New HBO Documentary Focuses on the Bird, Birdwatchers of Central Park

Written by Rebecca Harris on . Posted in News Our Town, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, West Side Spirit.


Karen Becker & Anya Auerback in a scene from Birders: The Central Park Effect.


HBO launched a documentary on Monday that explores a unique facet of New York City personality: the bird-watching community of Central Park. Birders: The Central Park Effect, directed by New York nature lover Jeffrey Kimball, chronicles four seasons in the lives of both the birders and the wild birds they admire year-round in the oasis of nature surrounded by an urban metropolis. Kimball recently talked with Our Town to discuss the film and his passion for birds.

If you missed the debut, you can catch one of the upcoming screenings on HBO this month: July 19 (5 p.m.), 21 (10 a.m., 5:20 p.m.), 24 (11:30 a.m., midnight) and 29 (2 p.m.).

What is Birders about?
The film is about Central Park as a wildlife refuge both for wildlife and for people who have found a refuge in the natural setting of Central Park. It’s about looking at nature in an urban environment in a different way; nature surrounds us wherever we are. Ultimately, it’s about the people: tough-as-nails New Yorkers who want to have a connection with nature.

Can you explain the “Central Park Effect”?
It’s a not-very-well-known ornithological term: whenever you have a relatively pristine piece of nature—a relatively sizeable piece of green—in the middle of a vast sea of concrete and buildings and bridges, it’s going to be a magnet for all of the birds in the area. You end up with a lot more birds per acre in Central Park than you would in some other places, like New Jersey, where there are more trees and water all around. That makes Central Park a great spot for birding. I meant the title to have a double meaning, referring to both the park’s effect on birds and on people.

What made you decide to make a documentary about birds and birders? Are birds a particular interest of yours?
I actually am a birder, but I’m not like a lot of the people in the film, who have been birders all their lives. I grew up in the suburbs of California with a creek in my backyard; I went camping, on hikes. When I moved to New York City in my twenties, I found myself visiting natural parks, photographing wildlife, and I started noticing the birds and identifying them. I had heard Central Park was good for birds, but I didn’t quite believe it until I gave it a shot. It was Central Park that took me from being a very casual lover of nature and a very, very casual birder to a more serious birder.

You talked to some very diverse people who all share a common love of birds. Do any of them have careers that relate to birding?
Most birders do not have any kind of professional life in birds, even though they would love it. One woman is a painter, though; a professional artist who specializes in birds. Other than that, very few people’s careers relate to birding. Some of those people in the park I’ve known for close to 10 years, but I don’t even know what a lot of them do outside the park. It’s not really what’s discussed in the park; what gets discussed is birds. Also, a lot of birders don’t have a lot of money; once you’ve bought a pair of binoculars for $100, you’re pretty much good to go. You can get on the A train and go to Central Park and look at birds.

In the film, one of the birders noted the irony that Central Park is man-made—a “toy environment.” Is there a social commentary here about how we define nature?
It’s true that it is a kind of fake nature. It’s completely man-made, human-made; the water can be turned off with a spigot, the lakes aren’t very deep. But then again, is it really a fake nature? Because when a bird lands there and takes shelter in a tree there, finds water to drink and worms to eat, isn’t that real to them? We’re in this 21st-century idea of what nature is—We have manipulated almost every corner of the Earth, but in the park, the trees are still real, the bugs are real, the birds are real. Urban habitats turn out to be perfectly valid habitats for nature.

In the rolling credits at the end of the film, you listed all of the species of birds that appear in the film, even before your own name. Why?
I wanted to give the audience the impression of how many species of birds were really in that film; there are 117 species in the film. HBO bought it as a finished film and requested one change: that the names of the birds go first in the end credits, instead of after the names of the humans. I was thrilled, I had thought I was getting away with something by putting them in at all.
The Central Park Conservancy, the people who take care of Central Park—they do a good job of keeping parts of the park hospitable to birds. They actively encourage it as a habitat for wildlife.

The film is split into parts based on the seasons, starting and ending with spring. Do I sense symbolism there?
I think there is some symbolism there, but it wasn’t necessarily my intention. I tried to start with strength and end with strength, and in the birding world, spring is the best season. It’s when all the birds come back, when the birds have their most colorful plumage, when they sing; it’s the most glorious season of the year to go birding.

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