Hollywood needs to hire more ornithologists

I have learned to keep my mouth shut when watching movies. My wife can take only so much grousing about errors in the films. It's the bird calls in the background that get me.

Evidence suggests there are few ornithologists on the payroll in Hollywood. According to movie makers, the English countryside is apparently populated by savannah sparrows, a bird found only in North America. The suburbs of Cleveland are apparently home to hermit thrushes and warbling vireos, birds of deep coniferous forests and riverside willows, respectively. Cactus wrens from the deserts of Arizona have made it to New England ("Shawshank Redemption"), and I always like how they insert the call of a red-tailed hawk when showing a bald eagle. Apparently the squeaky call of the bald eagle isn't fitting for our national symbol.

My favorite "mistakes" are in John Wayne movies. The movie could be situated in Tombstone, Ariz., or along the Chisholm Trail in Texas, but there was always the distinctive bouncing-ball call of the wrentit in the background. Wrentits are your typical "lbj" (little brown job), birds that annoy beginning birders by their bland sameness. They have a brown body, long brown tail held high like a wren and a gray face. They occur from northernmost Baja California, through California and up along the coast of Oregon to the Columbia River and no further. In Southern Oregon they occur in the brambles along Bear Creek and in other dense, brushy areas.

The sets for the John Wayne movies were in the Santa Monica Mountains just north of Los Angeles. California chaparral teems with wrentits. At least the songs in the movies were just natural background songs and not the creative insertion of some film editor. This I can forgive.

The wrentit is something of an embarrassment to ornithologists. It is a babbler, which refers to a family of birds and not a description of wrentit behavior. Every other babbler in the world lives in Asia, and I suspect at least one is obnoxiously vocal. Our wrentit is not a prime candidate for touring the world beginning in Asia and ending up in Oregon and California. Its powers of flight are highly suspect. For thousands of years or more, the Columbia River has apparently presented an insurmountable barrier to this bird. They occur right up to the shores of the river near Astoria. If a 2-mile-wide river stops it cold, its chances of crossing oceans are zero.

I've always suspected that someday we would find that the wrentit was misplaced on the bird family tree. However, DNA studies have confirmed again and again that wrentits are indeed babblers. So how did the wrentit end up here? Possibly some ancestor to the present day wrentit was a more capable aviator. Changing climates throughout geologic history may also be involved. Habitats moved north and south many hundreds of miles when climatic changes were slow enough for plants to follow. Land bridges periodically occurred between Alaska and Siberia. Apparently at some point conditions were right for an ancestor of our wrentit to hop and flutter its way onto North America, eventually ending up along Bear Creek and on the sets of John Wayne movies.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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