David Waugh: sounding off – BirdGuides

David Waugh: sounding off - BirdGuides

Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover? Not on your nelly, unless it’s the mega-twitch of the millennium. Vera Lynn, the British Armed Forces’ ‘sweetheart’, sang this popular World War II song probably unaware that bluebirds are New World natives. Let’s point the finger of blame at Walter Kent and Nat Burton, the American lyricists who wrote the song, for not doing their homework. This unintended gaffe brings me to my beef about inaccuracies – some would say blunders – of cinema and television as to where in the world certain birds (and various other animals and plants) should be.

Picture this. You have settled down to watch a blockbuster film on the TV, and there is a dramatic chase happening in a forest in upstate New York. You are absorbed by the action and landscape, until, in the background comes the mellifluous cadence of a singing Willow Warbler! After the spit take of your drink, you start cursing about why it is that everything in the film is spot on except for the ambient soundtrack, which is from the wrong continent.

But worse is yet to come, as your fellow telly-watchers groan: “Here we go again”. They simply don’t understand, don’t care, and want to get back to the film. It could be the other way round of course, of an idyllic English countryside scene, with a Northern Mockingbird belting out its repertoire off-camera. Or what about films of the knights of King Arthur in Britain of old. The camera pans down from the knight’s gleaming helmet to the chainmail tunic, every detail meticulously researched and reproduced with no expense spared. The camera reaches his glove, on which is perched – a Harris’s Hawk. What!!! The same film has a Merlin, of course, but not the avian kind.

Dubbing the haunting calls of Great Northern Diver onto TV programmes and films seems to be a popular choice, wherever in the world the show may be set (Glyn Sellors).

You might imagine that I’m purple-faced with neck veins bulging whenever I suffer one of these bloopers but, after so many, I’m merely indignant and disappointed. Expert advice ensures that all other essential details are in place, but nature gets short shrift when off-the-shelf background is used without appropriate knowledgeable input. Exempt from complaint are productions made by natural history and wildlife professionals of course. Perhaps my perspective is awry. Maybe mistakes are made in classic-car restoration for filming, with resultant armchair meltdowns by many enthusiasts of that genre.

There are other transgressions you might recognise. Outdoor scenes which have a sinister element often incorporate the ‘car-won’t-start’ rasping song of Cactus Wren – a native to the deserts of southern North America – irrespective of where in the world the scene might be. Another species whose calls impart a spooky atmosphere is Great Northern Diver, and again these are often applied with scant attention given to geographical location. And apparently, a good species for any jungle scene is Laughing Kookaburra! 

Don’t be surprised if a rainforest scene somewhere in South-East Asia is graced with the explosive reports of a Screaming Piha (an Amazonian resident) or even an African Fish Eagle! A good Western earns its spurs if it includes at least one scene of a bird of prey which calls like a Red-tailed Hawk, but in reality is a Turkey Vulture – yet in the film is called a buzzard. Closer to home, a TV series set in 1930s Coventry remarkably includes a calling Collared Dove, a good 20 years before the species expanded its range into the UK.

In the end, I don’t anticipate any radical improvement in the short term. Furthermore, far from indignation, could it be that these mistakes provide unexpected and malicious entertainment for birders!


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