One of Wes Craven’s favorite birds (he had many) was the California Condor. The oversized, black-feathered, flesh-eating vulture seems like a natural for the man who gave us A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream franchise.
But Craven was attracted to condors for reasons beyond being seemingly perfect cast members in his movies (though he did use them at least once).
“I don’t find condors scary,” he told Audubon in 2008. “I find them beautiful. I like that they were hauled back from the brink of extinction. The world needs birds that eat dead things.”
For much of the world, Craven was a talented director and writer who spent his career continuing to redefine the horror genre. For Audubon, Wes was a passionate conservation ally, raising awareness for birds through his actions, delightful writings, and social media presence. Often, Wes and his wife, producer Iya Labunka, were just another curious pair of birders at the Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles—Wes was even known to offer up his own gloves to an underdressed birder on winter walks.
On Sunday, Wes passed away in his home in Los Angeles, at age 76. The cause, according to a statement from his family, was brain cancer.
“Wes was an incredible evangelist for birds and for Audubon in many ways,” wrote Audubon California Board Chair Kristi Patterson in a statement. (Craven had served on Audubon California’s Board of Directors since 2010.) “He always asked interesting questions that allowed us to look at issues through a different lens, which is critical and one of the great strengths he brought to the board. I always loved being on field trips with Wes and Iya and seeing their passion for birds light up when we saw something special in the field.”
In fact, one of Wes and Iya’s early dates (they wed in 2004) was a birding trip—led by Frank Gill, then senior vice president for science at Audubon. Craven and Gill had been communicating over email for years—they first connected when Wes subscribed to an ornithology newsletter Gill was running—and Wes regularly wrote Gill questions about the birds and behaviors he was spotting. When Gill was visiting California, Wes suggested they get together and Gill took the couple out birding. (It was the couple’s first time actually birding—Iya had brought a pair of “opera glasses,” Gill recalled.) Within a couple of hours, Wes was identifying different birds’ age and sex, due to plumage differences, Gill recalled. "He was a sponge of information—he absorbed everything,” he says.
Gill also introduced Craven to the Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles, which became one of Wes’s favorite spots. He and Iya were big supporters of the center. Wes was particularly interested in the space as an opportunity for urban kids to gain an appreciation of nature: “Anything to get them out there and walking around and having a sense that it’s kind of fun to find out what that bird is and what it does—that it’s well, well worth it,” he said in the 2008 interview.
The sense of wonder he hoped to instill in kids was something he maintained throughout his life—he never lost his intense curiosity, Gill said.
“It was a bitterly cold March morning in a blind on the side of the Platte River in Nebraska and we were all amazed to see the world-famous Sandhill Crane migration,” recalled Audubon President David Yarnold, of a recent birding trip. “But there was one quiet guy in the back whose eyes were as wide as a seven-year-old’s—just full of wonder and really noticing everything. That was Wes.”
Craven was a creative force. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he worked as an English professor in Pennsylvania for a few years before he made it into the film industry—by directing, writing, and editing pornography (one of his last tweets endorses grabbing the first opportunity you can to get a foothold in your chosen industry). But his big break came with Last House on the Left, a 1972 hit that he wrote and directed on a very limited budget, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
From there he went on to write and direct 1984’s now-classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. Ever the humorist, he shared a hidden personal joke of the movie with Yarnold over dinner last summer: “He was telling us about delivering newspapers as a kid in freezing Cleveland and about a bully who would beat him up or mess with his papers on the street corner,” Yarnold recalled. “He went on about this awful kid and then said, slyly, ‘his name was Freddy.’”
Craven worked on various sequels and remakes involving his famous character Freddy Krueger, and in 1996 went on to break the horror mold again with the blockbuster Scream. He also stayed intimately involved in the remakes of this franchise—at the time of his death, he was serving as executive producer of MTV’s Scream TV series.
Craven didn’t confine himself to one genre; he directed Meryl Streep in a role that garnered her an Oscar nod in the 1999 drama Music of the Heart. He also published a novel, The Fountain Society, the same year. At the time of his death, he was working on a comic book series called Coming of Rage.
He also contributed a lively and hilarious column titled “The Birds” for Martha’s Vineyard magazine (which served the community where he lived for years, before returning to LA recently for work). In it, he related humorous (if imagined) accounts of his interactions with birds in his backyard—and at airports—that often managed to include practical tips on how humans can help birds out. (“If you’re putting in a garden, put in some native plants, rather than stuff they can’t use imported from Holland or China. Or have a water feature where they can get a drink and freshen up.”)
While his column clearly highlights Wes’s vast knowledge of birds, he was always eager to learn more. “His curiosity was insatiable and I would often get shots of birds from his backyard—with he and Iya trying to agree on the species,” says Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California. “He would delight when we sent him back an answer, even it if was the most common of birds.”
For Wes, birds were characters, to be admired, protected, and revered. A few years ago, in our “Why Birds Matter” issue, we posed that question to him.
“‘Why do birds matter?’ is one of those questions like ‘What is love?’ or ‘Why are we here?’ or even ‘Is there a God?’ Unanswerable, I think, by logic. One could cite facts like, birds eat lots of harmful insects, charm us at our feeders, or challenge us to learn their field marks, molts, and names both common and scientific. But perhaps the answer lies deeper. Since the beginning birds have lifted our eyes to the skies. They’ve shown us we’re not gravity’s slave, that flight is possible and limitless. It can hover and soar, dive and display, and take us from one end of the planet to the other in a single, impossible burst of energy and purpose. Inspiration is the gift birds have given us from the start. But now they give us a question as well. Like the canary in the mine, they hold the planet up to us like a mirror and ask: ‘Can you not see that if we pass away, soon you will as well?’ That’s a good question, and since birds pose it, they matter a lot.”
Today, in a world now empty of Wes’s immeasurable talent, passion, and curiosity, it seems the only thing to do is celebrate the birds we all love—even the ones that eat dead things.