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July 17, 2012 2PM EST

Q&A with Jeffrey Kimball

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  • Q

    Please welcome #Birders: The Central Park Effect filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball. Jeffrey, how are you feeling after last night’s premiere?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Great. It's a whole different experience watching it at home knowing that thousands of other people are seeing it at the same time. Plus, it's an indie filmmaker's dream to be surrounded by those familiar HBO "swooshes" at the beginning and end of the film.

  • Q

    Approximately how many different bird species live in Central Park?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    How many birds "live" in Central Park is a little tricky. Mostly, I'll have to answer that by season. Summertime, now, has the lowest diversity because it's mostly only breeding birds, which is probably not much more than 30 species or so. And then perhaps another 10 or so kinds of birds visit the Park during the summer days to feed or roost, but they don't necessarily "live" in the Park, birds such as Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants and Gulls. In the Fall, which in migration terms is basically August through October, the number of bird species swells to well over a hundred, maybe as many as 120 or so, but not necessarily all at one time. Most of these birds will stay only from a few days to maybe a couple of weeks. In the Winter, which begins in November and lasts into March, the species diversity might be something like 50 or 60 species over the course of the season. Unlike the Fall (and Spring) migrants, these winter visitors might stay the entire season, even as long as five or six months. Then there's Spring, when the population of birds in the Park explodes. Starting in March, and peaking in late April and early May, there will be as many as 140 or more different species passing through the Park. Again, this would not be all at one time, but a particularly good day in Spring could yield over a hundred different species.

  • Q

    What can we learn from birds?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    I know what I've learned since I started watching birds closely is that they are very wild. As one of the characters in the film says, they are not cute little cuddly animals. It seems amazing to me now that we didn't really know until the last few decades that birds were descended from dinosaurs. So often when I watch a bird stalking a bug then grabbing it and tearing it apart, I feel like I'm watching a mini-Tyrannosaurus Rex. They are wild, and they are very much a part of nature. I've always loved animals, but I think until I started birding, I had this romanticized view of nature. The other thing, of course, is that I've learned that we must protect them and their habitat. Most bird species are very resilient, they'll adapt to the changing environment. But we have to give them a fighting chance, at least, to keep up with us. It's not good for us or for the earth if we start losing species.

  • Q

    What do you think about nature cohabitating with the city?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    One of the most interesting aspects of making this film was how much I became aware of urban wildlife. We tend to think of city and nature as these two polar opposites that don't and can't have anything to do with each other. Of course, that turns out not to be the case at all. There is nature all around us, and not just in the trees that line our streets or the rats the scurrying along them. As urban sprawl reaches farther and farther out into what was once "the country" we're finding that what used to live in that countryside isn't just retreating further away, it's overlapping with us. We are entering into a sort of 21st Century version of nature where nature is all around us, even in the cities. And I think, with a few exceptions like Mountain Lions in backyards in Los Angeles, that's it's great. I love knowing there are animals and birds around me. And we need to manage urban greenspaces with this in mind. We should encourage migrating birds to spend a few days in our vacant lots or community gardens.

  • Q

    Your film mentioned that a lot of species are in decline – do you think they can be saved?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Well, I'm no expert on this, but obviously it is a passion of mine. It's probably pretty safe to say, that some species are going to continue to have a very hard time. Even if they don't face outright extinction in the near future, some bird populations are going to go into free fall and there will be a very small population left in the decades to come. Birds that depend on grasslands are having a very hard time, for example, because there is not enough appropriate grassland habitat left. As Dr. Fitzpatrick from Cornell says, the three most important reasons for declining bird populations are habitat decline, habitat decline and habitat decline. Just like real estate, it's all about the place. And it's not just here in the US. Many of these birds depend on Canada and South America during their annual wanderings.

  • Q

    Were you an avid birder yourself before creating the film?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Yes. But unlike a number of the people I profiled in the film, I am not a life-long birder. I grew up in Northern California, in the suburbs but we had a creek in our backyard and plenty of wild creatures around, which I loved. My family also spent a lot of time camping in the Sierra Nevada, and the highlight of those trips for me was always the wild animals that we might happen upon. When I moved to New York City for graduate school, I really missed having some sort of connection to nature. I found myself taking my vacations to National Parks and other wilderness areas. Eventually, I started birding on those vacations, but then would come back to the city and put my binoculars away. It was when I discovered birding in Central Park about 10 years ago that I really became an avid birder.

  • Q

    Is it harder to film birds? How long did it take you to make the documentary?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    The laws of photography are almost a conspiracy against getting a good bird shot. You have to use a long lens, which greatly reduces the depth of field, making focus very, very difficult. The warblers particularly, almost never sit still and with the kinds of focal lengths I was using, even moving an inch or so is enough to put the bird out of focus. I started the film about five years ago. The first two years, it was pretty much just me and my camera going into the Park a few times a month in the off seasons, and a few times a week during the migrations, just to get the bird footage. Then I began interviewing people and following the birders around, still going in with a camera sometimes to get bird shots. I almost never filmed birds and people at the same time, so anytime you see a birder look up and the film cuts to a bird, that bird was shot on a different day, maybe even a different year.

  • Q

    Do you have a favorite type of bird?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    The ones with wings. Which is my way of saying I really do like them all. Even pigeons. Of course, there are some that maybe excite me a little more than others. Owls, for sure. And woodpeckers. Loons, herons, falcons, kingfishers, creepers, waxwings, wrens, grosbeaks, I could go on and on. I also really like some of the very common birds, too, like catbirds, mockingbirds, crows and jays.

  • Q

    Where is the best place to go bird watching in Central Park?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    The first place everyone thinks about is the Ramble, which is sort of in the middle of the Park adjacent to the Lake, between 72nd and 79th Streets. The other great spot is the North Woods, which is even larger and more wild than the Ramble. It also has a lot fewer people and should probably not be birded alone by someone not familiar with the Park. There are other good pockets too: Strawberry Fields, Summit Rock, the Great Hill and "Falconer Hill" above the Falconer statue, to name a few. And any place there is water, there is likely to be birds. The Reservoir in winter might have a dozen or so species of ducks, gulls and other water loving birds at any given time.

  • Q

    How did you find Starr Saphir? She’s amazing - so knowledgeable!

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    If you've birded in Central Park very much, it's not hard to "find" Starr. She's almost an institution. She really is a force of nature. A fantastic birder, and a wonderful teacher, she has a very generous spirit. Like all great teachers, she really loves to see somebody learn. She's also very funny and has a lot of charisma. She used to be a professional actress, did a lot of Shakespeare, and that doesn't surprise me at all. She has great stage presence.

  • Q

    Why do you think there is a stigma around bird watching?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    I wouldn't stay "stigma" exactly, but there is, as Jonathan Franzen puts its, an embarrassment factor. There shouldn't be, it's really a great and noble pursuit, but there is this persistent stereo-type of the nerdy social misfit or something. But I also think that's changing. Birding is very green, and it's definitely growing in popularity among younger people. I think for most birders the benefits of birding vastly outweigh the downsides of possibly not appearing cool.

  • Q

    What was the most interesting thing you discovered about bird watching?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Nature in action. I know that sounds obvious, but unless you're a scientist in the field, how many people other than birders spend hundreds or thousands of hours in their life getting to observe first-hand wild animals in all phases of their life cycle. I've seen so many different and interesting behaviors.

  • Q

    How did you hear about the central park effect?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    I first heard about it from Steve Quinn, who leads weekly bird walks in spring and fall for the American Museum of Natural History. He's in charge of all those wonderful dioramas for the Museum, so he's professionally more of an artist than a scientist, but he's tremendously knowledgeable about birds. All the birders in the Park understand the concept of these big patches of green in the middle of the city acting like magnets in attracting birds. But he's the first one I heard use the phrase "Central Park Effect" to describe it. It's an established term in ornithology, albeit a rather obscure one.

  • Q

    I see this is your first film, congrats! What were you doing before?

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    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    It's the first full-length film I've directed, but I've been working in the film business since I got out of the NYU Grad Film School. And before that, I had made a number of short films, both scripted dramas and non-fiction, as well as experimental films and animation. Professionally, I started as a cameraman on documentaries, then worked as an editor on industrials and music videos and eventually ended up doing music supervision for fiction feature films. I founded and ran the music department at Miramax Films in the 1990s. The best known film I put together the music for was Good Will Hunting. I stopped doing music some time ago and have since produced a feature -- a sort of modern-day western -- written an unproduced feature, consulted on various music things, as well as other non-film work.

  • Q

    What made you want to become a filmmaker?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Stanley Kubrick. In my teens, my interests were largely music, literature, drama, and art, but I wasn't particularly gifted at any of them. Around the time I entered college, I was watching a Kubrick movie and I marvelled at how masterfully he had combined all of those disciplines together and I just sort of knew that that's what I wanted to do.

  • Q

    When did Jonathan Franzen get involved with birding? Has he written about it?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Franzen has written extensively about birding. A major element of his latest novel, Freedom, involves the fight to protect breeding habitat for the Cerulean Warbler. He has written several essays about birds and birding, and it was one of those, "My Bird Problem," which gave me the idea for including him in the film. In that essay, he describes how it was in Central Park that he discovered birding.

  • Q

    Think you’ll make another film after this? What other subjects would you want to document?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Oh yes. I have several ideas, too many probably. I'm fascinated by urban wildlife and there are a number of other stories there, but I don't think my next film will be too much like this one.

  • Q

    That’s all the time we have left for our Q&A with Jeffrey Kimball. Thanks for chatting, Jeffrey. Any parting words?

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    A
    Jeffrey Kimball says:

    Over the course of making this film I obviously met and talked with a lot of people, researched the subject and spent a lot of time thinking about it. In the end, I feel like this film may focus on the specific example of Central Park, but it is really about the role of parks and other green space in urban environments. Central Park is not unique in being an urban wildlife refuge. All cities have parks, and if they have bird-friendly habitat, they too are probably full of birds, especially in places that fall in one of the major flyways like the East Seaboard or the Mississippi River. One of the great things about Central Park is that the folks who care for the grounds within the Park, the Central Park Conservancy, are very conscious of their role as stewards of the Park as a habitat for wildlife, especially birds. They have designated areas in the Park that they allow to be as wild as possible. For example, they don't clear out all the unruly undergrowth which birds love as cover. Or, if a tree falls and it's not blocking a path, say, then they'll leave it alone. They'll allow it to decay, to grow fungus, which attracts insects which helps the birds survive. As habitats disappear in the world at large, these urban oases will become increasingly more important for birds, especially migrating birds, and we should encourage the management of Parks, and even backyards or community gardens, with that goal in mind.

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