By Jeremy Schwartz
I get it. Birding is way more difficult when it’s bitterly cold outside.
I had my first “Glad I’m not birding today,” moment of the year on a particularly cold and surprisingly snowy day last week. I’ve braved my share of Christmas Bird Counts to know that bird enjoyment can still be rent from the clutches of winter. But there are some days where even the most hardcore of birders just want to stay inside.
My point: Don’t feel guilty about not wanting to get out there with the birds when the thermometer is below freezing and there’s a foot or more of snow on the ground.
For any new or aspiring birders reading this who want an excuse to get out of the cold and still get a birding fix (or just nature lovers wanting to broaden their birdy horizons) here are five bird-related movies for a cold day. All are available on one of the major digital streaming services.
The Big Year
I can imagine any hardcore birders reading this shaking their fists at me for including this comedy/drama from 2011. It doesn’t get the highest marks for accuracy when it comes to bird calls and locations, and most serious birders will tell you the non-fiction book upon which the movie was based is better. I agree with these comments, and agree the book is better (as is the case with most book-to-movie transfers).
Still, this light-hearted romp captures the feeling of birding quite well. It fictionalizes the character names and some of the events from the book to tell the story of three men obsessed with birds who devoted their lives to seeing as many birds in North America as they could in 1998. Embarking upon such an endeavor is called a “big year” in the birding community.
The movie stars Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin, all of whom deliver respectable comedic performances, though the attempts at heartstring-pulling can come off a little sappy. Anyone who has read the book (which I would highly recommend) will recognize true vignettes conveyed on the screen, such as when the character played by Steve Martin makes a pilgrimage to a Texas dump to seek a specific species of crow.
This movie holds a special place in my heart because I have it to thank in-part for opening up the wide and weird world of birding to me. It inspired me to devote time and resources to a lazy-but-committed “Big May” back in 2016 to see as many birds as I could in that month (54, by the way). Give it a watch if you want something that might make you laugh but that you don't have to commit too much time to.
Opposable Chums: Guts & Glory at The World Series of Birding
If you want the spiritual opposite of the The Big Year, this documentary is for you. Opposable Chums tells the story of a madcap event that takes place in New Jersey every year called “The World Series of Birding.” Teams of birders set out across the state on the same day trying to see or hear as many birds as they can between 12:01 a.m. and 11:59 p.m.
You read that correctly. 24 hours straight of birding. I wrote “see or hear” because all a competing team has to do is make sure they hear a specific bird to be able to count it. This leads to some of the more memorable visuals of the movie for me, in which multiple teams of birders drive at a crawl along a lonely road abutting a forested area listening for birds with car doors wide open. Also, all list-keeping is strictly on the honor system; a tenet of birding overall. As birders featured in the film describe, cheating at birding is like cheating at solitaire: You’d only be hurting yourself.
This is not birding for the faint of heart. The movie does a good job of pointing that out, though, by including interviews with some of the birding community’s most famous faces making the point that this is a very specific kind of birding. It’s not the kind I’d like to partake in, though a day-long road trip with super-passionate people, eating on the run, seeing myriad different birds and habitats, does have its draws for me.
Though released in 2008, the movie looks like it was filmed in the 1990s using VHS tape. Visuals notwithstanding, it’s a fascinating depiction of birding in the extreme. Plus, a requirement of the “World Series” is that teams must raise money for some charitable cause related to conservation ($5 for every bird seen, for example). As insane as the whole thing seems, it is for a good cause.
Birders: The Central Park Effect
If Opposable Chums is about birders, then this documentary is about the animals they love. The Central Park Effect revels in the beauty of birds themselves with stunning imagery, an ethereal soundtrack, and heartfelt interviews with bird lovers who frequent New York City’s Central Park.
Why Central Park? As the documentary explains, the 1.3-square mile green space serves as a respite and haven for as many as 200 different bird species throughout the year. The emerald expanse sticks out among the concrete and steel, attracting birds migrating both in spring and fall.
The film’s structure follows the four seasons and features birders and nature enthusiasts who consider the park a second home. From a cancer-stricken woman who has led bird walks in the park for decades, to a teenage girl with a life list longer than mine, The Central Park Effect paints a portrait of birding as a hobby for all.
Then there’s the birds. The filmmaker, Jeffrey Kimball, achieves breathtaking footage of the some of the park’s most colorful denizens. I remember gasping more than a few times as my TV screen was filled with the image of a singing warbler, clad in yellow, black, and orange. If you’re only in it for the eye candy, this documentary has enough to satisfy.
The Million Dollar Duck
To paraphrase Monty Python’s Flying Circus: And now for something a little bit different.
First some background. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp program to maintain national wildlife refuges across the country and purchase new lands for conservation. This stamp, and it is indeed a physical stamp, is commonly called “the Duck Stamp.”
Anyone wanting to hunt on or access national wildlife refuge lands must buy a stamp for $25. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar made through Duck Stamp purchases goes back into conservation.
First issued in 1934 to support the Migratory Bird Conservation act, which had been passed five years before, the Federal Duck Stamp program has become one of the most successful government-run conservation programs in U.S. history.
A hallmark of the stamp is the artwork adorning it, which always features some species of North American waterfowl. The Million Dollar Duck is the story of the annual contest held to choose the artwork for the next year’s stamp. The film follows six artists as they work on meticulously detailed paintings of waterfowl in hopes of having their work chosen. No cash prize is given, though winning can exponentially increase the exposure of a wildlife artist hoping to make it big.
I remember getting surprisingly invested in a couple of the artists featured and waiting with bated breath to see who would be chosen. The judging of the hundreds of annual entries takes place in a single weekend, with a panel of experts whittling down the entries over dozens and dozens of rounds.
Overall, The Million Dollar Duck is a well-told story with little if any manufactured drama and a strong conservation message. By the way, did I mention that a Duck Stamp is only $25 and gets you entry into wildlife refuges across the U.S.? Click here to find out how to buy one.
The last entry is a tad darker in tone than all the movies so far. Put simply, it’s about extinction.
2009’s Ghost Bird tells the true story of a bird-related frenzy that took over a small Arkansas town in 2004-2005. The frenzy focused on an alleged sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the world’s third largest species of woodpecker.
Conservationists had thought the bird extinct due to loss of its old-growth forest habitat until blurry video of what appeared to be one surfaced in 2004. The sighting triggered intense interest in a small area of woodland in rural Arkansas and drew birders and nature lovers from all over the world.
But was an Ivory-billed actually seen? That’s the question Ghost Bird explores through interviews with those who swear the bird is still around, those on the other side of the fence, and local Arkansas residents caught in the middle. The film explores the lengths some conservationists will go to seek a member of an extinct species while being blunt about the fact that sometimes humans simply see what they want to see.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker debate, sort of the Bigfoot of the birding world, is a long and complicated one and still goes on today. Ghost Bird is an interesting if somber glimpse into this saga and the conservation implications the rediscovery of any extinct species have on our world.