Thursday, March 24, 2016

Birds at Large: Better Call Saul

**UPDATE** 3/28/2016

Reader Mark H. sent along a link to a behind-the-scenes podcast called the Better Call Saul Insider where they talk about the hummingbird in the show. Unreal.

According to the folks on the podcast, all of whom work in the crew or production for the show, the hummingbird was not lured in with a green screen behind it, but just a stroke of luck. The crew was shooting the factory shot using an unmanned camera on a crane, and the hummingbird just happened to zoom into a take.

Bob Odenkirk (making his second Birds at Large appearance) cracks that the bird is actually just a tiny drone sent over from one of the CSI shows. But to you and me, it's a Broad-tail.

**Update over**

If you want to look for quality, look at the details. It's true for cars*, it's true for jewelry*, it's true for clothing.*  And it's true for TV shows.

Better Call Saul is a quality TV show, one of my current favorites. Care is taken in all aspects. The plot is intricate, the settings are rich, the acting is considered. Even the birds are right.

A friend sent me some screenshots from one of this season's episodes, showing a hummingbird flying in the foreground.  Hummingbirds are typically CGId when they appear onscreen - like the Xantu's in The Big Year, right? - because they're so fast and because not many people keep them.

But this bird doesn't look CGId, right? It looks real. Check it out:

I asked Benay Karp, the owner of an animal rental company in Los Angeles, if the bird was one of hers. She said it wasn't, that it was likely a wild bird that the production team brought to the camera with a feeder. She thought there'd be a green screen behind the bird onto which they could later project the scene as you see it above. Very cool.

So what species is it?

If we're going with the "live bird" thinking, this is some species that appears wild in New Mexico, where the show is filmed. That eliminates Ruby-throated, which is helpful.

I've never really looked into it because I haven't birded there much, but there aren't a ton of hummers in New Mexico. I don't see the red in this bird that would indicate a Rufous Hummingbird, and so for regulars in the state we're left with, like, Broad-tailed, Black-chinned, and Calliope?

I think this is too big-looking for a Calliope. I just think that.

I don't have a ton of experience with the other two birds, but the white tail corners on this bird look pretty extensive. The bill doesn't look super-long either. I think this is a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Good bird! Thanks, Saul.

*I have never owned quality clothing, a nice car, or really any jewelry. I've just heard this is true.

Monday, March 21, 2016

March MADNESS! and Birds on Film!

Audubon is letting me run a competition to determine the best bird-named sports team! WE'LL FINALLY KNOW ONCE AND FOR ALL! We're doing it March Madness-style, meaning I've seeded some teams and they're facing off via Facebook "likes" to work our way down to a winner.

VOTE HERE ON THE AUDUBON FACEBOOK PAGE to find a winner, and keep watching for updates.

Also, remember when I was (once again) complaining about birds showing up in random places on TV but had a revelation about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act? Yeah, after the Super Bowl. Well, the folks at the Washington Post let me write up that story with a bunch more research. Good times.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds

I started listening to Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds a decade ago, when "podcasts" were not a household word, and when Ray's show was the only thing that came up when you searched iTunes for "birds."

It's a great program, and I was honored to be asked to appear on today's show to talk about my new Audubon column, and about how Massachusetts should cede its state bird to Maine, the far superior state.  Thanks, Ray, I hope to be back on soon!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

New Audubon Column!

Hi folks! I am excited to announce that I'll be writing a new column, The Birdist's Rules for Birding, to run weekly on It's aimed at newish birders, and the "bird curious" among us who want to figure out what this hobby is all about. I want to thank my editors over there for giving me this opportunity, it's going to be a blast!

I don't post here too often, I know, but I will continue when I can, or when I have something to say that ain't right for Audubon. Thanks for reading all these years!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Birds at Large: Super Bowl Commercial and a Huge Revelation

Everyone, even birders, watches the Super Bowl. And everyone who watches the Super Bowl watches the commercials.

So, lots of birders saw the commercial starring Jeff Goldblum. If you missed it, here it is again.  Pay particular attention to Jeff Goldblum's piano as it's being pulled up the side of the building.

Yep, a gull. Here are some screenshots, in case you missed it.

When happening in real time, it was hard to get a good look at the bird and figure out what it was. It was small, but not immediately familiar. Of course, the Bird Internet being as it is, we were on the case immediately.

I sent out a quick tweet:

Responses started flying. The red bill was something that stood out in people's minds, gull? Laughing? But there was no black on the head, even smudges or spots. My buddy Doug Hitchcox was on the case, too, as birders started to look internationally for an answer:

Within four minutes of the ad being shown, we came to a conclusion: a Silver Gull, the most common gull in Australia. A text from my friend Jason assured me that the North American Gulls Facebook Group - I would link but it's a closed group - had reached the same conclusion even more quickly.

So, how'd the get an Australian gull? Not sure. The ad was created by the RPA agency, based in Santa Monica. No help there.

But some easy Googling helped me to an answer. I did a quick search for companies in LA that lend animals for entertainment productions. A couple click's took me to the website for Benay's Bird and Animal Rentals.  I clicked over to the Wild/Backyard Type Birds page and scrolled down to gulls and, there you have it: a silver gull.  Mystery solved. 

But wait, there's more. 

Complaining about the miscasting of birds in television and the movies is a foundation of what I do here. I'm constantly annoyed that non-native birds are being passed off as the real deal. So, I wasn't really prepared to read this disclaimer at the top of Benay's Wild/Backyard-Type Birds page:
Due to the Migratory Bird [Treaty] Act, it is ILLEGAL to use our native birds in the United States. So, in order to abide by this FEDERAL law, and also provide man types and varieties of birds that could be used for shots that require birds that look native, we have the LARGEST collection of working, non native species [of] birds to fill that void. To the average person, the birds we have ... would not be odd to see in their backyards. Some of these look similar to our native species!
Holy. Shit.

So, despite my giving grief to what I just figured were careless directors, native birds couldn't be used as actors no matter what!  The apologetic wording of that disclaimer also tells me that directors clearly are looking for native birds, and these guys have to just steer them elsewhere.

I ... I am reeling here. My life has been a lie, a mean lie.  I need to apologize.

Apologies to you, Big Bang Theory.  Sorry, Dos Equis. Mea culpa, Mountain Dew.  Apologies to anyone I've insulted in my long history of insulting for using a non-native bird in something set in the U.S.

Of course, it's not illegal to use the sounds of a native bird. There's still no excuse for that (it's even easier to get right than using animal actors), so y'all still on watch.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We Missed An Opportunity To Elect A Birder President

On Dec. 29, 2015, former Governor of New York George Pataki formally announced that he was ending his bid to become president of the U.S.A. Coming at the end of the year from a candidate that never really had a chance, the announcement didn't garner a whole lot of attention. I sure as heck didn't really care. But maybe I should have.

As fas as I know, Theodore Roosevelt was the only birder president. He was an incredible man, as I've written about before, even though I've proved using science that I am a better birder than he was.

Pataki, apparently, was another. I had no idea! It certainly didn't come up during the debates, which focused instead on screaming and yelling.  Pataki positioned himself as the centrist Republican candidate, but didn't mention that he was an award-winning conservationist. (Which was probably smart, considering the audience).

And he certainly didn't say he could pish. That's some next-level birding! That's ain't no Dukakis-in-a-tank bullshittery! Check out the video, from ABC:

Back? Pretty cool, right? He was on Theodore Roosevelt Island, here in DC! 

But, man, not a single bird in sight. Not a single damn bird. You've got to feel for the guy. There's not much more embarrassing than trying to impress people by pishing up a bird and getting no response. When pishing works you feel like a magician, but when it doesn't work you just feel like an idiot making mouth-noises at a bush. I've failed at pishing with plenty of bird walk groups, but never on camera. Brutal.

But then, it's a pretty good metaphor for the whole campaign, huh? The man stood up there in front of the American public and made noises with his mouth he hoped would get people interested in him, but they just never showed and interest. Takes guts to do that.  Good birding out there, Governor Pataki, wherever you are.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Down with Humminghorse

I remember when Facebook was cool. I remember when it was all cool college kids posting pictures of parties. Now it's just America's goddamn Thanksgiving dinner table, with your dim aunt posting telling you about some newspaper article she saw and your dumb uncle talking loudly about politics and you just want to burn the whole thing down.

But, I mean, what are you gonna do? Not use it? Yeah, so I joined this group on these called Facebook Bird Misidentification Page. It's got like 5,000 members, and the point is that people try to be funny by posting pictures of, like, funny birds, or pictures with funny captions, or instances of misidentified birds in public, stuff like that.

Now, the misidentified birds stuff I've always loved. In fact, I've got a feature on this very internet webpage called Birds at Large where I make wiseacre remarks about that self-same topic, to a humorous result. The misidentification stuff on the FBMP is right up my alley.

The rest of the stuff - not so much.  It's a lot of aunt humor, and at least once a week - without fail - someone will post this:

The Humminghorse.

The aunt internet (aunternet?) finds the above meme irresistibly hilarious. Literally the funniest thing.  I picture them all like characters in a gigantic Cathy comic strip, all throwing a bunch of shoes in the air at the sight of it and screaming "Aaacck!"

The rest of the Facebook group, however, does not find it so funny, especially after its been posted nine million times. Looking today, it seems that the Admins have a policy of taking it down as soon as its posted. But other forms of resistance remain. There's a meme backlash.

A line has been drawn in the Facebook bird gentle humor world, with those who aren't hip to the lameness of the Humminghorse on one side, and those in the know on the other. 

I think the best parody so far was one posted today, a quick-turnaround combo-meme, playing off the earlier-this-week popularity of the Snowy Owl on the Traffic Cam video with a, you guessed it, Humminghorse on the Traffic Cam video.  Your move, aunts.


The humminghorse was freshly posted to the Facebook Bird Misidentification page the morning after this post was published.

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