In bird identification as in birding movies, the devil’s in the details, and The Birder misses some key details. The term “lifer” is badly misused—it simply means a bird that a birder is seeing for the first time. The sandhill crane call is wrong. The only live bird actually shown in the film—billed as a prairie falcon—is actually a peregrine falcon in the close-up and what looks like either a red-tailed hawk or short-tailed hawk in the brief flight shot.
I’m obsessing, but that’s what birders do. On the whole, The Birder represents birds and birding probably better than any movie. Any move except for A Birder’s Guide to Everything.
The film centers on a teenage birder (Kodi Smit-McPhee) road tripping with friends (Alex Wolff, Michael Chen, and Katie Chang) to chase a potentially rare bird, leaving his remarrying father James Le Gros (the “cool dad” who hit on Jessa in Season 1 of Girls) and a sage birder (Ben Kingsley) behind. Sharing the top billing should be the “ornithological consultants” listed in the credits, Morgan Tingley and Kenn Kaufman, because this is a film that takes clear pride in getting its subject matter right. Kaufman is a birding legend and the author of Kingbird Highway, the best book in existence about what it’s like to be a young birder. (When is that going to be made into a movie?)
My birder fears were eased before the opening credits even ran: A black-throated green warbler is correctly matched with its song; a red-eyed vireo, a nondescript and easily misidentified songbird, is identified correctly; and it shows a Canada warbler. No one shows Canada warblers!
The details kept piling up. The birders in the film used proper farewells: “Good birding!” The purported yellow warbler song in the office was actually a yellow warbler song. The noise in the car that sounded like a black-and-white warbler was actually a black-and-white warbler. The ivory-billed woodpecker and GISS discussions were accurate. It was eerie. After all the years of mistakes, this attention to detail caught me off guard. Did the filmmakers use an Okkervil River song from 2007 in the opening credits because they knew Jonathan Meiburg—an avid birder—was in the band then? It was a lot to handle, but a good lot.
While it seems unlikely that either of these films will spark a Top Gun–esque birding mania, with once-sullen teens dashing into the nearest binocular store, both movies signal a satisfying shift in the acceptance of birding as a hobby for normal people. The birding world isn’t simply a punch line anymore but a legitimate setting for exciting, funny, and moving stories. We’re moving into a more enlightened age, with yellow-rumped warblers replacing William Hurt’s butt.
A Birder’s Guide to Everything is out now on video on demand and opens in theaters on March 21. The Birder opens in Canadian theaters on April 4.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Ebola Story
How our minds build narratives out of disaster.
The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics
A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.