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By David Templeton | July 18, 2003

“I’ve been anxious to see this movie for a long time,” murmurs David Allen Sibley. “Way back in March, I began to hear about it at bird festivals and throughout the birding community, where the movie has caused quite a stir. Everywhere I’ve gone in the last three weeks, someone has said to me, “Have you seen this amazing movie?”

Well, now he can say that he has.

The movie, Winged Migration, the nonlinear, Oscar-nominated pseudo-documentary by Jaques Perrin, tells the story of several dozen death-defying bird migrations, as Perrin’s camera follows flocks of pelicans, ducks, geese, European white storks, albatross, black-necked swans and others, as they fly thousands of miles over mountains, across deserts and oceans, through storms and fog and the occasional hail of gunfire, in the twice yearly migrations that crisscross the continents.

David Allen Sibley, Massachusetts-based artist and naturalist, one who’s done a bit of his own continental crisscrossing over the last few years, is the best-selling author of the Sibley Bird Guides (Knopf). Including The Sibley Guide to Birds, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, and the recent Sibley’s Birding Basics, the books are fully-illustrated with Sibley’s exquisite hand-drawn sketches and paintings. Crammed with bird facts and bird identification hints, the Sibley Guides have, since their gradual introduction beginning in 2000, become the reigning birder’s Bible among devoted birdwatchers high and low. It is those same ardent birdwatchers who’ve been waiting, on pins and needles, to hear what Sibley has to say about Winged Migration.

“I can see why this movie has been inspiring so many people. It’s wonderful, “ he says, choosing his words slowly and carefully, his voice a semi-dreamy blend of soft-spoken tones and measured amusement. “Some of the scenes,” he goes on, “like the Barnacle Geese flying over the ocean heading for Greenland, are just amazing. I found myself sitting there with my spine tingling, watching these geese flying over this icy ocean. In that one single image, you get a sense of the incredible effort these birds put themselves through in the course of their migrations.”

“Watching them work so hard to get where they’re going,” I mention, “I vowed to never complain again about going to work.”

“I know what you mean,” Sibley replies. “One of the things that impressed me the most about the movie was seeing how hard these birds work. The view of the birds, from up inside the flock as they fly, looking at them up close, you really see how the birds are pumping their wings, and panting, and to know that they do that for eight or ten or twelve hours a day, and that some birds that fly over water do it for 72 hours straight, it’s just amazing that they can sustain that kind of effort.

“There were times during the movie when I wanted to pull out my pocket notebook and take a few notes,” he adds, laughing softly. “I was seeing details of the birds’ shapes and color patterns that I’d never noticed before.”

“As stunning as the bird footage is,” I point out, “some of the most eye-popping images are of the landscapes the birds end up flying over, beautiful views of the earth below. Not to unfairly humanize the birds or anything, but do you think they feel the same sense of awe and wonder at seeing those sights?”

“I think they probably do,” Sibley says. “That feeling that we get from looking at those kinds of places, the sort of deep feeling of deep satisfaction, that sense of pleasure at the sight of a place that looks that inviting. For birds, as they fly along, seeing a landmark on their migration route, a place that they recognize or a place they could look on from the air and know they’d find food and shelter and water, that probably does give them some feeling of comfort and satisfaction. So, yeah, I think those birds are probably reacting to those scenes the same way that we do.”

“What moved you the most about this movie?” I ask.

“I’ve always been fascinated by migration,” Sibley responds, slowly and carefully. “To me, there is nothing better or more exciting than being outdoors and seeing a flock of migrating birds. It transports you to a place without time, knowing that this migration has been going on spring and fall for tens of thousands of years, and to see it happening right there above your head.

“To see that,” he continues, “is a moment of pure escape from the world. There are quite a few places in this movie that made me feel that way – the barnacle geese flying across the ocean, the Bar-headed Geese fighting their way through the blizzard in the Himalayas. These epic migrations of birds give you a sense of the globe as a natural place. In that way I think the movie was remarkably powerful.

“I think that one of the things the movie conveys pretty well,” Sibley says, hitting his stride now, “is the sense of a delicate balance. These birds are fighting a life-and-death struggle as they migrate twice a year, and small changes, even things that might seem insignificant – a fishing net lying across a pond, a little bit of oil leaking out of an industrial plant – those things can make a life-or-death difference for an individual bird, and cumulatively, can make a difference for a whole species.”

Says Sibley, “The effort that these birds put into their migrations and the hazards that they face along the way make for a very tenuous existence. I think that the more people understand that, the more people will understand how our own actions, and our own care of the environment, really do make a difference.”


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

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