If anybody these days needs further proof that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, "The Messenger" happily supplies yet another piece of somber evidence.
Travelling across three continents in the space of a year, director Su Rynard explores the songbirds' importance to humans and the environment, and what some determined people are doing to track and save them.
At one point people, thought songbirds connected humans to the supernatural world. They used the birds' flights and songs to predict the future.
These days, songbirds' behaviors herald changing seasons and the coming of storms. Like the famous canaries in coal mines, songbirds can warn of impending danger, if only we pay attention. Their melodic songs thrill and their beautiful hues fascinate us. They are mighty travelers, migrating as they have for hundreds of thousands of years at a speedy clip between North and South America in a matter of weeks. They represent half of the world's bird populations.
Unfortunately, however, songbirds now face new and deadly challenges that imperil their existence. "The Messenger" deftly portrays those threats and balances them with the work being done to save these tiny vertebrates.
Of the 20 million birds that migrate from Canada and the U.S. to points south, half don't make it back. Scientists are not sure why, though there are definitely some culprits.
Humans play a huge part in the birds' demise. Artificial lights, for example, attract the birds, who then become confused and either collide with one another or with nearby buildings. This particular phenomenon caused Cornell ornithologists to monitor bird migrations through the two light beams temporarily shining at the site of Ground Zero, and lower the lights when appropriate.
Birds flying into skyscrapers' glass windows and dying nasty deaths motivated some Torontonians to bag and track them. Their diligent efforts helped pass legislation that demands that buildings with high bird deaths provide 'due diligence' by putting markers on the glass to dissuade the birds from flying into the glass.
Domesticated cats kill some 1.4 billion songbirds a year, and have caused several species to go extinct.
In Germany, new tracking methods using radio tags and satellites connect birds' migratory movements across the globe in an effort to understand why and where they are dying.
In France, the ortolan bunting faces extinction because of the long tradition of hunting, capturing, then fattening and finally eating them. Despite the fact that this practice is now illegal, it continues in some parts of the country. Determined volunteers photograph and then report the culprits.
Human actions tilt nature's fragile symbiotic ecosystems. China, for example, decided that sparrows were eating too much grain, and in 1957 urged its citizens to kill them. The tree sparrow nearly went extinct; insects devastated the crops, which led to a major famine. In Costa Rica, agricultural development has decimated 80 percent of the country's forests, which also causes the birds to get lost and die. This, in turn, has led to a growth of the coffee berry beetle. Similarly in Alberta, Canada, logging has taken its toll in the boreal forest, where the noise of machines affected the breeding habits of songbirds, whose ranks decline by half a million yearly.
Researchers in Saskatchewan, Canada, report that insecticides caused declining bird populations there. Their newest variation, neonecticides ("the next DDT," says one Dutch scientist) are proving to be yet another killer. Developed in the '90s, they form a cover around seeds. Once planted, the seeds leech into the land and water and so far have proven deadly to birds and honey bees.
And, of course, let's not forget climate change. Melting glaciers in Mount Ararat, Turkey, for example, are causing droughts and shrinking bird populations. If more wetlands disappear, it will be "one more nail in the coffin for migratory birds," gloomily notes a Turkish researcher.
Songbirds are particularly sensitive to all these changes in their environments and respond to them so quickly that it helps scientists to grasp the bigger picture of what is happening to the planet.
What will this mean for humans? At a minimum, if we don't change our ways, we risk the consequence of living in total avian silence.
Best to listen now to those songbirds that so melodiously warn us of impending disaster, take heed and act before it's too late.