A Review: "Watching Sparrows," a DVD by Michael Male and Judy Fieth

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Sage Sparrow (image courtesy of www.birdfilms.com)

Whether you can’t go birding as much as you would like, or don’t have the funds or time to travel much, or you just want a relaxing way to bone up on the “gizz” of North American sparrows before a day in the field, a new DVD out now will meet all of your North American sparrow needs. It is a newly upgraded film by Michael Male and Judy Fieth, called Watching Sparrows, the culmination of stalking the tiny passerines over tundra, desert, mountain, grassland, and stream during three action-packed breeding seasons (action-packed for the filmmakers, that is, and possibly for the birds, too).

Since 1980, Male and Fieth have dedicated their lives to filming birds and other aspects of the natural world. They have made movies for U.S. public television, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Geographic, while contributing to a number of BBC/David Attenborough nature series on birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. In filming A Celebration of Birds with Roger Tory Peterson in 1990 for public television, they spent weeks traveling up the east coast with the legendary inventor of field guides and even saved the life of the 82-year-old in the aftermath of a “rogue wave” off the coast of Maine.

One senses that Male and Fieth’s side projects have been the most rewarding for them of all the achievements listed on their resumes. Watching Sparrows is one such side project, first released in 2002 and re-mastered to great effect in 2010. The updated release offers most of the same “extras” as the original. For example, in “Fun with Songs,” select sparrows’ typical songs are slowed to 50% and then 20% of their actual speed for a fascinating examination of the intricacies of even the simplest sparrow songs. The mini-documentary “The Sharp-Tailed Challenge” depicts Male and Fieth’s pursuit of the Nelson’s and Saltmarsh sparrows. New extras are two episodes of the filmmakers’ Internet series, Little Nature Show. These segments are “Fox Fun,” which briefly chronicles their search for various sub-species of the Fox Sparrow, and “From the Moon to Montana,” which focuses on Male and Fieth’s travails in editing the original Watching Sparrows DVD.  In both of these, we meet our filmmaker-hosts, mild-mannered but earnest individuals with soothing voices that take all the fear out of distinguishing bird species of such largely similar physical attributes.

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Grasshopper Sparrow (image courtesy of www.birdfilms.com)

In the main body of the DVD, Male and Fieth take the viewer through the North American sparrow species in taxonomic order, genus by genus. They tell us about the birds’ field marks. They show us, through easily understood map graphics, the sparrows’ winter, migratory, and breeding ranges, and if and where they are resident.  We learn about environmental threats to the birds, where they are plentiful and where they are not, and, if few members of a species are found within the continental U.S., we are advised of the limited American stretch where they live.  

The narrators describe the birds’ behavior as we observe close-ups of a California Towhee’s “double scratch” foraging method, a Canyon Towhee carrying from the nest the fecal sacs excreted by nestlings, the distinctive differences among the four Fox Sparrow sub-species, and the spectacular skylarking song-flights of the McCown’s Longspur. We hear each bird’s song, no matter how unimpressive (Henslow’s) or intricate (Song Sparrow).  Each species, whether the showy Five-Striped or the modestly adorned Clay-Colored, gets a few minutes of fame, its plumage ruffling in a breeze, or spreading or contracting as it shifts position, singing against a background of pale-blue sky or earth-toned scrubby habitat.

The 2010 footage in the main body of the DVD does not differ from that found in the 2002 release, but the re-mastering by Male and Fieth is exquisite. The grainy quality of the original is obvious when compared to the same scenes now; in the 2010 version, all birds and natural landscapes appear squeaky-clean, with down and contour feathers alike beautifully clear and ready for the enthusiast to admire on a high-definition television.

Another 2010 DVD by Male and Fieth, Watching Warblers West, includes most of the same features as the re-mastered Watching Sparrows, including sparkling visuals, but with a different cast of characters.  Find out how to get these and other DVDs by Michael Male and Judy Fieth by going to http://www.birdfilms.com/index.html.  

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As the first words in the trailer for this DVD suggest, “sparrows define landscapes.” Hearing the unmistakeable sound of a Brewer’s Sparrow song or the insect-like buzzy utterances of a Grasshopper Sparrow evokes immediate mental images of the vegetation communities these birds inhabit.

In the minds of many, sparrows are simply those “LBJs” (little brown jobs), generally devoid of field marks and colorful markings. But if you allow yourself to be seduced by the magnificent vocalizations of sparrows and take a closer look, the fine details and varied hues that make up their subtle plumages will surely shatter this preconception. Mirroring the grasslands and deserts that many sparrow species call home, what appears is drab and uniform in appearance from a distance is anything but when examined at close range.

I’ve enjoyed other works by Michael Male and Judy Fieth, so having just ordered a copy of “Watching Sparrows,” I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enjoy this DVD, which is devoted to one of my favorite groups of birds. Thanks Liz for offering an enthusiastic review of this wonderful work.

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I was glad to do it, Dave! Michael Male & Judy Fieth are especially talented in bringing people intimate views of birds!

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I remember, staying at judy’s mums house in colorado, many years ago yhey, had just recieved an award for the osprey film.

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