouldn’t chase (zing!).

Hate watch (for a fee) on YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

The Love God? (1969)
Starring Don Knotts, Anne Francis, Edmond O'Brien. Directed by Nat Hiken.
Runtime: 1h 41 min (trailer)

This movie is ABSOLUTELY bonkers. Are you ready for this? Don Knotts plays Abner Peacock, whose near-bankrupt birdwatching magazine is purchased by some unscrupulous types and turned into a Playboy-type nudie magazine, with Peacock as its supposedly sexy leader. The plot is gibberish, but Knotts makes up for it by doing some funny, fake bird calls at the beginning and then running around in cool '60s clothes. All bird-related content is dead wrong; still I couldn’t help but like this movie.

You can watch the whole thing for free, but split across several videos, on YouTube.

Pelican Blood (2009) 
Starring Harry Treadaway, Emma Booth, Ali Craig. Directed by Karl Golden.
Runtime: 1h 34min (NSFW trailer

This is a decidedly more intense film than anything else on the list, following a young British twitcher as he deals with love and depression. It’s dark, but I found that it presents a strikingly realistic portrait of birding, at least among young men with foul mouths and grubby clothes. It gets its birds right, too, even down to appropriate UK vagrants like American Kestrel and White-crowned Sparrow. This isn’t a happy film, but it’s a take on birding that I haven’t seen elsewhere on screen.

Watch (for a fee) on Amazon.

The Hide (2008)
Starring Alex Macqueen, Phil Campbell, Laura Hopwood. Directed by Marek Losey.
Runtime: 1h 22min (trailer)

I couldn’t actually find this movie online to watch it, but here’s my best shot at a summary based on the trailer. Apparently it’s about an obsessive birder mourning his ex-wife and hanging out in a bird hide in a remote marsh waiting to see a Sociable Plover, after which he will have twitched the entire British list. A mysterious stranger shows up who may be a fugitive from the police. A fight ensues, maybe because of the police thing or maybe because a Red-winged Blackbird was spotted on the Isles of Sicily or something and there’s only one seat in the car. I’m in no rush to seek this out, but would love to hear from those who have seen it.

The Society of Birdwatchers (2015)
Starring Austin Laanstra, Ethan Harder, Jessie Johnston. Directed by Morgan Ermter.
Runtime: <18min

A bored guy walking through the woods stumbles upon a bunch of weirdos in rubber bird masks calling themselves the Society of Birdwatchers in this Canadian short film. They hang out together and wear their masks and sorta look at birds I guess? I can’t really explain what was happening here, but their masks were pretty fun.

Watch it for free on YouTube here.

Well, there you have it. Those are all the birding movies I could find. If I missed any, please let me know, because it’s a long holiday season and I’ve got a lot of time to kill.