I am making a new documentary to share the plight of birds in the drought-stricken Southwest, after seeing how human activity changed the lives of birds near Las Vegas. The Public Lives of Birds explores a variety of bird/human cohabitations. The film asks, in this arid and difficult climate, what can we learn from our fellow desert dwellers, birds?
Las Vegas, a city famous for its flashing lights, cannabis dispensaries, and casinos, may not seem the most likely place to experience an environmental epiphany, but for me, that is exactly what happened. Located deep in the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas is experiencing a drought that may one day render the city uninhabitable. The city regularly experiences temperatures exceeding 105 degrees (40 degrees celsius) in the summer months. With water reserves reaching records lows, Las Vegas is feeling the effects of climate change more keenly than most.
When humans terraform a desert, birds are among the first and hardest hit creatures to experience our misfitted attempts to coexist with nature. My documentary examines these relationships, and, with insight from anthropologists and ornithologists,) considers how a deeper understanding of our environment and the ecosystems we inhabit might serve as a tool for combating climate change.
The Problem of Las Vegas
Las Vegas faces its greatest crisis as an urban center. Lake Mead, which provides the water supply for the city as well as wider Nevada, Arizona, California and some of Mexico, continues to drop to historically low levels. Although the past several months have seen improvements, the reservoir remains at or below 35% storage capacity. While the Las Vegas Valley Water District is taking action with various measures, including the implementation of a ‘water smart’ landscapes program, the people of Las Vegas need to change the way they see their environment, and better understand their place within it.
My Journey to the Birds
I relocated to Las Vegas from Los Angeles at the height of the pandemic, and saw the Strip shut down firsthand. This gave me ample opportunity to wander the city’s desolate streets. I was surprised to find birdlife wherever I looked; from Great-tailed grackles to mourning doves. The neighborhoods surrounding the Strip were teeming with life that many of the city’s denizens seemed to ignore, or miss entirely. People’s focus appeared to be on gambling and nightlife; the smokey bars with gaming machines found in every strip mall. Convenience stores and even the local airport seemed geared towards isolating locals from the desert, which was coming alive with wildlife during the lockdown.
It was anthropological fieldwork that led me to Las Vegas, with research focused on the personhood of indigenous casinos; a personhood contingent on the casino’s place in the city’s ecosystem. During my research, I was intent upon experiencing that ecosystem firsthand; traversing Vegas’ many complex, winding pathways. These daily walks through the city, in the blistering heat – an experience akin to being attacked by a giant hair dryer coupled with my observations of bird life led me to realize there was more to the city than casinos.
The People I Met Along the Way
An essential part of ethnographic research is the study of people, and this focus led me to consider the various connections between birdlife and the people of Las Vegas. Embarking on my second feature-length documentary, produced in partnership with Michaela Galindo, I found unexpected links between humans and nature everywhere, and in some unlikely places.
Las Vegas’ Red Rock Audubon chapter, and the many dedicated birdwatchers they support, were my first port of call. There, I found a small group of dedicated individuals, passionate about the Mojave, and willing to rise at unreasonably early hours to spend the day observing and communing with desert life. The connections, however, didn’t stop there. I found myself in touch with an extensive and sometimes labyrinthine exotic bird network that stemmed from bird refuges to entertainers performing on the Strip. All of the connections were different, but reflected a passion for the natural world.
Soon, I found myself in touch with wilderness advocates; master gardeners; burlesque performers; Zen monks; pet crematoriums; pet psychics, and even humane pigeon control companies.
I took inspiration from philosopher Timothy Morton’s observation that the extreme cognitive leap required to fathom the causality between the turn of a key in a car’s ignition and climate change is a starting point to improved understanding. The Public Lives of Birds attempts to bring about a more concrete understanding of the complex networks that bridge human communities and wildlife ecosystems.
[embedded content]Like Aldo Leopold’s popular environmentalist essay collection Sand County Almanac, the intention of the documentary is to bridge the intellectual and emotional; to show as much as to tell. Utilizing a fluid, weaving, mood-based approach to editing, I have attempted to capture what philosopher and anthropologist Francois Laplantine described as “the temporal character of the sensible – chromatic vibrations, the greater or lesser intensity of… overlapping sound flows, the impulses, frustrations, and tiny curves of sentiments”. Sounds emanating from the environment, l like the rush of water, cracking of branches, and roar of cars, are densely layered, in an attempt to envelop the audience in the ecosystem and act as a counterpoint to the action.
How You Can Help, and See Your Name In Our Credits
Would you donate at Kickstarter? With your help we can make this film a similar success. Your funding will enable us to complete the shoot, which is approximately 85% completed, and wrap up post-production, which will include sound design, color grading and more. All donors will receive acknowledgement for their support in the final credits of the film. Our intended completion date is May 2024, with submission to festivals following soon after. Entrance at key documentary film festivals, positive critical reviews, and positive audience feedback from those in nations with the greatest ability to impact climate change are all considered key elements of success. Please take action to support the completion of The Public Life of Birds.
About the Author
David C. Welch is a writer, documentarian and anthropologist, currently based in Las Vegas. His first feature-length documentary ‘The Book of Conrad’ was featured at many international film festivals and he has written for a variety of publications.