Saturday, September 15, 2007

Birds at the Movies

An op-ed piece in tomorrow's Washington Post wonders why movie directors devote much effort to getting period costumes right but routinely botch the natural settings, especially when it comes to birds.

In James Mangold's new blockbuster Western "3:10 to Yuma," the first time we meet Ben Wade, played by tough-guy actor Russell Crowe, he is making a natural history sketch of a bird just minutes before carrying out yet another murderous stagecoach robbery. The scene establishes Wade not only as a complex character, but as a savvy birder who takes the time to document what is surely the first and only sighting in the United States of Africa's augur buzzard.


Alas, the entertainment industry knows no shame. Moviemakers' attention to period detail in costumes, props, sets and dialogue grows ever more sophisticated, and the budgets for high-end productions regularly top tens of millions of dollars. Imagine how hard directors worked to equip Ben Wade with the right spurs and pistol. But they apparently think that getting the right bird is, well, for the birds.

Take a gander. European hooded crows in the soundtrack and in the trees, and the directors of "Cold Mountain" want us to believe we're in Appalachia? If "Apocalypto" takes place during the Mayan era, then why do cattle egrets flap by majestic temples -- 400 years before their arrival in the Americas from Africa?

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" features birds from three continents, impossibly sharing the same habitat. "Pearl Harbor" gives us the first recorded sighting of a Western scrub jay outside the mainland -- on a golf course in Oahu. Set in Sierra Leone, "Blood Diamond" features at least four birds from the Western Hemisphere, including a bobwhite.
Getting the right birds into the right place at the right time should be fairly easy to research since reference publications on birds exist for almost all areas of the planet and for most bird families. There are also extensive repositories of bird sounds and images. Cornell is probably the most prominent example in the United States, and it is hardly the only one.

The essay cites a recent Harry Potter film as an example of careful attention to authentic bird sounds. Historical accuracy may be a bit harder, but recently The New World made an attempt to incorporate extinct Carolina parakeets and other creatures of precolonial eastern North America.

The essay mentions one website loaded with example of bird mistakes in movies, How did that bird get there? What is the most egregious example that you have seen?