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Fact-checking the “Migration” Movie: The Truth Behind Universal Studios’ Latest Animated Film

migration movie
Universal Studios/Youtube

Introduction to the Migration Movie

The sight of V-shaped flocks honking across blue skies signals the awe-inspiring phenomenon of bird migration. Universal Studios’ new animated movie, Migration, uses the long-distance journeys merely as a punchline, following a quirky Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) family of Mack, Pam and their two kids, Dax and Gwen, making the trip from New England to tropical, sunny Jamaica.

Behind the film’s cute and humorous story, however, lies a serious situation: North America’s overall bird population has plummeted by 29% just since 1970, equating to a loss of almost 3 billion birds. As humanity fuels widespread threats, nearly half the planet’s bird species are on decline. So while the Migration movie provides family-friendly fun, it may be obscuring an urgent need for action to prevent further decimation of our migratory bird populations.

Not All Mallards Migrate: Meet the Flexible, Adaptive Partial Migrant

In a clever narrative choice, the film spotlights variability in Mallard migration tendencies (although it’s hard to say whether this was the writers’ intention or not). While some wild Mallards migrate seasonally, others adapt to remain in home ponds year-round. Migration decisions differ based on weather severity, competition, age, body size, and more. Ducks also modulate migration distances annually from long-haul to short-hop. Also oddly, the film imagines an improbably unified family unit, whereas in nature, Mallards split up after mating. In fact, young from the same brood often separate as well, so the cute sibling camaraderie of Dax and Gwen is unlikely to be encountered in reality.

Mallards Definitely Don’t Migrate to Jamaica

Any Mallards that live or have lived on the Caribbean island of Jamaica have almost certainly been introduced by humans. Mallards do migrate – sometimes – but with warmer winters in the Northern Hemisphere and across North America, Mallards are less and less likely to migrate south in the winter at all, never mind migrating all the way to Jamaica.

Mack and his family aren’t the only misplaced birds in Migration, though. The Mallard family has to employ the help of a guide in order to find their way to Jamaica. Enter Delroy, a captive macaw and apparent Jamaican native, being held hostage by a (duck-specializing) chef, the film’s antagonist. Delroy, the Jamaican macaw, poses a few problems.

Today, there are no macaw species native to the Caribbean. To give the film’s producers huge credit, we might assume they meant for Delroy to be a Jamaican Red Macaw (Ara gossei), a hypothetical species of Macaw that was described by a Walter Rothschild in the early 1900s but not confirmed since and believed to be extinct (if it ever existed at all). 

Hypothetical presentation of Jamaican Red Macaw – Joseph Smit, 1907
Scarlet Macaw

An observant viewer probably would see in Delroy a stronger resemblance to the iconic and well-recognized Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) (the Jamaican Red Macaw was described as having a bright yellow/gold forehead, crown, and nape). However, Scarlet Macaws do not occur in Jamaica, instead being native to the humid, evergreen forests from southern Mexico to the northern end of South America. So no, I don’t think Delroy would be much help in getting the Mallard family to Jamaica – Costa Rica, maybe?

Family Film Makes Light of Grim Truths

Via an absurd heron encounter, the movie flirts with threatening duck predators but ultimately sidesteps them. Mack and his family encounter a old, witch-like Great Blue Heron couple who lure the family into their swamp abode. In reality, two small ducklings, such as Gwen in particular, who has not even molted in the film, would make an easy meal for a heron of that size. Great Blues are known to eat birds, along with snakes, turtles, insects, and rodents. The film seemed to imply that the herons intended to have the ducks for dinner, but it turned out that the two families came to be friends overnight – heart-warming, but unlikely. 

Likewise, though collision threats make urban giants such as New York City a real “death trap” for birds, the film’s light comedy only implicitly nods to sobering realities. Actual annual estimates of up to 1 billion U.S. bird deaths from building and vehicle strikes are no laughing matter. Amidst the giggles, we must ask, what really awaits migratory birds out in the human-altered world?  

Bird Migration as a Comedy Premise

Migration charmingly celebrates bird migration and family bonds. However, it downplays complex behaviors and glosses over mounting threats that have decimated migratory birds.

During migration, birds heroically traverse continents to access essential foods, nesting grounds, and more hospitable habitats. But their incredible journeys also expose traveling birds to deadly hazards, both natural, such as storms, and human-created, including buildings and habitat destruction. Loss of resting and refueling stops further endangers migrants. Expanding wetlands protections and addressing threats at each phase of migration are conservation priorities.  

Widespread Bird Population Crashes Linked to Human Activity

A landmark 2019 study delivered grave news of a 30% loss in North America’s total birds. That translates to a staggering 3 billion fewer birds in just decades, signaling a troubling biodiversity crisis. Grasslands birds are especially declining due to agricultural intensification and prairie loss, but most habitat types show drops, with predators and invasive species also playing roles. Similarly steep losses up to billions of birds afflict Europe and seabirds worldwide.  

Lots of threats drive declines, from familiar culprits like house cats to insidious factors like light pollution that disorients night migrants. But habitat destruction and climate change deal double blows. Lost breeding and migratory stopover habitats limit bird populations, while warming waters, droughts, and unpredictable weather patterns jeopardize migration timing and food supplies, often causing reproductive failures. Protecting interconnected habitats weaves a lifeline.  

According to the 2022 State of the World’s Birds report, 49% of the globe’s ~11,000 bird species are decreasing while just 6% are increasing, representing dire losses of avian biodiversity. 38% are currently stable. But stability offers limited assurance, as formerly secure species like Atlantic Puffins rapidly nosedive into danger. Already, 12% of the world’s birds hover at imminent risk of extinction from deforestation and other factors. Urgent conservation action is needed to preserve diverse, vibrant bird populations worldwide.

The Plight of the Atlantic Puffin Warns More Perils Ahead  

After near 19th century extinction and restoration success, Atlantic puffins were thriving until recently. But climate-induced warming and fish prey loss have now designated these species as vulnerable. European colonies face collapse, demonstrating even conservation victories risk reversal without thoughtful stewardship of birds and environment together. If the fate of puffins in a changing climate is any indicator, many species may struggle through future migration journeys.  

Spotlighting such adaptable ducks as migration protagonists is rather ironic, given Mallards are themselves exhibiting fresh population declines. The 2023 breeding survey uncovered an 18% drop from 2022, likely reflecting deteriorating wetland habitats and disruptive weather patterns from climate change. Even such a common species warrants more conservation attention in light of unexpected plunges.  

Time to Replace Mirth With Meaningful Action

As family films like Migration employ bird odysseys simply for amusement, stark and steady avian population crashes convey an urgent counterpoint. With nearly 3 in 10 birds lost in recent decades, preserving habitats along entire migration routes is crucial. More broadly, addressing climate change, plastic pollution, and additional threats birds and other wildlife face will require societal commitment for species to migrate safely into the future.

Conclusion

While Migration playfully depicts ducks embarking on a lighthearted migratory lark, the bigger picture for birds worldwide is no laughing matter. As the film’s comedy makes clear, migration serves an important ecological role for birds to access better habitats and resources. However, escalating human-driven threats gravely undermine successful journeys each year. Widespread bird population declines across North America and the globe signal ecosystems dangerously out of balance.

Without thoughtful conservation to protect habitats and address leading causes of avian mortality, the world risks losing billions more migratory songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl. The whimsy of animated ducks can still spark valuable conversations about intensifying pressures birds navigate during epic seasonal voyages. But preserving our planet’s amazing migratory avifauna will require swiftly moving beyond mirth to meaningful action.