Movies Don't Give a Hoot

By Graham Chisholm
Sunday, September 16, 2007

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.

Suspend my disbelief, you say? Hollywood's ornithological ignorance probably didn't ruin your last trip to the movies, but don't call me a lone curmudgeon. Peruse the e-mail group BirdChat and a Web page called "How did that bird get there?" and you'll see the extent of the agony shared by me and America's 50 million other birders. How many times must we watch a bald eagle soar across the movie screen, paired with the cry of a red-tailed hawk in Dolby Digital surround sound?

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.

Hollywood's general neglect of birds can be downright jarring. We birders are enjoying the movie as much as everyone else in the theater, and then something happens.

Take the movie "Ever After." While reveling in Drew Barrymore's alfresco lunch with the queen of France, we suddenly hear the cry of a . . . North American alder flycatcher? Brad Pitt might as well have flashed his Hanes boxers beneath a Trojan tunic.

Of course, the movie that gave birds a truly starring role, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," used no natural bird sounds at all. It relied on screeches created by a trautonium (an electronic musical instrument) and used a mix of live and mechanical birds to scare the wits out of a generation of would-be birdwatchers.

At least Cameron Diaz's character in the movie "Charlie's Angels" knows that birds are linked to places. She locates her kidnapped boss, played by Bill Murray, by the sound of pygmy nuthatches in the background during their cellphone conversation. Never mind that pygmy nuthatches are found from Mexico City to Vancouver and aren't found just in Carmel, as her character assumes. But we birders give her an "A" for effort.

Yet it is possible to get birds right. Sound editors for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" asked Cornell's Macaulay Library at the Lab of Ornithology to help track down authentic sounds of the chiffchaff, burrowing owl, European robin, song thrush, common nightingale and rook.

For a small price, all moviemakers can splice in sounds from Cornell's monster sound library. Let's drop the canned honking of a Canada goose. It's time for birds to have their day.

Until then, we birders will leave movie theaters like disillusioned lovers moping out of a sweet but improbable romantic comedy. Find me a bald eagle that squawks like a red-tailed hawk, and I'll find you Prince Charming.

Graham Chisholm is Audubon California's director of conservation and an avid moviegoer.

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