An industrial site is home to a nest of baby American robins (Kino Lorber)

An industrial site is home to a nest of baby American robins (Kino Lorber)

It was once believed that birds were messengers whose flight and song could be interpreted to foretell the future, but over time, as the world became increasingly industrialized, we lost the connection we once shared with their world. Through her documentary, director Su Rynard hopes to call our attention, once again, to what the songbirds are telling us.

Rynard opens the film with stunning slow-motion footage of brilliantly hued songbirds in flight, creating an instant sense of awe and wonder for these creatures we may normally take for granted in our everyday life. What follows is a journey around the world to look at some of the scientific studies exploring the role of songbirds within our ecosystem.

Technological advances, like feather weight tracking devices and microchips that store vast amounts of data, have made it easier to observe and follow the breeding, nesting, feeding, and migratory habits of individual species and have called attention to an alarming decline in populations. Obvious culprits are identified, such as loss of habitat due to deforestation and the decline in insect populations caused by widespread use of insecticides, but some of the threats recounted here will come as a surprise to many.

Noise and light pollution disrupt birds’ ability to breed and migrate. Domestic cats kill in excess of 1.4 billion birds per year, and the mirrored windows in just one high-rise building can bring down up to 250 birds per day (multiply that by a city’s worth of windows). The effects of climate change on the songbird population are yet to be determined, but of primary concern is the interference with normal migratory patterns.

Interspersed with the science are reminders of the aesthetic and interdependent relationship between humans and birds. German composer/DJ Dominik Eulberg incorporates bird song into the primal beat of his techno dance music. In another segment, historic footage of Mao Zedong’s disastrous attempt to eradicate tree swallows that contributed to a three-year famine is a strong warning as to what could happen worldwide if songbird populations continue to decline.

Breathtaking cinematography provides a close-up look at a multitude of different songbird species, as well as panoramic views of their habitats from grasslands to boreal forest. The Messenger is a feast for the eyes, but it is also an urgent warning to take notice of what is happening in our own backyards. Many of the birds that graced our feeders 40 to 50 years ago are appearing in far fewer numbers, or have disappeared altogether. The actual percentage of decline is startling. There are solutions, but first there is the need for widespread awareness, and that is what this film is all about.

Directed by Su Rynard
Produced by Joanne P. Jackson, Sally Blake, Martin de la Fouchardière, Rynard, and Diane Woods
Written by Rynard and Blake
Released by Kino Lorber
Canada/France. 90 min. Not rated