Wildlife sounds like birdsong are common background sounds in our everyday lives. In fact, they make such a good ambience for natural spaces that they are often used to simulate the outdoors. This is especially true in movies and on TV, where bird calls help set the tone for outdoor scenes. Have you ever heard a birdcall in a film or TV show and wondered what made that sound? In this Biologist Ruins Everything post, we’ll review the 12 most common bird calls in movies and TV.
For each species, I’ve embedded a recording from the fantastic nature-sounds database, xeno-canto.org. Be sure to visit the webpage and support their important work!
1. Red-tailed hawk
One of the most common bird calls in movies and TV is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). This large, soaring hawk has a huge range throughout North America. However, its screeching cry plays out in fictional settings all over the world, most notably in desert environments. Furthermore, the red-tailed hawk’s call stands in for eagles and other birds of prey that make less intimidating sounds.
For example, the eagles in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies are all “voiced” by red-tails!
2. Common chaffinch
The common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) is typically used in suburban scenes like parks and backyards. Normally, this bird’s cheerful, twittery, chirping song can be heard throughout Europe and Western Asia. However, these feathered celebs have had their voiceovers used in movies throughout the Americas and South Asia as well!
3. Common loon
The common loon or Northern diver (Gavia immer) is a large waterbird that lives in North America and the Atlantic coast. They have a variety of spooky, mournful calls delivered with a loud and quavering voice. It’s no wonder that loon calls are the backdrop for all sorts of spooky outdoor scenes in films and TV. In particular, you’ll hear them in wilderness scenes that occur in deep isolation.
If you listen carefully, you’ll pick up on loon calls in episodes of Game of thrones and Rick and Morty and movies like Harry Potter. Again, loon calls pop up in all sorts of inappropriate locations, from deserts (this is a waterbird, remember!) to tropical Asian rainforests. In one of my favorite examples, there’s a loon call at Thanos’ wilderness cottage in Avengers: Infinity War.
If you’ve ever watched a film with a jungle or exotic wilderness scene, you’ve probably heard the call of the peacock or Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus). Although they live exclusively on the Indian subcontinent, peacock’s wild cries show up in films taking place in Africa and even South America.
5. Screaming piha
Here’s one you’ve probably never heard of! The screaming piha (Lipaugus vociferans) is, as both its common and scientific name suggest, one loud bird. In fact, it belongs to the tropical Cotinga family, which includes some of the loudest bird species on Earth.
The screaming piha has a fantastic, high-pitched, whistling song that echoes through South American rainforests. Somewhat more fittingly, filmmakers use it in jungle scenes, many of which are in the Americas. One great example is in the famous 1986 action movie Predator, which features this bird throughout. You can also hear the screaming piha in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark!
6. Great-horned owl
The great-horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is one of the most widespread owls in North America. Because of this, a lot of people, particularly in Hollywood, associate its hooting call with nightfall. Because of this, you’ll hear the great-horn signifying the setting sun and dead of the night in all kinds of series and films. Additionally, this sound effect features prominently in video games to signal nighttime.
7. Eastern wood-pewee
This delightful little flycatcher frequents deciduous forests in Eastern North America during the breeding season. It’s also a migratory bird species, spending winter months in Northern South America. As you might guess, the Eastern wood-pewee’s name comes in part from it’s adorable song. While flycatchers tend to have pretty rudimentary songs, the pewee’s is somewhat melodic. It typically consists of two phrases, one with a sort of hopeful inflection, and another, softer one that sounds almost sad.
You can hear the Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) as a charming background noise in forest and outdoor scenes in all kinds of media. Notably, it features prominently in outdoor scenes in the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series.
8. Tawny owl
Tawny owls (Strix aluco) may not be familiar to many readers in North America, since they only occur in Europe and Asia. Nonetheless, their high-pitched, kind of spooky call is familiar to movie-watchers all over the world. Just like the great-horned owl, it is now a symbolic sound for the evening. Keep an ear out for the tawny’s voice every time you watch a night-time camping scene!
9. Herring gull
If you have watched a scene taking place on a boat or by the shore, you’ve heard the calls of Herring gulls (Larus argentatus). These large-bodied, common gulls are indeed quite common along coastlines and increasingly inland throughout North America. However, like many other gulls, they don’t go far out to sea! Despite this, filmmakers have taken plenty of liberty inserting their calls into scenes taking place far out in the open ocean. You can catch this pesky bird’s cries throughout films like Pirates of the Caribbean.
10. Laughing kookaburra
Among birds with absolutely iconic voices, the laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) may top the list. If you heard this sound outdoors (provided you weren’t an Aussie and in-the-know!) you might think it were a monkey. In fact, this big-headed bird actually belongs to the kingfisher family Alcedinidae, although it doesn’t stick that close to water. Despite the fact that kookaburras are native to dry eucalyptus forests in Eastern Australia, their memorable song shows up all over the place. For example, kookaburra calls feature prominently in the 1961noir film Cape Fear, although it takes place in the American Southeast.
11. European robin
Recently voted as Britain’s national bird, the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is one bird whose movie-stardom matches its social prominence. A totally different bird from the American robin, this charming little animal is part of the old-world flycatcher family Muscicapidae. Robins give a tinkling, sunny little song in parks, gardens, and open natural areas throughout much of Europe. You’ll hear them in outdoor garden scenes in lots of films and TV series. Fortunately, these are often geographically accurate, like period dramas taking place in England, for example.
12. Cactus wren
“There ain’t enough room in this town for the two of us,” growls the lone gunman, as this bird rattles dryly in the background. The cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) is a spunky, adorable little bird that nest in cacti in deserts of the Americas. Because of its use in country Westerns and other parched works of cinema, their song symbolizes a dry, parched landscape and harsh conditions. If you’re watching tumbleweeds drift across the screen, chances are you’ll be hearing this bird’s harsh voice around the same time!
Thanks for reading about common bird calls in movies and TV!
I hope you enjoyed this Biologist Ruins Everything post! Have you heard a bird you recognized on TV or in a movie recently? Share with us in the comments! Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’ve got additional ideas for blog posts. You can do that using the Contact page or by getting in touch via Social Media.