The river that flows between the United States and Mexico, constituting half of the border between the countries, has two names: To the north, residents call the watery divide the Rio Grande, and to its south, the Río Bravo.
But in the new documentary “Birders,” released by Netflix on September 25, the distinctions and divisions marked by this border fade into the background. Instead, the river is portrayed as a convening point for migratory birds and a place of unity and common ground for those who love them.
While the initial goal of the film was to tell a story about the U.S.-Mexico relationship, director Otilia Padua decided to approach the topic in an unconventional way. Instead of emphasizing the politics, she sets the main focus on birds and their natural habitats in an ecologically significant region, where migratory flyways and climate zones converge.
“The way you create interest is by making people fall in love with things, and I think it’s really easy to fall in love with birds, because they’re everywhere,” Padua says.
Filmed this past fall, the 37-minute documentary takes viewers on a journey that follows a major avian migratory route at a time of year when hundreds of species are flocking south. The film is filled with stunning border birds such as the Hooded Oriole, Green Jay, and Tropical Kingbird, as well as many, many hawks.
Along the way, the film features birders, guides, and monitors from both sides of the border, ranging from South Texas to Veracruz, Mexico. One of these characters is wildlife photographer Richard Moore, who leads us through various wildlife refuges and ranches in Texas that serve as key stopover points during migration and essential habitat for resident birds.
“People are so attracted to birds,” he says in the beginning of the film. “For one thing, they’re very visual. But I think really what inspires us most about birds is their freedom, their ability to fly wherever and whenever they want.”
The freedom of movement that flying provides birds appears in stark contrast to the reality that humans face at borders around the world. Throughout the film, Padua subtly evokes the underlying tensions surrounding the U.S.-Mexico boundary while keeping the narrative focused on nature and conservation. In many instances, the characters voice their concerns about the current circumstances at the border, which have limited some birders to a single side of the river.
“Some people thought it was too political and some thought it wasn’t political enough,” Moore says of the documentary. “To me, I didn’t think it was about the politics. Otilia was just using the voices of people on both sides of the Rio Grande talking about what birds meant to them and what they’re trying to do to improve conditions for birds.”
To birds, the border has no political connotation. Instead, it is a vital place to replenish their stomachs, raise their young, or rest up for the next leg of their long flight. But the looming construction of a border wall—parts of which appear in the film, creating a sense of disruption to the serene nature surrounding it—does threaten essential habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.
Producer Elena Fortes says she hopes the film’s viewers will gain a deeper appreciation for birds and a general awareness of the dangers they face. During an interview with Audubon, she points to the recent finding that there are estimated to be three billion fewer birds in North America today compared to 1970, while also noting the border wall’s potential impact on several important conservation areas.
On a deeper level, Fortes says the film encourages viewers to look at the idea of migration from a different angle. “At certain points, you’re not sure if we’re talking about birds or humans,” she says. “The issue of migration is kind of a natural drive to look for better conditions for your family. That’s something birds do, and something humans will keep doing whether or not you impose restrictions.”
In one of the final scenes, birders from both countries are gathered on a watchtower in Chichicaxtle, Veracruz, each person peering through a pair of binoculars, children and elders alike. A boy rapidly presses a handheld counter, one click for every hawk he sees, but it seems he can’t keep up with the mass of raptors gliding past. The group is witnessing the annual fall spectacle of the River of Raptors, during which millions of hawks and other southbound birds funnel through Veracruz.
At this point in the film, if only for a moment, the border becomes a mere abstraction. “Regardless of geography, socioeconomics, and the ways that people are being separated, [the birders] shared a passion for birds and for protecting the places where birds migrate,” Padua says. “I really thought it was beautiful to find something that they all had in common.”