Caught by the River

The Messenger

Ceri Levy | 16th November 2017

Ceri Levy assesses The Messenger: a new film which explores our deep-seated connection to birds, and warns that the uncertain fate of songbirds might just mirror our own

The sky is filled…but I know it’s going to change – Bill Evans, avian migration researcher


Su Rynard’s documentary The Messenger sends out a powerful message of concern for songbirds — and one that I have been familiar with for some time now. The bird world is facing a meltdown like never before and has lost, more or less, half its population since the 1960s. The film points out many of the causes of these catastrophic declines and is beautifully constructed. It tells a series of modular bird-related stories, which are brought together to create a chillingly reflective documentary. The message is simple: if we don’t act now, we could soon be living within a silent world without birdsong. This is a potential reality.

Humans have a soft spot for songbirds, and the film is populated by characters who care deeply about them — such as the members of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), who collect the bodies of dead birds which litter the streets of Toronto below tall, lit office buildings. During their night time migratory rush hour, the birds are attracted by the continually burning internal lights, and invariably hit the windows at speed. Sometimes up to 500 birds are collected over a few hours. Simple things can be done to stop this carnage. As Michael Mesure, the founder of FLAP says, ‘How often can you say, you flick a switch and a problem disappears? You turn off lights, you’re going to be saving birds’ lives’.

Cat predation is almost a no-go subject in the conservation world, as many organisations are afraid of alienating cat-lovers and losing money from the kitty brigade. But here the subject is clearly addressed. A 2013 survey carried out by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that cats kill 1.4 billion birds a year in the USA, and the number could even be as high as 3.7 billion birds. That is too much to lose from the skies.

Dr. Peter Marra, the director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre, sums up the issue succinctly: ‘Cats have been part of human civilisation for a long time. That said, it doesn’t mean that they have been moved to places where they are natural components to these fragile ecosystems. They’re just not. They are as invasive as Kudzu vines or Zebra mussels. They are not natural components of the environment anywhere. There are at least 32 species of birds that are known to have become extinct at the paws of cats. We’ve got to come up with some solutions. We can’t continue to allow cats to change the population size of wildlife’.

One of the most poignant moments of the film occurs at ground zero in New York during the annual 9/11 Tribute of Light, when ghostly towering pillars of light shine brightly into the sky. Dr Andrew Farnsworth from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is birdwatching, and keeping an eye out for migratory birds in case they become attracted to the shimmering lights, which can cause confusion and collisions. He says, ‘The last thing that anyone wants to see, at this site, is a bunch of dead birds littering the streets.’ Eventually, as the birds eerily appear in the columns of light, we witness them becoming disorientated, and the lights are switched off to save them from harm. A sensitive issue, but sensitively handled.

The film highlights a multitude of problems faced by birdlife, including the damage done by neonicotinoid pesticides, which kill beneficial insects and stop birds having enough of them to eat. We are shown land ravaged to allow the passage of pipes and cables, which dissect and disconnect great swathes of landscape, disturbing wildlife habitats forever. The list of potential hazards is huge, and the stories that are told throughout the film create a cohesive overview of just what is wrong with our world today. After all, a problem for the birds inevitably means that further down the line, the issues will become a problem for other creatures, man, and the world itself. Birds are indicators of illness and health within our environment and we should listen to their messages while we still can. They could prove to be the key to finding balance in the ecological catastrophe we currently find ourselves in.

The Messenger is a timely and elegant reminder that the world needs birds, not only for the fundamental feel good factor of interacting with nature, but also for the way they enable us to understand why this planet is in crisis. We must hope that the reality of the film’s strapline — ‘Imagine a world without birdsong’ — can be avoided, as now more than ever we need to listen to and begin to understand birdsong.


The Messenger will be available on DVD in December, and there are select screenings over the next month or so. Information can be found here. Each DVD will be shipped with a free bag of Bird & Wild coffee, which donates 6% of sales to the RSPB. Copies can be pre-ordered online at the earlybird price of £15 (expires 30 November), and £20 thereafter.

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Ceri Levy on Caught by the River/on Twitter