Johnny Quest, Charlie’s Angels, M.A.S.H. and Blood Diamond

What do these movies and TV programs have in common? BAD BIRDS! What’s a bad bird? In popular culture, it’s a bird that is shown or heard, usually 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.
While this is probably not high on any list of your concerns, or something that has ever crossed your mind, it’s something wacky and fun to be aware of. It is for me! We bird nerds will often notice that Hollywood and most media in general is notoriously inaccurate when it comes to birds.
This crossed my mind today when I saw an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio talking about his latest film, Blood Diamond. At one point he mentioned that, and I’m paraphrasing here, “there wasn’t anything depicted in this film that was beyond what actually happened and that the events were very real”. I beg to differ! As much as I like him as an actor and am with him on the thrust and politics of the film, I beg to differ. One thing that never happened, were the BAD BIRDS! If the background bird sounds were actually recorded from that region, country, continent or even hemisphere, then by watching this film, I’d just recorded several new bird species. 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 on more macho truck commercials, opening shots of sweeping vistas (from any number of countries where Red-tails have never screeched as in “The Syrian Bride”) and any film where the filmmaker wants to instill a touch of danger. I don’t remember hearing a single African bird in Blood Diamond.
I first became aware of “Bad Birds” in the late 60’s. I was a little kid growing up in Maryland. Watching my favorite cartoon, probably dipping Oreo cookies into a big glass of cold milk, I laid sprawled out on the living room floor. “Johnny Quest” was on TV and I really liked it. It always bothered me though that in the opening scenes of the cartoon, they show an Andean Condor stooping down, nailing and carrying off Johnny’s faithful pooch “Bandit”. No problem, except that it is in a Peregrine-esque stoop! Well, Condors eat only carrion, (dead animals) and have no need for “a stoop”! In addition, they can’t carry off their prey with their feet, but hey, it’s a cartoon for Christ’s sake.

Most of you who watched Hawkeye Pierce and Radar O’Reilly on the TV show M.A.S.H., probably weren’t annoyed by the Western Scrub-Jays, Ash-throated Flycatchers, California Quail and Wrentits that were “filling the skies of Korea with sound”, but I was! The microphones actually recorded the natural sounds of the bird species; it’s just that they are the birds that one finds in the hills around Hollywood California.
Sometimes they get the birds name correct but the actual bird is WAY off. Case in point, the movie Charlie’s Angels. At one point in the film 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 and lands there for all to see, they have used a bird called a Troupial, a gaudy and well-patterned type of Oriole that I’ve seen in the upper Amazon of Ecuador! My first thought is “WOW, first record of a Troupial for California” or “Wow, the San Diego Zoo is missing its Troupial”!
How about the new 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. Perhaps there was a bird feather trade route from tropical Asia over the Bering Straits through Alaska and down to Central America, but, probably not. Did the non-migratory American Crows, calling in the jungle, actually fly all that way down to the land of the pyramids? Probably not. Or, my personal favorite was the moment where the main character was laying on a stream bank, exhausted after a long chase, and a Cattle Egret walked by. NOT! You have all seen the white Cattle Egrets in life or on nature programs standing around on the backs of Elephants in Africa. Well, they were blown across the Atlantic Ocean and were first recorded in northeastern South America in 1877 and then in North America in 1941. OOPS!
I mentioned before how different birds are used to instill various emotions, “macho truck, add screeching Red-tailed Hawk”. Here are some classics. You have a weird demented, kinda warped, psycho killer scene in the middle of nowhere, insert Cactus Wrens low-pitched monotone “jer jer jer jer jer…”. Any film with nighttime or late evening “lost in the woods” scene, insert Common Loon’s haunting cry (no matter how far they are from Canadian breeding lakes).  Hoss, from Bonanza says, “Sure is quiet out here Lil’ Joe… yeah… too quiet”. Insert “eerie yodel” of Loon here! From the land down under comes the Kookaburra, a non-migratory Kingfisher whose loud, deranged, hysterical and human-like laughter echoes in “Hollywood tropical jungles” worldwide. Want a jungle? Insert Kookaburra here!
Sometimes we will find mistakes even in “real live” nature programs. Take “Winged Migration” for example. They mistakenly call a Clark’s Grebe a Western Grebe (easy to do) but when they show immature plumage Snow Geese flying north on their harrowing journey to the arctic, NOT! Snow Geese would have already molted into their adult plumage as they head north.
So, the next time you sit down with your hot bowl of popcorn, ready to watch a movie, keep in mind the birds. As a naturalist I love hearing and seeing the accurate species in their true home, but a little part of me also enjoys finding the mistakes, then I laugh at the bad birds!
Beware, and be aware!

Keith Hansen
Jan. 27th 2007