Saturday, September 22, 2001

BIO: Owls, Biospoilers and Other Birds

WARNING BIOSPOILERS -- Harry Potter and The Outsiders

Folks who know me well know that for several years i have been collecting instances of poor biology in film -- i call them biospoilers. The idea is that folks with a natural bent can be annoyed, distracted, and just plain bummed out by the license taken by filmmakers. I have an unfinished webpage devoted to this, and will eventually hone it and sent it out on the blogorail.

I bring this up, because girlscientist has just put out her regular Birds in the News feature (which is an especially fine roundup of recent news anyways -- check it out here), and in it is a link to a site which talks about the owls used in the Harry Potter films. What's creepy is that i just today came across a mention of this site and was about to add it to my blogroll!

So, last week we were having movie night for the kids here and chose The Outsiders, the Francis Ford Coppola dramatization of S.E. Hinton's novel. It was the breaking vehicle for a slew of young actors including Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, and C. Thomas Howell. Of course, even though it was my DVD i hadn't watched it, and hadn't seen the film in many years, so i was taking notes.

The locale is Oklahoma, exactly where is not a part of the movie, so that's a non-issue. And the Barred Owl (Strix varia) used in the old church scenes is reasonable for the geography. It's not a bird that normally is found inside buildings though, like a Common Barn-Owl (Tyto alba) might be. So i guess to make up for that, or in pure serendipity, the voice they use for the owl when the boys spook it from the church is a barn-owl voice. Later they use a Great Horned Owl's (Bubo virginianus) voice for it.

The other goof is that a bunny plays a cameo role, first to establish the "wildness" of the place, and later as a potential meal. Well, the native rabbits of the area might include Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni) or Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) depending on where in Oklahoma we are (though it looks mostly like Eastern Cottontail territory) -- but most definitely not the European Hare (Oryctolagus cuniculus) that was used. At least they used a plain brown one instead of a pied version in some nod to authenticity.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2001

BIO: From the world of Birding Listservs

Notes from BirdChat, TexBirds, UMichBirders and BirdWG05(AZ/NM) Listservs and the Internet Movie Database (imdb)

Over the years i have caught snippets of conversation from the birding listservs about one of my favorite topics -- bird songs out of place at the movies. After naming my project "Biospoilers" and starting to collect notes on these things i decided to return to the archives of the various listservs to see what else i could scare up. Below are the examples i came across from those who were fairly certain both of their IDs and that something was amiss. I can't vouch for any of these. I hope some day to check each of these out by DVD and verify them. Until then here's some things to ponder . . .

Here's the key:
The Movie [or in some cases TV show, commercial or song] (date of production when known) -- the actual bird (or other critter)heard or seen, with notes if it was identified as something else or something else about it is peculiar (the purported location of the scene) -- the author of the listserv posting when known

Babe (1995) – Tawny Owl (Sydney, Australia) – Byron Butler

The Birds II: Land’s End (1994) -- Starling identified as a Black-naped Tern, Laughing Gull identified as a Brown-hooded Gull (North Carolina) – Mary Beth Stowe

The Bourne Identity (2002) – Eastern Wood Pewee (France in winter) – Suzanne Vedder

Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) – “first robin of spring” (England, where their version of “Robin” is basically non-migratory) – Ronald Orenstein

Carousel (1956) – Northern Mockingbird, despite its name out of range at the time of the setting of the film (Maine) – imdb

Charlie’s Angels (2000) Troupial identified as a Pygmy Nuthatch (some west coast island) – Craig Bateman, Bryn Martin

D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994) – geese flying but ducks are quacking – imdb

Dancer in the Dark (2000) -- White Wagtail, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Blackbird, Willow Warbler (US) – imdb

Dances with Wolves (1990) –
Sandhill Cranes identified as geese (the West) – Kurt Knebusch, imdb

Dead Poets Society (1989) –
European Starlings honking like geese – imdb

Ethan Frome (1993) – Red-eyed Vireo singing (Maine, dead of winter) – imdb

George of the Jungle (1997) – Capuchin Monkey (Africa) – Bryn Martin

George of the Jungle 2 (2003) – cockatoo (Africa) – imdb

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) – Barred Owl, Boreal Owl, Common Nighthawk (Africa) – imdb

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) –
swallows (Netherlands in winter) – imdb

The Great Gatsby (1974) – House Finch (Long Island, not present there until the 1940s) – imdb

Highlander (1986) – Red-winged Blackbird (Europe) – Melanie Hopkins

Jurassic Park (1993) – Wood Thrush (Montana badlands) – Kurt Knebusch

King Arthur (2004) – Harris’s Hawk identified as a falcon (England 1,000 years before Columbus located Harris’s Hawkland) – Bryn Martin

Kiss the Girls (1997) – Great Kiskadee (Durham, North Carolina) – Oscar Carmona

Lost (2004) – Kookaburra, loons, American warblers, screech-owls, Polar Bear (Pacific Island) – Bryn Martin

Mary Poppins (1964) – American Robin (London) – Frank Gibson

The Mating Game (1996) – Hudsonian Godwit nest in a tree (North Carolina) – Bob Lewis

Moulin Rouge (2001) – lovebird, but it’s a canary song (Paris) – imdb

Murder She Wrote – Common Loon, Western Screech-Owl (Charleston, North Carolina) – Nancy Newfield

Northern Exposure – Black-capped Chickadee identified as a Siberian Tit/Gray-headed Chickadee (Alaskan bush) – Jacco Gelderloos, Bob Tarte

Outbreak (1995) – Capuchin Monkey (Africa) – Bryn Martin

PCU (1994) – Gray-crowned Crane identified as a Whooping Crane – Craig Bateman

Planter’s Peanuts commercial – Acorn Woodpecker identified as Pileated Woodpecker – Don Richardson

Black Point (2001) – Wood Thrush (Pacific Northwest) – Chris Cooper

Pride and Prejudice (1940) – Eurasian Collared-Dove (Europe) – Wim Vader

Quest for Fire (1981) – Black-capped Chickadee, Pileated Woodpecker (prehistory, and thus presumably not in the US) – Hank Burchard

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) -- Willow Ptarmigan (Peruvian jungle) -- Terence Lee Schiefer & Tony Leukering

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Common Loon (Peruvian jungle) – Tony Leukering

Robin Hood (1991) -- Eurasian Collared-Dove (Europe) – Wim Vader

Robin Hood (1991) – White-throated Sparrow (Britain) – Sandy Ayer

Scarlet Letter (1995) – Scarlet Finch (Massaschusetts) – Richard Stern

Scream (1996) – Canyon Wren (night in a suburb) – Cathi Tomsen

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Cactus Wren (Maine) – Ed Stonick

A Simple Plan (1998) – Hooded Crow (US) – Doug Von Gausig

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (song) by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Chestnut-brown Canary and Ruby-throated Sparrow – Mark O’Keefe, among others, would like to see these two anywhere!

Tarzan – Kookaburra – many commenters

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Thursday, September 06, 2001

BIO: Wild America (1997)

(1997) tg

Fictionalized travels across America

Why this is quite possibly the worst "wildlife" movie ever made: Let's start with a story. In the 70s and 80s i was a teacher at an outdoor education facility where inner city kids came for a week to live in the "woods" and learn something useful.

Somewhere along the way someone got the idea that we should have wildlife movie nights and purchased a bunch of Marty Stouffer's wildlife films in the Wild America series. They were, in my eyes, just awful: sequences of a Peregrine catching birds on the wing, only jesses were clearly dangling from its feet thus negating it being Wild anything; a long sequence from multiple angles of a Mountain Lion chasing a Mule Deer -- widely know to have been filmed in a small enclosure -- again the magic of Marty the great wildlife cinematogapher, and slimy narrator might i add; and most egregious of all, a sequence where his narration tells us that Mountain Goats aren't always sure-footed and sometimes slip, wherein we watch a domestic goat, quite obviously thrown off a mountain ridge, come crashing down the slope.

It all made me ill, and i protested vehemently, but the still the movies were shown (although i was later given the option of not taking my students to see it -- unfortunately too many others found it to be an easy night off -- drop the kids at the movie . . .).

All right, let's fast forward a decade-and-a-half. I see ads for the movie Wild America and see some interesting footage and dutifully buy my ticket. I never snap that it has anything to do with Stouffer. Just never crossed my feeble old mind.

Well, surely you know by now that the movie is a glowing autobiographical pic about Marty and his filmmaker brothers, Mark and Marshall (and all three played the hot young girl-mag stars of the day Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa and Scott Bairstow), as they set off to discover Wild America as teenagers. Well, pfooey. Not only is the movie pure hokum in the big discovery department, but it's the usual Stouffer hokum anyway -- especially seeing that Mark Stouffer is the producer.

And, by the way, all three real-life Stouffer brothers have cameos in the movie. Oh boy.

I guess there's some rectitude in it in that anyone with any wild animal sense can see that they just made another movie using trained, tame animals, dozens of fat people in bear suits, and, yes, this is too good to be true -- a dime-store rubber snake being moved by a stick attached to its head. What Marty and Co. need really is a good editor and a non-bush-league-budget.

So what's the cheesiest part of the film? The flashlight-gulping animatronigator? A veritable Serengeti of bears hibernating in the summer whilst being protected by the stick-headed rubber snake? Or skinnydipping at the beach with random chics?

No, the choicest piece of work in the film, the one that will forever define the Stouffer method for me (and is based on what must be the goofiest natural history lie ever put on film, and will thankfully replace the goat on the mountain bit), is the scene with the moose.

After trying to approach a calf, youngest brother Marshall gets involved with a large, heavy-antlered moose, and brothers one and two get a laugh and a lot of footage out of it. Well, the film clip they show (besides being cut from several different angles when they only had one camera) has the most ridiculous looking moose of all time -- that's because it's a horse in a moose costume. Oh well.

I dare someone to tell me again what ground-breaking wildlife photographers Stouffer and his brothers are . . . i dare you . . .

In fact Marty's original film series is of such lasting value that you can now own all 120 episodes on DVD for only $14.95. Check it out at Marty Stouffer's Wild America Online here.

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BIO: Vertical Limit (2000)

(2000) tg

Fictionalized "trapped on" Mt. Everest

Why filmmakers should stay away from animals (or bless the SPCA): Okay, maybe that's a bit strong, but the whole idea of Biospoilers is to point out how, even in the most obsessive quest for accuracy by filmmmakers somehow the natural world is always completely dismissed. So, let's ignore the likelihood of a raptor at 25,000 feet in the Himalayas (feeding on what? snow lizards?), and let's ignore that the filmmakers apparently thought a Golden Eagle would make a good subject for hunting the snowmass. Let's just focus on the amazing and breathtaking views of the world's most fantastic rocks, until, what's this affording our aerial view? An eagle, no, the most ludicrously fake animatronic "raptor" of all time. From that opening sequence it was impossible for me to watch the movie without some "what the hell could be next" smirk. And sure enough, off the biospoiler beaten track, ol' Deus ex Machina shows up over and over. So outside of the flea-bitten taxidermy passing for an eagle, the movie was just plain lousy.

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BIO: M*A*S*H (1970)

(1970) tg

in Fictionalized Korea

Probable actual soundtrack species that are out of place: California Quail

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BIO: The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)

WARNING BIOSPOILERS -- The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
(2004) tg

in Fictionalized America

Might be okay, might not: This film caught my eye early on because of the story it was based on. I have not yet seen the film, but i have a copy of the trailer. The kid in the story is severely abused and has recurring nightmares which are intended to be symbolic, and feature lots of red birds and red feathers. Well a CG version of one dream shows a parade of Northern Cardinal still lifes. They are truly red, would occur in the places the movie takes place and look real. Some dreams however have red crows. Despite the famous Blackfeet chief named Red Crow, and the actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman, there are no red crows of any species in nature. But the birds in the dream are quite clearly red and quite clearly crows. Now, in a dream anything goes as far as i'm concerned, but i'm hoping it doesn't lead folks to believe there are actually red crows.

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BIO: The Harry Potter series (2001-2004)

I: and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) tg
II: and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) tg
III: and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) tg

Fictionalized England

Just to name names: Well, you can't hardly have the wrong critters in something that's completely fictional. Science fiction actually is the line you draw where anything goes i think. I just wanted to put these in here, because they have apparently popularized Snowy Owls (Harry's companion du jour) to such a point that there is an educational campaign to point out that it's not legal to possess owls as pets, even the adorable Snowy Owl Hedwig (adorable unless you have one on your arm . . . i promise). I am pretty fascinated by the range of owls they use in the film (apparently all trained individuals).

The species i was able to ID, and there are glimpses of others that are too short to positively name, are:

Common Barn-Owl, Tyto alba

Snowy Owl, Nyctea scandiaca

Eurasian Eagle Owl, Bubo bubo

Little Owl, Athene noctua (interestingly this bird has been identified by some as an Elf Owl, Micrathene whitneyi, but that seems an unlikely choice, and the brief look in the film to me looks more right for Little Owl (especially considering i spent years trapping and banding Elf Owls; in addition, as Laura Erickson has noted on her excellent page on, in the books, the bird is supposed to be a European Scops Owl, which the filmed dude is not; another site claims that the bird is considered a Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium passerinum).

Great Gray Owl, Strix nebulosa

Tawny Owl, Strix aluco i am not certain of this one, though i believe i have the ID right -- again based on a short look; some sites claim this species is in the film.

In the US, many of the promotional material showed a Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, a species that does not appear in the film. This is probably because the American promo materials were produced in the US and illustrations of that bird were readily available to the artists working on the materials.

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BIO: Guinevere (1993)

(1993) tg

Fictionalized Setting: Medieval Britain

Probable actual soundtrack species that are out of place
: Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, American Crow

Probable Foley soundtrack species inappropriate for place: Common Loon, odd computer mixed amalgamation that sounds like a combo Boreal, Northern Saw-Whet and Eastern Screech-Owl

Discussion: All of the identified species on the soundtrack are native to North America. The fact that Blue Jay, American Crow and Northern Cardinal are on the background track (probably) is a simple indication that the scenes were filmed in North America not Britain, and the combination of the three makes it likely to have been filmed in the eastern US. Boreal Owl is circumpolar and a localized rarity in Britain, but most unlikely in the setting of the film, and further is strangely edited and obviously Foleyed. Common Loon is possible within the geographical locale, but is used in woodland backgrounds which would be nigh impossible and thus is also likely a Foley effect.

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BIO: Finding Forrester (2000)

WARNING BIOSPOILERS -- Finding Forrester
(2000) tg, also Mike Mencotti (UMich Birders listserv)

Fictionalized Setting: Manhattan

The big error: Forrester is a reclusive, Pulitzer prize-winning author living in an essentially boarded up Manhattan apartment. Depending on how you view the film, either he discovers a young punk who is a great writer, or the kid discovers the long-lost Forrester. Whichever. Forrester, it turns out, is a birder (birdwatcher to the unbaptized), and with his young protege present, looks out his tenement window into a rather nice yard and discovers a warbler flitting about. Indeed, the camera catches a nice look at a Parulid warbler in a bush. Forrester identifies it as a Connecticut Warbler, and describes it as rare in this neck of the hoods. Unfortunately for the prize-winning author the bird pictured is not a Connecticut Warbler, but a Yellow Warbler. And one final bon mot -- Sean Connery, who plays Forrester, is himself a birder and might likely know better.

A further little twist is that the character James Bond, for which playing him in film made Connery a star, has a name that was taken from real-life ornithologist James Bond of the Philadelphia Academy of Science by the author of the novel from whom the script was adapted, Ian Fleming, himself an avid birder (and for whom possession of Bond's book Birds of the West Indies led to his use of the name).

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BIO: Everything or Nothing (2005)

WARNING BIOSPOILERS -- Everything or Nothing
(2005) tg

in Fictionalized Setting: Austin, Texas

It's a good thing animals don't have their own union: This is a fun story to tell because i am in the film, in the scene where there are, well, let's just say there are animal problems. And there is little actually wrong here in the usual biospoiler sense, but . . .

Here's the story. I showed up prepared for my role as a bum in a rundown neighborhood. The star of the film, Natasha Melnick (of Freaks and Geeks fame) has already been filming for several days -- her character Lynny's a highly-dependent drug addict with a heart of gold. In the scene we filmed she's getting thrown out by her junk-pushing boyfriend Rip (Travis Ammons). He also is to evict her only two real friends, a parakeet and a dog.

Now, i haven't seen the film yet to know the value of these two animals to the plot, but i do know the dog had been filmed the previous few days. I suspect the same of the bird -- a light blue Budgerigar (the everyday parakeet to most folks); that is, i imagine that it has appeared as itself in a scene or two.

Well, i'm waiting for my scene, and in the meantime various crew persons are working to get the real, live, blue parakeet out of its cage (the one used in the movie) and into a temporary cage for today's scene. At this point, and watching this take place, i don't know why.

After they successfully herd the thing into its other temporary quarters, one of the crew produces a fake bird to attach to the perch in the movie cage. He has taken a toy bird -- canary in shape -- and painted it to match the parakeet. And actually done a quite good job of painting it. Of course to someone who knows birds, it'll be obvious that the fake one perches like a finch and not a psittacid, but what the heck -- i'm still unaware at this point of what's going to happen.

Okay, that's all taken care of. Now there's a delay because of the dog. The dog shows up for work and almost immediately develops a bloody nose (wait, a dog with a bloody nose? yep . . .). The trainer rushes it off to a vet -- we wait, a phone call, the dog won't be returning. Okay.

Let's do the scene. Natasha gets thrown out of a seedy hotel room, i'm smoking a cigarette nearby with a couple other bums. She beats on the door, screams, cries, and cusses. The door opens back up and Ammons, the boyfriend/pusher, chunks the bird cage at her. I mean chunks it -- it's flying through the air (i now understand why there is a plastic stand-in for birdie).

She reaches for it, it hits her square in her reaching hands . . . and explodes. Pieces of the cage are flying everywhere. The only thing not flying is little plastic birdie (and besides the SPCA aspect, it's a good thing real birdie wasn't in the cage, or we'd be filming at a later date on this scene). Natasha does a great job of keeping her composure, while panicking (in character) over the pieces of the cage. But the crew is busting out all over. It's a priceless moment.

So after fifteen minutes of reassembling the cage and wiring it together, we get to try again. The cage never again gives any trouble.

But, when you see the film, and watch this scene, just know that when she coos and whistles at the dog, and pulls it along on the leash, there below the bottom of the frame there is no dog on the other end.

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BIO: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)

WARNING BIOSPOILERS -- The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
(2002) tg

in Fictionalized Savannah, Georgia

At least the director knows they goofed on this one: Okay the movie involves an attack by Mountain Lions that kill a kid (that's a spoiler in its own right, sorry). But that is not the issue. The lions are in a wildlife park, and in a way the story is plausible, even though we wildlife people know that such attacks are rare. It is a plot point in the movie, and thus was not casually thrown in.

The real issue is about a dog. The two buddies in the film find a dog hit by a car, and grief over the dog is also an emotionally-charged plot point. The dog dies in situ and one of the boys carries it off. Well, when you watch the film you'll see the dog is suddenly stuffed -- as in taxidermied (and poorly so). It looks ridiculous. I'd have just written it up as being poorly done and been done with it. However, since i'm doing the film thing, and liked the movie, i watched the film again on DVD with the director's making-of commentary, and there, when this particular scene arrives, is a pretty funny explanation. The dog that was "dying" as the scene begins was a trained dog that lies down and pants on command and did fine. But apparently they had done so many takes that the dog got tired of cooperating, and refused to be carried off, looking dead, to end the scene. The taxidermied dog was a fast make-do job and it just didn't work. It was so bad, and the director noticed, that they eventually cut out most of the scene where the dog could be seen. Unfortunately, enough of the scene had to be used that anyone will see the stuffed sub. So, at least i'll give them credit for knowing . . . and the movie is really pretty good. Online credits incidentally consider this an American film. It does have a US setting and American actors, however in the two video stores where i have seen it it is in the foreign film section. I believe it may be Canadian in production origin, though oddly the only different version available is Argentinian. Go figure. (P.s. see the listing for Everything or Nothing for some hint of similar troubles with animal actors).

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BIO: Caracara (1999)

(1999) via Erik Breden

in Fictionalized Washington D.C. presumably

Well what could be the excuse for this one?: Okay, this is apparently a formula presidential assasination plot thing in which Caracara (a fine group of new world raptors in the Falcon subfamily) is a metaphor for the predatory nature of the assassins. But, and i haven't been able to find this thing (which apparently was so poor it ended up only on TV) to see for myself, but the collateral victim is apparently a falconer. Film word is the bird she carries is a Caracara, except that the bird she's carrying is really the baseline apprentice bird falconers train with -- a Harris's Hawk, which is neither a falcon, nor closely related to or of any real resemblance to a Caracara. It's a bird though, right?! As a side note i have some great pictures i took on the King Ranch in the 1970's of Harris's Hawks and Crested Caracaras side by side feeding on a pelican carcass. Thanks to Erik Breden who pointed this one out to me back about the time it was released. P.s. In the online movie trailer the name is pronounced like "Car -a Car-a" whilst most birders that i know say "Care-a Care-a" (there's room for disagreement here). And if you want to dig around in some birding egos check out the Texbirds listserv for the discussion over whether the Crested Caracara or the Golden Eagle is the national bird of Mexico.

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