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?

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.

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.

Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 6:59 PM The Democrats’ War at Home Can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.