VIFF Film Review: The Messenger

 Photo: The Messenger ( www.themessengerdoc.com) .

Photo: The Messenger (www.themessengerdoc.com).

Every year, migratory songbirds undergo extreme physiological changes. They eat voraciously, converting up to half of their body mass into fat. Propelled by a sense of urgency, tens of billions of birds take to the skies and fly upwards of thousands of kilometers in pursuit of lands rich in resources. Here, they may stay awhile, mating and raising their chicks before instinct kicks in again and they gear up for the trip back to where they started.

These trips are not without risk and the birds will encounter many challenges including poor weather, food shortages, exhaustion, and predators. Many of these birds will die in transit.

As director Su Rynard’s beautiful and introspective examination of the disappearance of migratory songbirds quietly informs us in The Messenger, these are not the only threats that songbirds face today. Anthropogenic impacts from light pollution to cats to neoniconoids (a group of pesticides referred to as the contemporary DDT) are causing mass deaths of these birds. By some estimates, up to half of the migratory songbirds that once filled the skies since the 1960s have disappeared.

Over the course of an hour and a half, the film hops across three continents laying out threat after threat affecting the phenomenon of migration. We encounter scientists (including Bridget Stutchbury of York University, whose 2007 book Silence of the Songbirds inspired this film), hunters, farmers, eco-terrorists, and even a naturalist DJ. Strikingly, the passion that each of these people feel is palpable regardless of their relationships with the songbirds. To them, the loss of these birds would be devastating.

The film’s depiction of migratory songbird research is impressive, with insight on current technological advances which have allowed scientists to track each individual bird’s migration paths, providing detailed information on the duration and conditions of their travel.

It is almost with a sigh of sadness that the film settles on the elephant-in-the-room issue of climate change. The plight of the songbirds heeds as a warning to humans about the condition of the planet. Temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, and crucial habitats like wetlands are disappearing. Climate change is happening faster than songbirds are able to adapt and evolve.

There is a scene at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where a group of people accompanied by their young children are laying out hundreds of birds killed by window strikes out on the floor. There are multiple close up shots of the children, quiet and solemn, handling a bird. The children barely seem to comprehend what is happening, but you get the sense that they understand the seriousness of the loss of these songbirds.

It is the thought of these children growing up in a world without songbirds that strikes home the message – that we must try to do what we can to slow down climate change and prevent the migratory songbirds from disappearing.

Hope is not all lost for songbirds. After the screening of the film, Su Rynard herself and David Bradley, a representative of Bird Studies Canada, fielded some questions from the audience about initial steps the average citizen can take to reduce the mortality of migratory songbirds. Their answer was relatively simple: turn off your lights at night and keep your cats indoors. #birdsmatter