Futurelearning

The unsung heroes of our landscapes

The use of bird calls on screen evoke a sense of belonging. But inaccuracies in them can skew our sense of identity and sense of place, writes the University of Auckland's Ellery McNaughton.

Chances are you’ve seen it in action. You’re watching a movie, the scene is a craggy mountaintop or rugged landscape when suddenly an eagle swoops in with a majestic screech. But that majestic call you hear isn’t an eagle.

It’s a red-tailed hawk. Apparently the national symbol of America just doesn’t have the right vocals for the silver screen. Enter the stunt-call bird, one with an appropriate blood-curdling cry, cast ahead of its more ecologically-accurate counterpart.

Another example is the laughing kookaburra, found only in Australasia yet magically heard in movie jungles all over the world. 

Perhaps it seems a bit nit-picky to call out inaccuracy in bird calls featured in movies. After all, these are the same sort of films that have people running from dinosaurs without taking their high heels off. Compared to flouting the laws of nature, do inaccurate bird calls really matter?

"It’s hard to imagine accurate bird calls ever being a priority, or anyone boycotting the Oscars because dramatic licence has been taken with the American eagle."

Maybe not, but I’d argue that it represents a deeper, underlying human attitude of dismissing the value of native animals unless they’re perceived as useful to us. By using one bird’s call interchangeably with another, regardless of natural habitat, it suggests that species diversity isn’t important and certainly from a conservation viewpoint, it would be better to represent the natural world as it actually is. A polar bear on a tropical island would probably cause guffaws in a movie audience but use the sound of a kookarurra in an African jungle, and it's likely no one would notice.

Bird calls are a significant part of the soundtrack of our lives, but one we often aren’t consciously aware of. That small frisson you get when you hear kokako in The Dead Lands, or morepork calling at night on Wellington Paranormal, or bellbirds in Lord of the Rings. It’s a sound that evokes a sense of belonging, a recognition that the world on the screen is one you are familiar with, even if it’s as fantastical as Middle Earth. But ecological inaccuracy ignores this contribution to our sense of identity and sense of place. 

Take a moment to appreciate just how much meaning we unconsciously attach to the sound of a bird call, whether it be in a movie soundtrack or in our everyday lives.

It’s a strange conundrum that Hollywood ignores the role bird calls play in our sense of belonging because movies often rely on sound to evoke emotion and certain ideas. Inaccurate or not, birds in movies do a lot of scene setting without us even realising. An owl hooting at night is instantly spooky despite it being what owls naturally do. Nothing says wilderness like a common loon, which is apparently all the reasoning Marvel needed to stick one on an alien planet.

As New Zealanders we are often familiar with the calls of American birds and the connotations they have, even if we’ve never encountered them. I accepted the sound of a common loon as an icon of haunted wilderness way before I knew the actual bird existed. It does make me pity American bird enthusiasts, whose suspension of disbelief in movies doesn’t have the same shiny protective coating of ignorance that mine does. 

Although some films are consulting with ornithologists to ensure the right birds are cast, it’s hard to imagine accurate bird calls ever being a priority, or anyone boycotting the Oscars because dramatic licence has been taken with the American eagle.

But what we should do, both individually and collectively, is take a moment to appreciate just how much meaning we unconsciously attach to the sound of a bird call, whether it be in a movie soundtrack or in our everyday lives. Imagine that landscape without bird call and you realise how important they are. As the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until the only time you’ll ever hear it again is on a movie soundtrack.

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