October 2020

Bird Videos: The Features

There are a number of truly entertaining and worthwhile feature-length movies with stories focused primarily on birds and the bird-watching/birding experience available for streaming. This review will begin by briefly mentioning some of those which are fictional and offered for fee-based viewing by Amazon Prime, HBO, YouTube, and the like. A well-known documentary is also included in that discussion.

Importantly, there is another streaming option which is free, does not involve copyright-breaking or possibly dangerous malware, and is supported by library systems and educational institutions. It is called Kanopy, and is the source for the two final films discussed below along with an explanation of how the service works. These two videos are the Favorite and close runner-up for this article, and although they are both ostensibly documentaries, each tells a story far broader and deeper than any simple description of their subject matter. And possibly more profound than the fictional entertainments reviewed at the outset.

A movie that begins with a teenaged birder whose father exasperatedly announces a "No Birdwatching on the Roof!" rule is likely to be an engaging entertainment. And A Birder's Guide to Everything[1] (YouTube trailer) is both amusing and true to the spirit of the hobby/obsession. Ben Kingsley's portrayal of the unscrupulous "expert" almost steals the show from the duck (you'll see!). Available for rental and free with Prime, as linked from the Independent Movie Database (IMDB)[2] website entry for the film.

In some ways a less-sympathetic treatment of several grown-up bird nuts is The Big Year[3] (YouTube trailer), for rent from HBO and Prime (IMDB links[4]). Do competitive birders cheat? Is there a pecking order (sorry) in the top tier? How far will they go to get that lifer? Antarctica? Many long-time birders will be reminded of themselves, and more still will recognize the gruff Debbi Shearwater-inspired character!

While it is impossible to make a list like this without including Hitchcock's The Birds[5] (YouTube trailer), there's a surprising amount of solid birding information given in it, even when presented through an insufferably "know-it-all" character. The gull/crow/etc. attacks are cleverly edited, and have an increased aura of possibility for anyone who has witnessed an Australian Magpie "swoop". Rent/buy from YouTube or Prime (IMDB links[6]).

Also from the pay-to-view offerings is the stunningly cinematic March of the Penguins[7] (YouTube trailer). Here's our "ends-of-the-earth" birding destination, with camera operators braving the same elements as their hardy subjects. Embrace the anthropomorphism; there's almost no other way to tell this story.

Many public libraries may have all/any of these films available for free reservation and pickup, but this website is dedicated to online resources, and Kanopy[8] is a free service offered through many libraries and educational institutions which provides phenomenal amounts of streaming video. The interface is remarkably like Netflix, with Search, Watchlists, and such, but a limit of viewings per month, with no paid options for more. A simple subject search for "birds" brings an astonishing number of interesting and useful results. It is only through Kanopy that the next two exceptional movies can be seen at no cost! No direct links are possible, and all films must be accessed through an enrolled account, which is easily established for library cardholders.

Night Parrot Stories is this month's Favorite, and is from a different universe than most narrative nature flicks. It is a lyrical, transcendent meditation and video essay on one Australian species and its place in past, present, and future worlds. There are few - perhaps none - equals to it in natural history/conservation/anthropological film-making ever seen by this reviewer. It is available for free streaming through Kanopy. It should be viewed and felt by millions.

Dealing also with a lost/rare/extinct? species, Ghost Bird chronicles the North American search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, in a less-poetic, more explicitly political way. Moving and thought-provoking, it raises some similar questions to those addressed in Night Parrot Stories, and both should be watched by any birder serious about the broader contexts of habitat, conservation, and environmental respect within which activities such as listing and chasing take place.

As a final cautionary note, beware of off-brand "Free Full Movie!" links found in title searches. Viruses, malware, and other unpleasant hitchhikers can come along with streaming, copyright-violating media from such - often Russian - sources. What you get may be what you don't see, at first!