According to Birders: The Central Park Effect, Manhattan's Central Park plays host to several thousands of migrating birds a year; its 200 different kinds of birds number roughly a quarter of the flying species seen in all of America. With that many flying feathers, it's no wonder that the park attracts its fair share of people who go there to observe, take notes and geek out with fellow birders over the occasional rare bird sighting. The contemplative, beautifully photographed Birders chronicles a year's worth of Central Park's bird watching scene. In the film, viewers get acquainted with several interesting people whose passion for birds is infectious, yet one doesn't necessarily have to be into birds (or New York) to enjoy it.
Birders especially appealed to this critic, since I'm one of those kooky people who feels a kinship with the various birds that visit the house we live in near a metropolitan area. While we're not full-on birders, we do make sure to have a bird bath, some flowering bushes and feeders to attract the feathered ones to our otherwise spare back yard. Our little ecosystem gets plenty of pigeons, sparrows and doves, along with finches, mockingbirds, tropical love birds (descendents of escaped pets who've adapted themselves to Arizona's climate), and the occasional rarity like the peregrine falcon. They're all reminders that life goes on, as sure as huge, noisy flocks of starlings will descend upon us every winter.
Birders goes into that euphoria of witnessing birds in their element, as well, following the migrating cycle over the course of a year. With the arrival of spring (when the film begins), hordes of people descend on the area for its prime bird-watching season. The crowd includes hardcore birders (many of whom traveled far to get there), avid students of birding culture, and local novices looking for a weekend distraction. We get acquainted with, among others, a teen girl who endorses the geekiness of her chosen hobby with pride, a youngish African American guy who wields his binoculars with gusto, and a frail yet determined birding vet named Starr, who doesn't let a cancer diagnosis slow down her spirit.
Mostly shot in the wild at various locations around the park, Birders functions as a combo of nature documentary/portrait of an offbeat community remarkably well (this was the first film for director/writer Jeffrey Kimball, surprisingly). When Birders reaches summer, the film takes a moment to note the irony of birds being attracted to this man-made environment whose babbling brooks are carefully planned and designed to be shut off with the turn of a wheel hidden in the ground. Autumn sees the mass of migrating birds from six months earlier returning to the park, and novelist/bird enthusiast Jonathan Franzen observing that birding is an inherently dorky passion, since one can never look cool gazing into the treetops with binoculars.
For a project that posits itself as breezy, PBS-ish viewing, Birders contains a lot of surprising and unexpectedly profound stuff about birds and birding. Winter might seem like a time for slowdown, and yet it's the scene for the annual National Audubon Society bird census, a 110 year-old Christmastime tradition in which members survey all the birds staying in Central Park. The efforts depicted in the film yielded a lot of sightings (even a wild turkey, which made me wonder how it got there - did it take the subway?), but the results of global warming mean that the bird population decreases by a little bit each year. Despite the encroachment of humankind, however, they come back, year after year.
For a film that spans merely an hour, Birders feels like a perfect, tidy package. When it concludes with the arrival of the following spring, one gets an illuminating picture of Central Park's wildlife and the eclectic people who made their own funky flock following their every move.
With its DVD edition of Birders: The Central Park Effect, Music Box Films presents the film in a nice looking 16x9 image that accurately captures the natural surroundings seen in the film. The mastering is excellent, and although the photography seems somewhat too blown-out on the brighter side of the spectrum, the film is given a handsome visual presentation on disc.
In a word, marvelous. The 5.1 Surround soundtrack for this film kinda blew me away, honestly. The soundtrack was mixed with dialogue and appealing music in the center channel, while ambient bird sounds trill away around the edges. The environment sounds were apparently mixed in post-production to achieve a continuity between takes - a subtle yet lovely effect which truly transports the viewer to the verdant Central Park seen on screen. Although this tinkering goes at odds with the purpose of documentary film (at least the film contains a disclaimer noting that some bird sounds were recorded separately, in quieter environments), the final result is breathtaking. Another audio track in 2.0 Stereo and optional English subtitles are also available.
Birders: The Central Park Effect comes with an informative 12-page booklet containing a bio and statement from director Jeffrey Kimball, full color photos and descriptions of the birds seen in the film, and a Bird Log for viewers to note their own sightings in the wild. Also included on the disc is the 10-minute Birds of Central Park featurette, which shows all the birds seen in the film (in the order in which they're shown) with species text notations. Extended interviews with speakers seen in the film round out the extras: Jonathan Franzen (8:44); Jonathan Rosen (7:59); and Dr. John Fitzpatrick (10:29).
At first glance, the hour-long documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect seems to have the feel of standard PBS prime time fare (think Independent Lens), but it actually has some profound things to say about humankind's need to connect with nature. Music Box Films' DVD edition wraps the doc in an elegant package. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.