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'Messenger' documentary delivers warning from songbirds, director says

| Friday, March 18, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
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An industrial site in Alberta’s Boreal Forest is home to a nest of baby American robins.
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In Costa Rica, ecologist Alejandra Martinez-Salinas measures the wing of a songbird.
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In Eastern Turkey’s Aras river wetland, volunteer Michael Ford releases a songbird back into the wild.
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Su Rynard, director of 'The Messenger'
Su Rynard
Pittsburgh native Sally Blake (front), producer and co-writer of 'The Messenger,' along with director Su Rynard and producer Martin de la Fouchardière.
Birds, shown in the film 'The Messenger,' that were killed in collisions.
The poster for the movie 'The Messenger' about the loss of songbirds.

Starting next week, the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania will spread the message endangered birds worldwide have been sending for years about the environment with free viewings of “The Messenger.”

“In ‘The Messenger' we share the music, the beauty and the wonder,” says Su Rynard, who directed the documentary. “We connect with how amazing these creatures are. We explore our complex human relationship to the natural world. The result is a deeply nuanced film. It is a film that will make you laugh and cry. It is a film that may change you.”

The 90-minute movie, the first feature film by SongBirdSOS Productions, explores the mass depletion of songbirds and those who have been inspired to do something about it. Pittsburgh native Sally Blake, who now lives in Paris, served as a co-producer, writer and editor on the film.

“One out of five people self-identify as a bird enthusiast, and birds are second to gardening,” says Jim Bonner, executive director of Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. “The birds for a millennia have been communicating with us. If we're listening to them, they are telling us to be careful. If we take care of birds, we're taking care of ourselves.”

The viewings mark the local Audobon Society's public phase of its centennial campaign, celebrating 100 years of connecting the region's people with birds and nature. The campaign is trying to raise $7 million.

“At the theaters, we're going to give a brief update on what we're doing. We've raised $4.5 million of our goal,” Bonner says. “The campaign will enable us to improve our three facilities, so we'll have three fully functioning nature centers. We're launching regional conservation and education programs. We'll be opening a new community center at the Todd Nature Reserve.”

The society's public sites include its headquarters at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel, Succop Nature Park in Butler and Todd Nature Reserve in Sarver.

“About half of all birds fall into songbirds,” Bonner says. “There are year-round residents here like cardinals and blue jays. Wrens and the Baltimore orioles are migrant birds here. The ones that wake you up are usually the house finch and song sparrows.”

Bonner says the documentary aligns with the Audubon Society's messages.

“We hope people become more aware of the challenges and help with the solutions we can attempt,” Bonner says. “In our area, noise pollution is particularly relevant, with compressors and generators making noise. It could be birds are not mating because they can't find each other through song.”

Rynard noticed the depletion of birds and was inspired to educate others.

“I'm not a birding expert or a scientist,” Rynard says. “I am an average person who noticed that the birds I used to see and hear were no longer around. At first, I thought it was me. I was too busy or somehow missing them, but then I dug a little deeper and discovered that it wasn't me.”

She says birds are disappearing all around the globe.

“The rate of this loss is faster than at any other time in human history,” Rynard says. “In terms of songbirds, we have half the number of songbirds today compared to the 1960s.

“Birds have been our companions for a long, long time,” Rynard says. “They have inspired our literature, our visual art, poems, plays and our music. In some cultures, birds were thought to be messengers from the gods. Bird behavior warns us of the change of season or the coming of storms.

“Today, they are warning us about the health of our earthly home. All life on Earth depends on a healthy functioning ecosystem, so in this way, the fate of the songbirds is linked to our own.”

There are many ways to aid birds and help them survive, she says.

“Habitat loss is the biggest threat to birds and biodiversity, so support local actions that preserve land and wild spaces,” Rynard says. “Conservation works. There are many simple things that you can do. Reduce your carbon footprint. Keep your cat indoors. Support sustainable agriculture. Drink organic shade-grown coffee that is certified bird-friendly. Join your local naturalist group. Get outside. Learn the names and songs of a few birds in your neighborhood. If you live in a high-rise, turn your lights out at night or draw the blinds.

“Never lose hope because there are many success stories. You will feel better as a human to be part of a solution rather than part of the problem.”

Debbie Black is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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