Finally, the Movie That Birders (There Are a Lot of Us!) Have Been Waiting For

The state of the universe.
March 21 2014 9:15 AM

Will a Movie About Birding Finally Get It Right?

It shouldn’t be so hard to make a bald eagle sound like a bald eagle.

A Birder's Guide to Everything.
Michael Chen, Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, and Kodi Smit-McPhee in A Birder's Guide to Everything.

Courtesy of Dreamfly Productions/Screen Media Films

When Top Gun was released in 1986, the U.S. Navy saw a 500 percent increase in pilot recruits. The Karate Kid inspired a dojo boom in the late 1980s that reached even my little hamlet of Falmouth, Maine. I lasted two weeks as a no-belt before I got tired of being yelled at and remembered that video games existed.

When done right, being featured in a movie can elevate and legitimize a subculture or profession. It worked for Navy pilots in Top Gun, for runners in Chariots of Fire, and for storm chasers in Twister. When done poorly, movies will at best fail to inspire, and at worst lead to ridicule.

Movies have treated birders—members of a large (there are more of us than hunters!) yet often teased and defensive tribe—poorly. Two films released this spring, A Birder’s Guide to Everything and the Canadian film The Birder, try to reverse course. Do either of them get it right?

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For comparison, let’s start with a quick recap of birding on film. In terms of promoting the hobby, 2001’s Rare Birds was about as inauspicious a debut imaginable. William Hurt stars as a down-on-his-luck Newfoundland restaurant owner who devises a plan to drum up business by faking a sighting of a rare bird and serving food to the binocular-laden masses who arrive to see it. While such a scheme isn’t necessarily implausible from a business perspective, the hordes of birders that descend on the small town all fit the stereotype of elderly, dim-witted nut jobs that real birders are trying hard to break. Also, William Hurt blows cocaine the whole time and shows his butt a bunch. It’s not a very good movie.

The bird-watching world’s real spotlight was 2011’s The Big Year. Boasting an impressive cast (Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, Jack Black) and based on Mark Obmascik’s beloved book, we were certain it would be our The Karate Kid (1984). Instead, it was our The Karate Kid (2010). The problem was a lack of respect. Instead of writing actual jokes, the movie sat on “aren’t these birders wacky” clichés. Worse, the film was so riddled with ornithological inaccuracies that it bordered on insult. My incredulous snorts echoed in the near-empty theater: “A pink-footed goose on a mountain in Colorado!?” “How are these people running around with binoculars held to their faces?” “Was that a domestic mallard on Attu?”

The fact that birds are often misidentified in film and TV is nothing new: Every birder knows to expect the sound of a red-tailed hawk whenever a bald eagle is shown on screen. But it stings every time. Certainly other subcultures aren’t mangled in this way: Can you imagine Cameron telling Ferris Bueller about his dad’s Ferrari Spyder California as the camera pans back on a Jetta?

(I should point out that birders are doing better in the nonfiction realm, in HBO’s Birders: The Central Park Effect and BBC’s Twitchers.)

It’s not that hard to get it right. Just use a bald eagle noise when showing a bald eagle. Just look in a field guide and make sure the correct birds are shown. You’re embarrassing yourselves, filmmakers.

The Birder and A Birder’s Guide to Everything have two more shots at getting birding right, and I had high hopes.

Set in southern Ontario, The Birder stars Tom Cavanagh (from TV’s Ed and Scrubs) as a nerdy birder out for gentle revenge after he’s passed over for the long-coveted head of ornithology position at his local park. This is a funny movie, and its birding heart is in the right place. The film is set at “Pelee Region Provincial Park,” a reference to southern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park—one of the most famous migrant traps in North America and a place that makes birders swoon. Most importantly, it treats birding with respect. Though Cavanagh’s Ron Spencer displays almost no birding skills in the movie (save a quiet pish), he’s not mocked for his eccentric hobby as he would have been in other films. Throughout, birders are represented as eccentric (guilty) but not moronic. For birders, there’s progress in acceptance. But The Birder isn’t the movie that gets birding right.

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