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Counterfeit Birds: The Mishaps of Birding at the Movies

Birders notice details.

In 2000, several birdwatchers who were tuned in to the PGA Tournament coverage on CBS noticed some out-of-place birdsong on the golf course. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was enjoying a weekend of pro golf from his living room when it dawned on him: Hey, what’s a White-Throated Sparrow doing in Kentucky in June? Shouldn’t they be breeding in Canada right now? After multiple phone calls from viewers like Fitzpatrick, CBS Sports eventually fessed up to adding fake birdsong track for ambiance — one of the more famous examples of televised bird fraud.

Mary Poppins robins, American and European
Which robin properly belongs on Julie Andrews' finger?

In Hollywood, bird errors are so common that it’s actually more surprising when a movie gets it right. The wrong bird in a movie is enough to make a birder stand up in the theater and cry fowl. Eurasian Griffin Vultures in The Lone Ranger movie? Really, people? An American Robin in Mary Poppins? What? Did nobody think to school the animatronics department on the identification a true European Robin? Unconscionable. Those geese in Dances with Wolves are Sandhill Cranes, and those quacking ducks at the end of D2: Mighty Ducks are geese. How do the directors sleep at night?

A Pygmy Nuthatch, along with the wrongly identified bird in Charlie's Angels 2000 Cameron Diaz
Dear Cameron Diaz, THIS is a Pygmy Nuthatch.

One of the most comically egregious examples is found in the 2000 remake of Charlie’s Angels; an imprisoned Bosley sends a transmission, and the ladies are able to pinpoint the location by picking up the background song of a Pygmy Nuthatch, which we’re told “only lives in one place — Carmel, California.” Everything about this movie is horrifyingly bad, but for a birder this particular scene is nails on a chalkboard. The bird shown is a Venezuelan Troupial, a large bright orange-and-black bird native to (no surprise here) Venezuela, and unlike the tiny drab-grey nuthatch in absolutely every respect (except possibly for the fact that they both have feathers). The Pygmy Nuthatch is a widespread year-round resident of Western mountain forests from Canada to Mexico — sorry, Carmel, you’re not so special. Oh, and the song in the movie is neither a nuthatch nor a troupial. I’d encourage you to go listen to the scene and try to identify the song, but then you’d have to actually watch this movie, and that would be an irresponsible and unloving thing for me to ask you to do.

And so movie directors regularly botch attempts to depict birds onscreen. But often, like the PGA bungle, it’s not the directors but the sound engineers who are to blame. Dropping generically-random bird noises into an outdoor scene is like misquoting Shakespeare to your British Literature professor; you may think she didn’t notice, but oh trust me, she most definitely did. Birders who can “bird by ear” are always subconsciously listening for background birdsong, a superpower that doesn’t take a break when they’re watching TV.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Indiana Jones Willow Ptarmigan bird
Raiders of the Lost Ptarmigan

So listen closely. There’s a Black-Capped Chickadee in the Alps in Captain America: First Avenger. There’s a Cactus Wren in very-un-cactusy Maine in The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a Willow Ptarmigan — a classic tundra bird — in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (which, you’ll recall, does not take place in a tundra). Fans of The Revenant will be disappointed to discover loads of European birds and even a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, none of which belong in Montana in the winter. There’s a Common Loon in Platoon. There’s an Eastern Screech Owl hooting on the west coast in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. And there’s Laughing Kookaburras — native only to Australia — in pretty much every movie jungle-forest scene from Tarzan to Jurassic Park to the original Cape Fear (set in my home state of North Carolina, which is tragically absent of kookaburras).

Like I said, birders notice details.


Fraudulent bird I.D., while interesting, is not going to negatively impact your life in any significant way; if it does, you probably need to reassess your priorities or scale back on the coffee. But what if the issue isn’t a counterfeit bird call but a counterfeit bill, or a counterfeit email scam? The ramifications in that sense are more serious and could cost you. Worse still, what if you’re building a life framework on a counterfeit idea? How would you even know you’re being deceived?

The birders who spotted these ornithological forgeries certainly weren’t setting out looking for them. But they knew the subject matter well enough that when something fishy (birdy?) presented itself, the discrepancy was easily noticed. They know where a chickadee doesn’t belong because they know where a chickadee does belong. The better we know the subject matter, the better we discern. It’s the study of the bona fide that unearths the bogus.

The early Church was well aware of alternate soundtracks. The Apostle John encouraged his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The Apostle Paul challenged the Thessalonian believers to “test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Discernment allows a person to sort out the false from the true, to abstain from the former and hold tight to the latter.

But for me, perhaps the most helpful imagery isn’t the knowledge of detail as much as the knowledge of voice. After all, in most of these bird examples, it’s the voice that betrays the counterfeit. Just as a birder learns to “bird by ear” we exercise our discernment when we “live by ear.” This will require us to know the voice we live by.

In First Century Israel, it was common for local shepherds to share an enclosure at night, gathering multiple flocks into one pen guarded by one nightwatchman, allowing the shepherds to go into town for supplies or sleep. But in the morning, imagine the potential for confusion. The shepherds now have to re-sort their intermingled flocks — a potentially time-consuming process. And yet not only did a shepherd know his sheep, but sheep knew their shepherd. So each shepherd would stand in a different corner of the pen, and proceed to make their distinctive sheep calls. Amidst all the noisy bleating of jostling sheep, and the “Heeeeere-sheepy-sheepy” sounds of rival shepherds, a sheep could discern his master’s distinct voice, lock in on it, and move in his direction. His voice would be magnetic north for them. “The sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4).

Jesus said that his sheep know his voice like that — capable of delineating it from all the other voices of thieves and hired hands. Relationship grows our confidence in the familiarity of a voice. I can pick my wife’s laugh out in a crowded room; that ability comes from the fluency of daily presence. A parent can hear a crying child in a room full of preschoolers and know if it’s theirs or not — an awareness borne of relationship. The capacity to pick out a misplaced wren song in a movie is really no big deal; the more time you spend around a voice, the better you know it.

“My sheep know my voice.”

How true is that statement for you? Our culture still produces a steady feed of alternate realities, novel theories, and illogical self-contradictions; the sheep pen is noisy with rival calls. Without a grounding in something firmer, we’re vulnerable to being “tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” (Ephesians 4:14). In hearing the voice of Jesus above all others, nothing substitutes for actual relationship. Knowing his voice well becomes the anchor point from which we can interpret all others.

We learn his voice in the ordinary means of grace: in prayer, in the reading of his word, and in the mercies of community and circumstances. We learn more about the kind of savior we follow from stories and parables, and especially from a cross and an empty tomb. I want to continue to be a lifelong learner of that voice, a relational knowledge that in some small way reflects the deep communion of Father and Son: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).

The better we know his song, the more we’ll hear it everywhere.

(what it's like to watch Indiana Jones with a birdwatcher...)

1 Comment

Absolutely fantastic writing, message and tongue in cheek humor! Loved every word and sound!

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