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May 20, 2003

Winged Migration

Dear Michael:

I went to see “Winged Migration” late Sunday night, sitting virtually alone in a very small theater. I had been quite intrigued by seeing the trailer, and sat waiting for the film to start in a state of some excitement . I thus, of course, violated my own longstanding rule: never walk into a movie theater with high expectations. Doing so is more or less a guarantee of being disappointed. And regrettably, although the movie had terrific qualifities, I ended up feeling a bit distant from the proceedings.

My alienation was not as a result of the terrific, brilliant, amazing photography, however. The film’s many, many cameramen apparently used remotely piloted drone aircraft to get their cameras right in among flocks of birds. I will always remember one shot that conveyed just how much more 3-dimensional a bird’s life is than that of any land animal. A very sensible-looking, un-heroic bird casually leaps off a vertiginous cliff and dive bombs straight into the water hundreds of feet below, and a camera follows it down. And no jiggly hand-held cameras for this movie, either. Almost every shot was either a beautifully smooth tracking shot or a quite carefully composed tableaux on a locked down tripod. I have no idea how the filmmakers worked so close to birds on the ground without spooking them, or how they got birds on the wing to fly in and out of their picture postcard views.

And the alienation wasn’t a result of the subject matter. Birds are, obviously, amazing. (If you ever doubted that, seeing this movie will absolutely convince you otherwise.) The movie brought home to me something that, I suppose, should have been obvious: that many birds have to function under water, on the water, on land, in low altitude flight and thousands of feet in the air, with the landscape stretching out hazily beneath them. One species of Indian geese that may take the cake for adaptability are shown resting in their migration north to Siberia. They are perched on the very rock-and-ice peaks of the Himalayas, casually enduring what appear to be 50-or-60 mile per hour winds while primly hunkered down in the snow. And who would have guessed that these birds can also function in the summer heat of the Indian lowlands.

Birds also have to be able to fly for hours (days?) at a stretch without taking a break, and navigate by some combination of internal compass, stars and terrain recognition.

Nor was I alienated, exactly, by the very nasal French narrator, who usually uttered fairly gnomic remarks, which was okay with me because I could only make out about two thirds of what he was saying when he did talk. (It was more or less as if they had brought Jacques Cousteau back from the dead to do the narration). The Frenchman's words and a few subtitles were the only explanatory content the movie offered. This was too bad, as I could have used a lot more information on the subjects the film raised. For example, apparently most bird migrations are from the tropics/temperate zone to the arctic in summer for egg laying and raising infants, and then back to the tropics/temperate zone when winter comes. The movie makes several poetic statements that the birds make these amazing migrations to survive, but that seems almost counterintuitive given what must be the unbelievable calorie drain of the migration itself and the heavy losses of birds in transit. Granted, hundreds of millions of birds probably aren't wrong, so my calculus of benefits and costs isn’t correct, but I would have tried to explain stuff like that if this was my movie—or possibly have chosen not to bring it up at all.

I think the reason the film didn’t quite give me what I was looking for, however, was that it failed to provide an opportunity to get imaginatively and emotionally involved with any of the individual birds. I think this was because the movie kept relentlessly moving from one migrating species to another, showing you yet another knock-out view of birds pounding out the miles from winter to summer habitat and back again. Terrific, fabulous, but in the end, it never let you imagine yourself in the situation of a bird.

But hey, maybe I’m being a bit too demanding. I certainly walked out of the theater wondering if you could use those little remotely piloted camera drones to shoot footage of humans in their environment—the streets and bars of Manhattan or Los Angeles, say. Who says nature documentaries couldn’t be fun?



posted by Friedrich at May 20, 2003


According to ""

"Filmmakers exposed the eggs of some of the birds
to the sounds of people and film cameras so that
the birds would not be afraid of them later."

Posted by: Hovig John Heghinian on May 20, 2003 9:57 PM

Remember the old "Wide World of Disney" nature shows, where they would totally personalize beavers or dogs or squirrels or whatever with a comfy narrator? Take us on their journey with them? Sounds like your movie could have used some of that...introduce us to Winston or FiFi or whomever and let us share their day.

Posted by: annette on May 21, 2003 8:42 AM

For an up- to- date look at migration, the evolutionary pressures toward it, and what is known about "how they do it", I can recommend Scott Weidensaul's "Living on th Wind". Weidensaul ranges up and down the continent, talking to researchers and observing the birds. It's a first- rate book-- more "involved" than most science journalism ( he bands and studies birds himself) but with good science.

Posted by: Steve on May 21, 2003 9:09 AM

I’m not an expert on bird migration, but what the hell. My understanding is that the advantage of migration is that it allows birds to exploit the shifts in food supply that occur with the change of seasons. Birds like ravens, who will eat just about anything it seems, are content to over-winter in the Arctic despite the cold and can thus avoid the risks birds take in migrating (and also lay “first claim” to breeding territories before the migrants return). The crucial role food supply plays in migration can be seen in the “short-stopping” of bird species in the northern US that historically migrated much further south. Geese winter on Midwestern National Wildlife Refuges planted with crops and finches hang around back-yard bird feeders rather than continuing on. However, a crash in the Arctic food supply, as when the lemmings have a bad year, can cause northern birds to irrupt south, like the snowy owls that showed up in Oklahoma and Texas last year (suspciously timed with Harry Potter mania?). So though migrating birds have a genetic disposition to migrate, the process seems more flexible and responsive to environmental changes than we might think.

I agree with Steve’s assessment of “Living on the Wind” and recommend it to anyone who wants to read an engaging and accessible (but scientifically up-to-snuff) description of the phenomenon.

Posted by: Sally on May 21, 2003 2:38 PM

I'm with Sally--my understanding was that it had to do with food supply and nesting grounds. The junco's were three weeks late leaving this year, by the way.

As far as the drone camera thing--in Wisconsin, The International Crane Foundation raises whooping crane chicks every year by using puppets of cranes so they dont imprint on humans and then teaches them to migrate to Florida, I thinks, using a human in an ultralight who flies with them and shows them the way the first time around. Seriously.

Posted by: Deb on May 21, 2003 7:49 PM

Did anyone else see the Carroll Ballard movie of 5ish years ago, "Fly Away Home"? Not as fab as his "The Black Stallion," but some great bird and flying sequences, as well as some fictional involvement with the critters. I'm pretty sure it takes off, so to speak, from the International Crane Foundation program -- lots of imprinting, a finale involving an ultralight. Worth watching, or so I thought.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 21, 2003 9:56 PM

Michael, I didnt see the movie but it's now on the list for the weekend trip to the movie rental place.

A few weeks ago I just happened to be outside and looking up when the cranes flew back over on their way north. It was an amazing sight.

If you ever get to Wisconsin and have a day to spend there, the Crane Foundatation is a fantastic, interesting place to visit. They have endangered birds from all over the world they are struggling to save. While you arent allowed back in the working compound, their visitor's center is beautiful.

It's one of those off the path, little known places that make traveling so interesting.

Posted by: Deb on May 23, 2003 8:51 AM

Thanks Deb, I'll make a note of that. Sounds fascinating. Are you out in Wisconsin yourself? A big Taliesen fan?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 23, 2003 11:57 AM


Actually I live about 20 miles from Taliesen on 36 acres of hilly woods and fields with a creek in the front yard. I have never taken the tour of Taliesen. I'm local, what can I say. It's pretty from a distance though. Wright doesn't have a good reputation in his home town mostly because he was well known for stiffing the locals for his bills. The lore has it that eventually the grocers even quit giving him credit and he had to get all his supplies from Madison--about 45 miles away. I have spoken with an old woman who used to throw rocks at him while he walked the backroads because he was such an eccentric for the area in his cape and walking stick. Plus his buildings, at least the ones around here, have an unfortunate tendancy to have really leaky roofs. Not something the practical farming community he lived in appreciated.

Taliesen is in the midst of a renovation project to repair some of the damage from water and snow--his use of natural materials, while elegant, isnt holding up well to the elements.

If you get out this way, take it in tho. There is also astonishingly good outdoor Shakespeare theater company nearby--Randall Duc Tim who is in the Matrix II was one of their lead actors for years--his Puck was wonderful--and the unbelievable House on the Rock which figures very prominantly in Neil Gaimon's novel "American Gods."

Enough for Wisconsin tourism.....


Posted by: Deb on May 23, 2003 1:14 PM

Hi Deb, thanks, great info. The Wife and I visited the Wisconsin Taliesen maybe 5 years ago and came away giggling about FL Wright, as we did when we saw Taliesen West and Fallingwater too. Beautiful stuff, most of it. But not real practical, and not very adaptable or personalize-able either. It's not your house, it's his; you don't live here, you're the curator of his monument to himself. Funny that he's got a rep as such a "natural" and "American" architect. What comes across to me is talent, megalomania, and near-complete disregard for his clients. Fascinating to learn how the locals felt about him.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 23, 2003 1:48 PM

I have been in one of his Usonian houses that was built for the local cheese baron--it's Wisconsin, remember. My impression was that as long as you dont mind cinderblock walls, no closet space and dont have toddlers to worry about thwacking their heads on all that built in furniture, it was just a nice concept. I just dont want to live in one. Give me that ugly old foursquare he was rebelling against anytime--at least I can personalize it abit.

Posted by: Deb on May 23, 2003 2:02 PM

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