Where Have All the Songbirds Gone?
“The Messenger” is an investigation into what has caused the songbird mass depletion and the people working to change that. We see here how the issues facing birds also have serious implications for our planet. The turbulent conditions of the birds have been brought about by humans the film argues that their demise could signal the crash of the global ecosystem such as the disappearance of honeybees and the melting of the glaciers.
“The Messenger” is a documentary by Su Rynard that examines the causes behind the troubling phenomenon as well as tells us how we can help preserve the songbird population. This critically acclaimed documentary was a New York Times Critic’s Pick, and was named a Top Ten Audience Favorite at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, as well as a winner at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in 2015.
Looking at regions as diverse as the Boreal Forest, Mount Ararat, and New York City, Rynard explores the relationship between birds and humans, and how changes in the environment impacts the habitats and, ultimately, the existence of songbirds. The film also highlights the work being done by people who are helping to make a positive impact on the environment in order to preserve and sustain the world’s songbird population.
Using a camera capable of shooting up to 1000 fps, Rynard and cinematographer Daniel Grant, worked in collaboration with Western University’s AFAR Avian research facility and captured images of songbirds in simulated nocturnal migration flying through the wind tunnel. This unique filming process resulted in stunning photography of the birds in motion.
Su Rynard’s team investigates many possibilities. Neonicotinoid pesticides are causing problems for some species and this is due to work done by activists trying to save bees. While this threat may be a temporary one, Rynard shows admirable balance in explaining what makes them so attractive to farmers. She also has a resident of the Landes in France explain why trapping and eating a particular kind of bird appeals to him so much that he will break the law to do it. He says that he’ll stop if scientists convince him the species is truly endangered but it might be too late.
Some problems are surprisingly easy to solve. Bird smashing themselves to death against the sides of skyscrapers can be stopped simply by placing dots on the glass with magic marker, making it obvious that it’s not an open space without significantly impacting human enjoyment of the view. Others challenges, however, are so monumental that we get a feeling of hopelessness. Research suggests that migratory birds are missing important parts of the spring season because climate change is making the weather erratic, so they risk freezing to death or being unable to feed their nestlings when they return to their northern summer homes.
There are some simple things that we can do such as having a bird feeder can save lives and this is so easy that we should have thought of it. The impact of this film comes in two ways. First we get the stories that have been told such as the story of Mao Tse Tung’s disastrous campaign against birds that he deemed to be vermin. This not only drove them to the brink of extinction but also, because they were not there to eat the insect pests who ate the crops and this led to the deaths of millions of human beings. Second are the losses that are devastating by their mass numbers.
All around the world, there are traditions that have connected birds with the divine including the admiration of birds’ freedom to fly where they please and the great joy of hearing their singing. This film, however, notes that birds also act as another kind of messenger. Because they are so quick to respond to environmental changes, their silence warns us when things are going seriously wrong.
It’s hard to make precise estimates, given the migratory nature of many species, but few experts are in doubt that we are currently witnessing a mass die-off. This film brings together birdwatchers, amateur and professional, from many different parts of the globe. They all tell versions of the same story. The songs they are hearing are fewer in number and fewer in kind.
Songbirds migrate mostly after dark to evade larger predatory birds, and the bright lights in big cities confuse them. Skyscraping glass towers prove a problem at night with their reflective floor-to-ceiling windows that cause head-on collisions during the day.
Domestic cats also pose a huge threat, and are responsible for the extinction of more than 32 bird species. Meanwhile, the French regard the Ortolan bunting as a delicacy, with local authorities ignoring violations of a Europe-wide hunting ban.The extensive use of pesticides means that some birds go hungry with fewer insects to feed on. Deforestation continues to destroy some of their natural habitats, while industrial noises drown out their mating calls. Global warming disorients many species, sometimes leading to fatal migratory miscalculations.
Imagining a world without birdsong may seem trivial before watching “The Messenger” but after it is over, this becomes a shocking statement ended. Our world can be ugly enough and to destroy the beauty of the birds is unforgiveable.
Special features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, A Coffee Primer for Birds and People (about the relationship between coffee farms and bird habitats), a deleted scene, an informational booklet (with notes from the director and information on how viewers can help preserve the world’s songbird population), the trailer, and an interview with director Su Rynard.