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The Piha
Stays in
the Picture

The Mapari Creek is a cacophony of life. A tributary of the wide and muddy Rupununi River, the creek’s mouth marks a stark border between Guyana’s southern Savannah and the densely forested Kanuku Mountains, home to 60 percent of the nation’s bird and 80 percent of its mammal species. That sudden shift from parched and rustling tall grass to sweating green and ubiquitous life makes the wall of sound common to all jungles—the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder,” as Werner Herzog described a rainforest’s din while filming Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian Amazon—unusually deafening.

Drifting along the crystal clear creek in a couple of tin fishing boats, ducking under fallen mora trees, watching stingrays glide along the sandy bed, and praying that the Venezuelan suntiger tarantula perched on yonder tree won’t plop down onto the planks with us as we pass under it, we’re encased in a wall of chirping, groaning, screeching, unseen things.

Yet as we float through the chaos of the rainforest, one call breaks through the din. A three-note birdsong sounding every few seconds, it starts as a shrill, sudden , pausing just momentarily before erupting again into a loud wi-ō, which itself rapidly decrescendos back into the brush. Cutting and powerful, the call dominates the hills.

I’ve never been to this jungle before, and although observant and curious about nature, I’m not much of a birder. So the racket of its peculiar life ought to be utterly foreign to me. And a call this piercing and incessant ought to unnerve me. But instead I feel the itch of nostalgia and find my head swiveling about in search of a familiar shape in the branches. Somehow, I feel like I already know this call.

“You recognize that bird, right?” asks Ash. A British immigrant who moved to Guyana as a teenager in the 1980s, he’s spent the past three decades working throughout the Rupununi, marrying into a local Makushi Amerindian village, and building himself into one of the stoutest conservationists and most skilled guides in the region. “That’s the screaming piha. You’ve probably heard it before because it’s used for the soundtrack of most jungle movies, no matter where they’re meant to be set.”

An unusually drab member of the often colorful Cotingidae family, which includes Guyana’s beloved, bizarre cocks-of-the-rock, these dull gray, thrush-like birds hang out in little leks (or singing groups) all over Amazonia and Brazil’s Atlantic forests. Although utterly common and visually uninspiring out there, they are still distinctively South American birds.

Yet older birdwatchers may recall their call from old Jungle Jim and Tarzan flicks set somewhere in Asia or Africa, respectively. Baby Boomers may know them from movies like Apocalypse Now, filmed in the Philippines and set in Vietnam; Gen Xers from Predator, set and shot in Central America; Millennials from A.I. Artificial Intelligence’s overgrown North American forests. There’s no comprehensive database of cinema’s use and misuse of birdcalls, but the screaming piha is so wrongheadedly overused that in 2013 Cage & Aviary Birds editor Rob Innes wryly gave it first place in the roster of misplaced birdsong.

This indiscriminate usage isn’t limited to pihas. Many birds are regularly dislocated for easy ambiance. This oddly acceptable negligence bedevils bird watchers, given Hollywood’s usual attention to ambient detail and internet critics’ habit of eviscerating filmmakers for inaccuracies.

Photo: Dick Daniels/Wikipedia Commons.

“As a film editor, cinephile, and lifelong birder, I first became increasingly aware of—and vexed by—the cavalier misapplication of birdcalls on the sound tracks of films in the 1980s,” David Koeppel told me back in America as I started probing my pre-trip familiarity with the screaming piha. “Movies that otherwise strove for authenticity through historical context, costume, props, geographic setting, etc., were among the most grievous offenders. Why would filmmakers who took such great pains to get everything else just right be so dismissive of their birds?”

Some people, like Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, author of the blog Bill of the Birds, and producer of the podcast This Birding Life, are, if irked, willing to write such errors off. A trifle in the grand scheme of a film’s million elements and expenses, he may not like it but he’s sympathetic to the value filmmakers derive from using birdsong as a sound prop, focusing on emotional resonance and narrative impact for a mass audience over biogeographic accuracy.

But others, like Kimball Garrett, the ornithological collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, think the misuse of birdcalls is less about artistic license and more about blithe ignorance. Garrett fears that Hollywood just recycles a few birdsongs as innocuous-to-insidious tropes because they’re easy to find and producers just don’t give a shit.

There’s probably a little of both forces at work, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Hollywood’s birdsong status quo evolved seemingly invisibly and gradually, although likely through a confluence of chance availability and emotive resonances, creating the present indiscriminate, backgrounding norm. Yet even if there’s no (or minimal) willful disregard for accuracy at play, the end result is worrying. Our acceptance, as a usually garrulous and belligerent viewing public, of this rampant misuse speaks to a flattening of and disengagement with nature. That’s troubling on a cosmic level, distancing us from our roots as creatures of the earth. But it’s also troubling on an artistic level, casually discarding an entire layer of auditory meaning as ambient junk and depriving calls of their potential psychological power by turning them into clichés.

Din and Racket

“I remember as a kid watching The Andy Griffith Show. Opie was lost in the woods and Andy and Barney were trying to find him and there were loons calling,” says Thompson, recalling the first time he ever noticed a bird out of place on TV. “I remember thinking, Wait a minute, there are no loons in North Carolina in the summer. They’re all up in [the northeast and Canada].”

Every birder seems to have a moment like this. For some it was the use of a willow ptarmigan, a tundra bird, in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. For others it was hearing an eastern screech owl in the California suburbs of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. For the artsy and pretentious birder, it may have been the nocturnal blue jay calling before the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.

You really can’t fathom the endless neural itch it causes

But whatever it is, that experience flips a switch in your brain. It’s like learning about kerning, the art of determining the space between letters in signage and typefaces, for the first time: It’s a curiosity and a revelation—until it becomes a raw nerve you cannot escape grating against. From the ubiquitous misuse of the American Southwest’s cactus wrens to modern commercial’s haphazard obsession with morning warblers, you can’t escape this dread awareness because, as the Connecticut naturalist Robert Winkler esoterically jested in Slate in 2002, “A movie set in America containing all the right bird songs is as rare as a Kirtland’s warbler.”

Get it? Because if you don’t, then you really can’t fathom the endless neural itch it causes.

Puzzling over the filmmakers’ choices seems to be almost an essential part of modern birding. WhatBird has a forum for shared stories of frustration. Audubon magazine has published at least one article on the struggle. The New York State Young Birders Club included it in their “You Might Be A Birder If…” list (back when such lists were relevant memes).

Some misplaced birdcalls are unavoidable and thus, as Doug Stotz, a senior conservation ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum and co-author of Neotropical Birds: Ecology and Conservation, sees it, forgivable—even if they do still rub him the wrong way. For example, although Little House on the Prairie was set in Minnesota, Stotz often heard misplaced California quail and scrub jays in the background. But he didn’t fuss over this too much because, rather than inaccuracies added intentionally (or wantonly) for effect, he suspects these birds were just natural background noise picked up while filming in California that editors either couldn’t or didn’t think to scrub out.

But rather than ambient detritus screaming pihas often seem to be intentionally inserted inaccuracies, their calls plucked from Amazonia and placed all over the world to signify jungle in the abstract. The Australian laughing kookaburra and Asian green peafowl get similar treatment—although Stotz notes that in recent years he’s noticed a move away from the kookaburra and towards the piha, perhaps because the kookaburra got too stale. Conversely the baleful near-wolf’s howl of the loon has become synonymous with temperate forests, employed here and there and everywhere directors want to signal wilderness isolation.

Brian, a Makushi man from Yupukari, guiding us through the rainforests near Mapari creek. Photo: Mark Hay

None of that’s quite as bad or blatant as the bald eagle conundrum. A majestic bird visually, our nation’s avian mascot actually makes what Matt Young, collections management leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library (one of the world’s largest repositories of birdcall recordings) describes as “very wimpy… clicky, scratchy, squealy sounds,” which just aren’t bold and brave enough for most directors. So for ages sound designers as a matter of course swapped it out with the kī-erh screech of a red-tailed hawk. You’ll recognize the sound if you ever watched the opening of The Colbert Report—which is apt, because dubbing over a bald eagle to follow the American pack in making it seem more macho is the epitome of the show’s ethos of aggressively populist truthiness. The transposition became so blatant that Young claims for a time even National Geographic swapped out the calls—an argument I’ve been unable to substantiate with any video footage, but which sounds familiar from my childhood.

In a true act of boldness, some directors seem to pump in the wrong birds even when their calls and bodies are central motifs in a film. Stotz has a particular bone to pick with Tim Burton over his Sleepy Hollow, in which cardinals recur as blunt symbolism, despite the fact that these southern birds hadn’t spread to the film’s New York setting by the time the story took place.

“That’s an anachronism as wrong as having Johnny Depp wearing a digital watch” in that movie, argues Stotz, “which they would never do.”

Whither Piha?

No one’s exactly sure why the piha achieved its status. No one’s keeping great records of every usage of the piha, or most other birdsongs, in film. And despite their constant complaints, the birders I’ve spoken to all say that no filmmaker’s ever explained their selection process in detail, unless it happened to be someone boasting about an unusual level of attention to detail.
Yet a betting man’s money would say that the grayish alarmist just happened to be especially audible in early recording materials, tickled the right nerve for enough editors to come into regular rotation, then become an acceptable and common auditory trope for the jungle.

Thompson suspects that pihas were some of the most recognizable voices heard on early b-reel footage, reported audio, or other radio or film reported on site in South America. That makes sense, given the incredible power, frequency, and consistency of their calls. Doubly named for and most studied in regards to its voice (piha is likely tied to the Cofan people of Ecuador’s name for the bird, the onomatopoeious pew-pew yoh; its scientific name is Lipaugus vociferans, a reference to its high-volume talkativity), their call can penetrate through up to 1,300 feet of dense forest. From dawn to dusk, they cry out up to 12 times per minute when they’re excited, for up to 77 percent of that time. Their diets are structured around the need to feed their urge to call out; their necks snap back and then forward with the force of the cry. They come through loud and clear wherever you are in much of South America’s rainforests, and were copiously recorded throughout the mid-20th century in high quality audio, easily accessible via institutions like the Macaulay Library, which has 153 screaming piha calls from 1961 on.

“It’s diagnostic,” agrees Young. “It sticks out. It clearly can be heard above everything else… It might just be a case of somebody heard it and it’s been used over and over.”

Ubiquity and audibility help, but the piha probably engrained itself culturally because, as almost everyone agrees, it somehow sounds inherently jungly as well as loud, distinctive, and clear. Thompson talks about its harsh, piercing qualities as evocative of the fearful unknowns of dense forests, its lilt as uncanny, its constant repetition as primal and disconcerting.

“It’s like the sound of fingers on a blackboard in the back of your head,” he says.

With little exposure to actual jungle sounds, growing up educated by Disney and hokey early nature documentaries, filmmakers likely embraced the dual availability and resonance of this sound, rolling it down a long cultural echo chamber until it was entrenched. Slowly embedded through chance, repetition, and resonance into our brains, stereotypical jungle sounds (the kookaburra and piha) had as much (if not more) meaning and aesthetic value than real sounds themselves for filmmakers and audiences. So they stuck and we accepted them.

That seems to be the formula for other archetypal birds too. Find something loud and available, make sure it has gut resonance with the themes, emotions, or settings of a movie, and run with that ad nauseum. The same logic works for loons—the eerie, distinct, and highly audible criers of the temperate forests whose calls are the light and baleful echo of a terrifying wolf’s howl.

“It takes time [and money] to be accurate,” Young says. “If you know you can just drop something into a scene and it will be dramatic and effective, you just do that.”

Wind of Change

Although they recognize that not many people care about a bird out of place in an otherwise affecting movie, birders try to critique filmmakers on avian accuracy grounds. Sometimes makers and shakers will heed their words, if the critique has a major bearing on the theme or meaning of a scene or film.

Case in point: When the folks behind Roots had Kunta Kinte take his son out at night, they used a Western screech owl for thematic effect. Enough birders were upset about the inclusion of a Western species in what was meant to be 18th century Virginia that they lodged numerous complaints, which Stotz thinks pressured the makers of Roots: The Next Generation two years later to use a more appropriate barn owl for a similar scene. And in another great (but limited) victory, their pestering about a 1980s Folgers coffee ad featuring bird watchers who were, in the first rendering, over-excited about an uninspiring red-winged blackbird got the ad agency to reshoot it with a more interesting great-horned owl instead.

Yet more often than not, they get snubbed. Thompson for one never recalls getting a lick of feedback to any of the criticism he’s put out into the world over years of constant irritation. “It really is just a handful of people that will care,” Stotz says. “Do you spend an extra three days and x-million dollars to make sure that the species of bird that’s calling in the background actually occurs where your movie is set? The answer is usually no.”

Unless you happen to be a birder yourself, or use nature as a key element of your art, that is. Terrence Malick became the birding world’s cinematic hero in 2005 with The New World, for which the bird-watching director digitally reconstructed the now-extinct Carolina parakeet, worked with the Macaulay Library to find its aurally ideal stand-in call, and used dozens of species of birds throughout the movie, each employed in the right area at the right time of year and day and in the right behavioral patterns for 1607 Virginia, as best he could reconstruct it.

The longstanding calculus that makes Malick an outlier may soon change though. Every few years, birders manage to raise a ruckus when golf tournaments pump in misplaced bird sounds to create ambient noise for spectators. In recent years, their criticisms have forced apologies and corrections from officials; in 2000, Sports Illustrated even featured one such ruckus in their yearly “Signs of the Apocalypse” round-up, bringing more attention to the issue than ever.

“I’d noticed it,” says Stotz. “Then it showed up in Sports Illustrated and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m not the only one.’ You think it’s only ten people that care [about this], but it’s a lot more.”

With the advent of social media, birders have taken to the internet to vent their spleen, chastise directors, and point out simple corrections that could have been made in films. According to Thompson, criticism has become more frequent, forcing some sound designers (he thinks) to reevaluate the merits of using generic tropes or symbols in place of a richer and more accurate soundscape from event-to-event, movie-to-movie, or even scene-to-scene.

Making those bespoke adjustments is increasingly easy and cheap now too. In the past you might have needed a researcher to run to the archives and find whatever tropical sounds he or she could; today a researcher can access massive digital databases and find precisely the correct bird for a cinematic task. The Macaulay Library, for instance, fields dozens of Foley art requests annually from filmmakers now that they’ve fully digitized their collection of 175,000 audio and 60,000 video birdsong recordings. They’ve developed a search function, allowing filmmakers to query keywords like regions, behaviors, call types, species, or other salient factors to find the right call for their thematic purposes and the dictates of biogeographical accuracy. You can get so specific with some search tools, says Thompson, that you can even find a particular screaming piha from a section of Minas Gerais, part of Brazil’s Atlantic forest region. Enabling the cost-effective balance of accuracy and effect and allowing filmmakers to skirt even minor criticism about their attention to detail, Young suspects that databases like these will become more popular in the future, moving the film world towards greater accuracy.

If the birders are right and filmmakers are moving towards authenticity, that’s a relief. I want to hear less screaming piha in my jungle films. They may have cultural resonance for me, which is why I noticed them out on the Mapari Creek. But I don’t just want a stereotypical cue that tells me to expect exactly what I’ve already learned to expect. I don’t want rote, neutered eeriness.

I want a rich and textured jungle. I want the chaos I heard in Guyana and elsewhere. I want a din of sound, diversity and intrigue, something that connects me to the realities of jungle noise and wrenches meaning out of that cauldron of cries and wails. That doesn’t preclude stylization. But there’s more to choose from in South America than just the piha, and enough to peruse in other jungles to preclude the necessity of pumping in an Amazonian screamer.

Choosing from that vast pool gives filmmakers infinite room for layering, texturing, stylizing, within a regional milieu. It also gives them perpetual aural novelty and permutation that may well pack more punch than a piha. The imperative to attend to regional authenticity opens up as much potential (if not far more) than the power that’s precluded by taking a sharp left away from reliance on screaming pihas and other frequently misused or misplaced birds.

More importantly though, when floating down a river in the deep hinterland of Guyana, I want screaming piha calls to scare me. I want them to be fingers on the chalkboard in the back of my head—something they can be if you hear them occasionally, but cannot be if you’ve desiccated them to a dry and hackneyed Hollywood familiarity through overexposure. I want the call to remind me of Klaus Kinski’s twisted and tormented visage as he’s haunted by the bird’s cry while slogging through his doomed crusade in the Amazon in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, not of the Predator in Predator. I want the call to remind me, as Herzog said of the jungle, that “in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel.” I don’t want the call to be that cheap suburban novel itself, cut and pasted into a crude and jaded approximation of its natural state.

I yearn for diversity and authenticity in cinematic birdcalls now, because the screaming piha has ruined me. I’ve heard the dissonance of rabid misuse. I can’t unhear it. And it’s driving me mad.

[Top image: Chris Williamson]

Mark Hay
Mark Hay is a freelance writer based out of Brooklyn, N.Y. An incessant carnivore with a special love for organ meat, he jumps at the chance to go on any and every culinary adventure possible. You can find his writings on food and everything else regularly in GOOD, Modern Notion, and VICE—and irregularly all over the place.
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