Humans Not The Only Species Feeling the Housing Squeeze: Guest Blog by Mark Bell


First of all…a confession: I’m not much of a birder. Robins, House Sparrows, Cardinals, no problem, but beyond that I am not to be trusted.

So it was a bit of a surprise even to myself when I recently became obsessed with my local population of Chimney Swifts. I noticed them one evening around dusk in my Parkdale neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Their bat-like movements and constant chittering intrigued me and it didn’t take much research for even me to make a positive I.D.


These aerial insectivores spend pretty much all their waking hours in the sky collecting small insects and any other aerial plankton that might be swirling in the air above our heads. You will never see a Chimney Swift land in your backyard, or on your feeder, you will not even see one perching on a branch or on a wire. These birds are in constant motion, and when they are not in flight they retreat to the inner safety of their chosen chimney. So while these city-dwelling birds are easy to spot, they are almost impossible to really see.


Originally they would have lived in the old-growth forests where dead, hollowed out trees provided the sort of deep, protected nesting locations they favour. Ever since we cut down our older forests the Swifts have learned to adapt to the concrete jungles we have built in their place. The architecture of most chimneys mimics the hollow trees they were used to and they can easily cling to and build their nests on the rough brick interiors of these chimneys.


Sadly for Chimney Swifts, the current trend in new construction does not allow for large (or even small) open chimneys, and even older buildings are starting to cap existing chimneys or line them with metal to make them more fire-safe, measures that prevent Swifts from nesting there.


I live in the Parkdale section of Toronto which is blessed with some lovely old buildings from an era when industry once flourished alongside residential areas. The prevalence of older industrial buildings (and their chimneys) in this part of town probably explains why the aerial gymnastics of Chimney Swifts are on constant display here during the summer months.


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Of all the species of songbirds, it is the aerial insectivores that are having the most difficulty in recent years. Many of these are at critically low population counts with some, like the Chimney Swift, down by 95% since 1968. There are many factors involved in this pattern of decline, and in all likelihood, this constant and gradual disappearance of housing opportunities is a contributing factor.



For a city-dweller such as myself, one of the extraordinary things about the Chimney Swift is that I don’t need to travel to the Boreal Forest to catch a glimpse of this rare bird. It can be as easy as sitting on my deck with a coffee, staring up into the sky.

And with only a minimum amount of effort I can take my observations one step further and contribute my data to the Bird Studies Canada SwiftWatch database. Because these birds are in such serious decline, the data that citizen scientists can contribute is of tremendous importance. Gathering information on their numbers and nesting locations helps to keep track of their population and overall health.


Swifts are incredibly elusive, but they have one behavioral trait that is predictable: within 20 minutes before or after sunset they will come home to roost for the night in their chosen chimney.

As a Swift-watcher all I have to do is stake out a chimney in my neighbourhood around sunset and watch to see how many, if any, enter the chimney. You might think staring up a chimney for half an hour might be boring, but there is an unbelievable rush of satisfaction when you are lucky enough to witness a Swift entering a chimney. These birds are incredibly agile and as they swoop and dive they can reach remarkable speeds as they race back and forth collecting dinner in their open beaks, but when they decide to call it a night they will glide over their chimney and for a split-second appear to pause in midair, before dropping themselves down, disappearing into the opening of the chimney. Some go headfirst, others perform a twisting sort of pirouette to slow their entry, others go feet first, but each entry is as elegant as it is mysterious.




Chimney Swift_2946_artuso_crop

I’ve been observing these birds since the Spring. I’ve watched them pair up and take nesting material to their chimneys. (They have a one-nest-per-chimney rule, regardless of how big the chimney is). I’ve seen them making more frequent visits later in the summer, presumably to feed their newly hatched fledglings. I’ve seen families flying in formation in what I can only assume is a kind of flight school for young Swifts. At the end of September I’ve seen them abandon their individual chimneys in favour of group living as they congregate in large groups in a single chimney in preparation for their annual migration to South America. And finally, I made my last observation of a local chimney where a few days earlier I had counted 37 swifts entering. The chimney now stood empty.  Sad to see them go, but of course I wish them a swift journey south (they probably hear that one all the time) and I’m already looking forward to their return in April.


Bird Studies Canada has an excellent website with plenty of details about Chimney Swifts in general and also specific information on the SwiftWatch Program for anyone that would like to contribute data to help preserve these amazing birds.


This video from Nova Scotia posted on YouTube captures both the beauty and the awe Swifts can inspire. Just don’t expect to see quite so many on your first outing!






Photo’s Courtesy of Bird Studies Canada, Christian Artuso, Mark Bell, The Northern Hoot.

Mark Bell 2017







With gratitude, 2016 was a good year for The Messenger. 2017 will be a challenging year for our environment and the world we live in. We hope that the film will continue to inspire and inform.

Winner: Prix Buffon, Paris Science, Le festival international du film scientifique, 2016

Winner: Special Jury Award, Visions of Nature/Voices of Nature Environmental Film Festival 2016

Special Mention for Best Documentary, CinemAmbiente, Italy 2015

Winner: Best Environmental Film Prize, Festival de l’Oiseau et de la Nature, Abbeville Cedex, France 2016

Winner: Best of Fest, International Wildlife Film Festival Missoula, Montana 2016

Winner: Best Theatrical Feature, International Wildlife Film Festival Missoula, Montana 2016

Nominated: Best Cinematography in a Feature Documentary, Canadian Screen Awards 2016

Nominated: Best Editing in Feature Documentary, Canadian Cinema Editors Award 2016

Nominated: for Dutch IntL Science Film Festival NTR Audience Award & Youth Jury Award, 2016

Winner: Whistleblower Award Cinema Verde Environmental Film & Arts Festival, 2016

Winner: Favourite Documentary Feature, North Bay Film Festival, 2016

Winner: Best Conservation Film, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, 2015

Winner: Top Ten Audience Award, Hot Docs 2015

Recipient of the 2015 Carl Nunn Media and Conservation Award presented by Ontario Nature


Now available on itunes in Canada and the USA.




The Messenger Canadian Campus tour kicks off

Toronto,  ON (September 21, 2016)

The award-winning documentary The Messenger is teaming up with Bird Studies Canada to tour Canadian University and college campuses this fall.  The tour kicks off this evening at Dalhousie University in Halifax.  Each screening will be followed by a discussion led by local conservation and biologists. For more information on campus locations, dates and times, see

Confirmed campus locations and dates include:

  • September 21 – Dalhousie, Halifax, NS Hosted by professor Cindy Staicer.
  • September 27- McMaster University – Hamilton, ON Hosted by Instructor Greg Zilderbrant
  • September 28 -Ottawa University – Ottawa, ON Hosted by Professor Scott Simon
  • September 29 – University of Saskatchewan, SK – with Professor Christy Morrissey and Kiel Drake from Bird Studies Canada
  • October 2 – Mount Allison, Sackville, NB, followed by Q+A with Bird Studies Canada and Environment Canada
  • October 2 – Fleming College,  Lindsay, ON  hosted by the City of Kawartha Lakes Environmental Advisory Committee with Director Su Rynard and FLAP’s Michael Mesure in attendance
  • October 5/6 University of Victoria, followed by Q+A with Dr. David Bradley of Bird Studies Canada
  • October 21-23 The Antigonish International Film Festival, NS – Home of St.Francis Xavier Univeristy
  • October 25 The University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC followed by a Q+A with Dr. David Bradley of Birds Studies Canada
  • November 9 Queen’s University, Kingston ON
  • November 9 The University of Guelph, ON followed by a Q+A with Dr. Ryan Norris and others
  • November 10 – The University of Windsor, ON
  • November 10 McGill University, Montreal, QC, presented by Le Nichoir
  • November 15 Lakeland College, Vermilion, AB
  • Date TBA – The University of Western Ontario, ON
  • Date TBA – The University of Regina, SK
  • Date TBA – York University, Toronto, ON with Bridget Stutchbury

We are delighted to be introducing The Messenger to students and educators across the country” says Director Su Rynard.  “Since its premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival, The Messenger has wowed audiences the world over at more than 30 international film festivals and  played in over 100 Cinemas. We are really pleased the film has been so well received.  We hope it is will inspire people to make a difference for not just birds, but the planet too.”

 The Messenger is an international story with high stakes global consequences. The film argues that the decline of songbirds is due to human activity, signalling an uncertain shift in an already fragile ecosystem while warning the uncertain fate of songbirds might mirror our own.

A Hot Docs 2015 ‘Top Ten Audience Favourite’ The Messenger has received several awards including The Best Conservation Program from The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival plus a Canadian Cinema nomination for Best Cinematography in a Feature Documentary and Ontario Nature’s Carl Nunn Impact Award.


Filmed on three continents, The Messenger features a number of Canadian scientists including biologist Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, (Author Silence of the Songbirds and Professor, York University) Erin Bayne, (Biology Professor, University of Alberta)  and Dr. Christy Morrissey (Avian Ecotoxicologist, University of Saskatchewan) and citizen scientist Michael Mesure from FLAP. More on the film participants here.

Without a doubt, The Messenger is the most outstanding film I’ve seen on birds. The fact that it is so strongly science-based, so emotive in its pitch, so beautiful in its design it captivates me and everyone who has had a chance to see it.” – Steven Price, President, Bird Studies Canada

A free study guide will soon be available for educators who wish to use The Messenger in classroom discussions.

Campus organizations wishing to request a screening as part of the tour should send request a screening here.

To book an interview or request an appearance by the filmmakers or the participating  scientists, contact:

Joanne Jackson, Producer, SongbirdbirdSOS Productions Inc.,


Phone +1  416 801 1118

For US inquiries please contact Jeff Tamblyn at Kino Lorber. Jeff Tamblyn ( 212-629-6880

For more information visit




Twitter — @themessengerdoc



90 MIN  English,  (or English with French subtitles)
Directed by Su Rynard

Written by Su Rynard and Sally Blake

Produced by Joanne Jackson, Sally Blake and Martin de la Fouchardière,

Diane Woods and Su Rynard

SongbirdSOS is a Canada/France co-production
Produced by SongbirdSOS Productions and Films à Cinq/ARTE

Produced with participation from the Ontario Media Development Corporation Film Fund,
CBC, ARTE, Canal D and the Rogers Documentary Fund, Canada Media Fund, CNC,

Telefilm International Co-production office, Rogers Telefund, Procirep-Angoa
and the Documentary Organization of Canada.
Developed with the assistance of the CFC-NFB Documentary Program, OMDC,

National Film Board of Canada & David J. Woods Productions.

US Distribution Kino Lorber, International Sales ZED

Distributed in Canada by SongbirdSOS Productions Inc.

Marketing and promotion assistance by Telefilm Canada.

Special thanks to First Weekend Club, Women Make Movies, Hot Docs Deal Maker,

Sunnyside of the Doc and National Outreach partner Bird Studies Canada.

Educators: Stimulate discussion with The Messenger!

Embraced by audiences the world over – The Messenger has had critical festival and North American theatrical success.  Rest assured this is hardly good-bye for the award-winning documentary about songbirds.   Many educators have been asking us if the film can be shown on campuses, in schools and in libraries. Yes, we want The Messenger to be seen and discussed by educators everywhere!  In fact we are even organizing a Canadian Campus Tour in partnership with our National Outreach partner Bird Studies Canada. It kicks off in September.


Ontario Teachers Federation event


The Messenger is the most scientifically sound and beautiful film about songbirds I have ever seen. You heart will be opened to their plight and your brain to the action you can take to help save them.

Steven Price, President, Bird Studies Canada




Those who have seen the film will understand its power to enlighten and challenge students of all ages. Teachers and instructors will find the film inspires interesting discussions about our environment.  It can also be used to explore interdisciplinary connections to the avian issues that are depicted in the film.

Check back in to our Educators page, late October as we will have a free study/discussion guide available for teachers.

Here are just a few subject areas where we think the film has relevance.

  • Climate change
  • Loss of Habitat
  • Nature’s influence on Art and Culture
  • Biodiversity
  • Biology
  • Protecting the environment
  • Agriculture and pesticide use
  • Urbanisation and city planning
  • Advancements in tracking Technology for animals
  • Careers in environmental science and biology
  • Women in Science
  • Nature conservation
  • Photography and Filmmaking

Beyond the subject matter of the film is its innovative approach to capture the film’s subjects in  some ground-breaking cinematography.  A vital tool for filmmaking students working in non-fiction and fiction alike!

Educational DVD’s and Blu Rays have bonus material including behind-the-scenes footage, and a deleted scene.

The film is currently available for Educational use in the USA through our distributor Kino Lorber. 

Canadian libraries and schools can now pre-order The Messenger with institutional/educational and/or public performance rights for late fall delivery. Details here.

Another leading Bird conservation organization had this to say:


The Messenger is riveting, emotionally engaging, and visually extravagant from the first frame to the last. Up-to-the-minute facts on how birds communicate about environmental change are interwoven with gripping stories about the perils faced every year by these amazing world travelers. This is a must-see movie for anybody who values the natural world or wonders about its relationship to humans.    

John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As stunning as The Messenger is in theatres, we expect the film will be appreciated on many small screens in classrooms around the world too.

To participate in the Canadian Campus Tour request a screening here.

For educational purchase, more info here.

If you are interested in a personal use home video, check out this page of our website.



Choose The Messenger Impact Campaign on Giving Tuesday!

You have the power to make a difference for birds and people on Giving Tuesday  Dec. 1.  By choosing Bird Studies Canada  and The Messenger Impact Campaign you will increase awareness about the serious declines of songbirds, and inspire others to take action for the environment and bird conservation.

Birds are environmental indicators and The Messenger offers the opportunity for dialogue and action on the issues raised by the film.  Screenings of The Messenger are now happening all around the world, and everywhere we go people are moved by the film and inspired to take action – for birds, for our eco-system, and for human kind.

 In Canada we are at a critical stage. We are ready to launch a nation wide screening tour, and need your support to make it happen.  Will you help us raise the funds we need to run a successful impact campaign and spread the important message of The Messenger?  Your contribution today  ensures more Canadians from coast to coast can experience the film. Your support also helps to generate the tools and resources we’ll need to empower people to take action for birds. 

Your actions are a vital component of change, and it’s through collective effort that we’ll make the biggest difference.

You can make a secure charitable donation on Bird Studies Canada’s Giving Tuesday webpage.  Please include ‘The Messenger” in the comment box.

If you live in the US or another country, we appreciate contributions to the International Outreach Campaign via Indiegogo crowdfunding.

We were very lucky to film this Golden-winged warbler in Central America. Golden-winged Warblers have declined sharply and now have one of the smallest populations of any bird not on the endangered species list. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates an overall decline of 76 percent.