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On the lookout for ‘bad birds’

What do “Jonny Quest,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “MASH” and “Blood Diamond” have in common? “Bad birds”! What’s a bad bird? It’s a bird that is shown or heard on a movie or TV program that simply “couldn’t be.” Beware. Or better yet, be aware. It’s all about bird truth. It’s about the “thrill” (however questionable) of finding avian mistakes. Sound like fun? Join me for just a few of my favorites.

We bird nerds will often notice that Hollywood and most media in general are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to birds.

This crossed my mind today when, during an interview, Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned that the events in his film, “Blood Diamond” were very real. I beg to differ. One thing that never happened were the bad birds. Let’s see, there was Downy woodpecker, cactus wren and what I believe was an Eastern screech owl and the ever-present red-tailed hawk “screeeech”! That screech has been misplaced on macho truck commercials and shots of sweeping vistas from countries where red-tails have never screeched, as in “The Syrian Bride.” I don’t remember hearing a single African bird in Blood Diamond.



I first became aware of bad birds when I was a little kid growing up in Maryland, watching my favorite cartoon, “Jonny Quest,” on TV. It bothered me that in the opening scenes of the cartoon, a King vulture was shown. No problem except that it was in a Peregrine-esque stoop while screeching! Well, vultures eat only carrion and have no need for “a stoop,” are essentially voiceless and couldn’t screech, if they wanted to.

Most of you who watched Hawkeye Pierce and Radar O’Riley on the TV show “MASH,” probably weren’t annoyed by the western scrub-jays, ash-throated flycatchers, California quail and wren tits that were “filling the skies of Korea with sound,” but I was! These are the birds that one finds in the hills around Hollywood, not Korea. In “Bonanza,” we heard the eerie yodel of a common loon, no matter how far the scene is from the loons’ Canadian breeding grounds is the scene.




At one point in the film “Charlie’s Angels,” one of the angels mentions that a Pygmy nuthatch comes to visit her at her windowsill at her home in Monterey. So far so good, as Pygmy nuthatches are very common there. However, when the bird actually comes into view, it is a gaudy type of oriole that I’ve seen in Ecuador, a Troupial! My first thought was “Wow, the first record of a Troupial for California.”

How about the Mel Gibson film “Apocalypto”? Meant to have taken place in pre-Spanish Yucatan, Veracruz or Chiapas, I found it strange that the rulers at the beheading ceremony were all wearing pheasant feathers from Asia. Did the non-migratory American crows calling in the jungle actually fly all that way down to the land of the pyramids? Or, my personal favorite was the moment when a cattle egret comes walking by. Not! The white cattle egrets were blown across the Atlantic Ocean, were first recorded in northeastern South America in 1877 and moved into North America in 1941. Oops!

Sometimes we find mistakes even in “real live” nature programs or movies. Take “Winged Migration,” for example. In the movie, a Clark’s grebe is mistakenly called a western grebe (easy to do), but then the movie shows snow geese with immature plumage flying north on their harrowing journey to the arctic. Not! Snow Geese would have already molted into their adult plumage as they headed north.

As a naturalist, I love hearing and seeing the right species in their true homes, but a little part of me also enjoys finding the mistakes. Then I laugh at the bad birds!


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