Plea to Hollywood: Get Your Bird Sounds Straight

Mar 1, 2017

I’m sure all of you are still basking in the glow of the Oscar win for Pixar’s beautiful animated short “Piper."  The six minute piece, and winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Short, is about a sandpiper chick too afraid of the crashing waves to learn to feed himself. The combination of gorgeous, cutting edge animation and a cute, wordlessly conveyed story explain the win, but as is typical of anything having to do with birds in Hollywood, they definitely didn’t get the Oscar for biological accuracy.

The film follows a tiny sandpiper chick in a flock modeled after Sanderlings that winter on sandy beaches throughout the US. But you would never see a tiny chick on a sandy beach because Sanderlings nest on shrubby tundra in remote areas of the high Arctic, and by the time we see them on our beaches in the late fall, the chicks are long since full grown and independent. If they had just used a Snowy Plover or Piping Plover instead, everything would have been on the up and up.

“Settle down, bird guy,” I can hear you saying, “it’s just a cute cartoon.” I know, I know – the quest for ornithological accuracy in Hollywood is a lonely one, and I have accepted my fate. But that doesn’t mean I can’t give you an earful about birders’ various pet peeves about how birds are represented in film.

Knowing bird sounds is a particularly heavy burden, both for birders and for those who watch movies with them. Bird sounds are notoriously inaccurate in movies and television - the sounds are added in post-production, and despite the hundreds of people involved in making a film, which include everything from “best boy” and “dolly grip,” whatever those are, to the kid who gets the sandwiches, they don’t ever seem to have a bird sound consultant. We would work cheap, believe me.

So we birders are doomed to hear that same Red-tailed Hawk scream every time they show a Bald Eagle or some other raptor, and that same inappropriate Mourning Warbler song every time a commercial wants to convey a suburban atmosphere. That recording really gets around, which is strange because it’s an obscure and uncommon species that you would not hear in suburbia. One of my favorite bird call gaffes was the Barred Owls calling in the Africa savannah during an old Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas movie about killer lions in Kenya. For some reason, the eerie call of the European Tawny Owl makes its way into all kinds of movies and TV shows set here in the US. The owl I most often see on American TV looks sort of like our native Great Horned Owl, but is actually a Eurasian Eagle Owl, which obviously belongs to some very popular Hollywood animal handler. That bird gets more work than Meryl Streep.

CBS was busted by birders years back for piping geographically inappropriate bird sounds in for their golf coverage. I love sports, but it would take a lot more than bird calls to liven up a golf broadcast. Even nature shows are lazy about having accurate bird sounds – just the other night I was watching a high budget PBS Nature miniseries called Spies in the Wild, and during the prairie dog segment there was an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing in the background, which is wrong for both the geographic area and the vast treeless expanse where it was filmed. If even “Nature” didn’t bother to add appropriate bird sounds during post production, what hope do we have for other shows.

So Hollywood, if you’re listening, I’m ready to be your bird guy. I’ll make all those angry emails and tweets from birders go away. My consulting fee is cheap, and you can credit me somewhere between the dolly grip and the best boy. But I will need my own trailer. Oh, and tell the kid who brings the sandwiches “no pickles.”