Media Ornithology

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A while back I wrote a blog about ornithophobia and then I saw a TV episode of Big Bang Theory with Sheldon being afflicted by this fear. A “blue jay” was hanging out on Sheldon’s apartment windowsill, making Sheldon anxious. The bird, however, which eventually flew into their Pasadena apartment, was a Black-throated Magpie-Jay, a bird found only in Mexico. The Big Bang Theory prides itself on getting people interested in science through Physics, which is portrayed very accurately I think, so you would think they could identify the bird correctly. Well, this is TV, and you can’t have a Black-throated Magpie-Jay in Pasadena, so they called it a blue jay. But you would have thought they could have trained a Western Scrub Jay for the part.

Although I see much less of it than I used to, misidentification of birds and bird calls on TV and movies used to be common. I remember seeing an oil company commercial which featured a pair of Scarlet Tanagers with the call of a Wood Thrush in the background. One of the more egregious misuses of bird sounds is from the old Tarzan movies, supposedly set in darkest Africa, is the sound of an Australian Kookaburra in the background. In fact, the Kookaburra call has almost become synonymous with tropical sounds. And then there are the silly animated specials that show penguins frolicking with polar bears, no matter that the Arctic Circle, where the bears live, and the Antarctic Circle, where most penguins live, are 9000 miles apart. Even the northernmost Galapagos Penguins are 5000 miles from the nearest white bear.

I am sometimes disappointed in documentary movies that get facts wrong or miss an opportunity to educate. In March of the Penguins, a very good movie, a “predator” arrives to take a penguin chick. Why could not the narrator have said “Giant Petrel” ? Winged Migration was a spectacular movie, but TIME called it an “intellectually austere but technologically and aesthetically riveting documentary.” Good description. These films are terrific opportunities to inform the public about bird behavior, anatomy, physiology, conservation, etc. They don’t have to be preachy or dull to be enlightening. The filmmaker certainly has artistic license, but why not have an ornithologist review the film early on to catch errors or provide suggestions?

I have been consulted by many book authors, a few screenwriters and playwrights, radio and TV producers, magazine writers, and even the Guinness Book of World Records. If I don’t know the answer offhand, I research it and learn something in the process. Example: a Spanish quiz show asked me recently to verify that hummingbirds have the fastest wingbeats of all birds. Most people think so, but the answer is the Club-winged Manakin at 107 wingbeats per second!

But that’s me talking as a scientist and author. I am always in the mode of checking facts and educating others in my area of expertise. I have to admit, sometimes my penchant for accuracy detracts from my enjoyment of a book or film. Maybe I need to lighten up? Nah.

For more egregious examples, check out Audubon’s Birdist and Hollywood Bird Blunders.

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