In many cities across America, giant screen theaters are becoming windows into one of the most important—yet little known—ecosystems in North America. Spanning much of western Canada, North and South Dakota, parts of Minnesota, Montana, and Iowa sits the nearly 300,000-square-mile prairie wetlands, the most important bird nursery on our planet. That’s the subject and setting of Wings Over Water, one of the most epic bird films ever produced that is being released across North America and the globe in coming months.
Fly over the prairie wetlands and what you see is a nearly even mix of water and grasslands, as the landscape is pock-marked with millions of small, shallow potholes, ponds, and marshes surrounded by amber waves of grasses. It is the proximity of water to nesting cover that makes the region so productive for water birds—more than 200 species in all. This dimpled land was created by the scraping and dozing of glaciers during the last Ice Age and remains as a gift to anyone who counts themself a birder which, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey, is roughly 45 million Americans.
“It is our continent’s Amazon,” says Charlie Potter, the film’s Executive Producer and President and CEO of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation. “It’s important that North Americans understand how important this ecosystem is to billions of migratory birds, to the air we breathe and for what it does to recharge all-important groundwater aquifers.”
Nearly three years ago, on the heels of a report issued by The Cornell Lab that North America has lost nearly three billion birds since 1970 (nearly a third of our entire continental bird population), Potter convened a blue-chip panel of migratory bird scientists, conservation leaders, and influential philanthropists at the McGraw headquarters near Chicago. Chief among the group were senior executives and board members from Ducks Unlimited (DU) and Ducks Unlimited Canada, the wetlands conservation heavyweight with 700,000 members across the US and Canada. No group better understands the importance of the prairie wetlands than DU, for they’ve been working to save and restore habitat in this region for going on 85 years, now having conserved some 15 million acres across the continent—much of it in the prairies.
The upshot from the meeting was that while there has been a great deal of conservation success on the prairies thanks to DU and others, the ecosystem itself suffers from something of an identity crisis. “Most people know of the Amazon, Serengeti, and Everglades,” says Potter, “but few Americans have ever heard of the prairie wetlands, and we can’t expect average citizens to work to save something they know little about.”
That’s where the idea of producing an IMAX film became the cornerstone of a much broader mission to help brand the prairie wetlands, elevating awareness of the region to something more on par with other of the world’s famous wild places. “The idea wasn’t so much to make a movie,” says Potter, “as it was to ignite a movement to save the prairies.”
Much of the drastic decline in continental bird numbers can be attributed to the loss of prairie habitats. According to Cornell, grassland bird species have declined by 53 percent, or 720 million birds over the last half century. In dry years, it’s easy to convert wetlands to crops by plowing through them, forever altering the region’s ability to produce wildlife. As the pressure to feed a hungry planet intensifies—especially with the disruption of grain production in Ukraine—the challenge to save the prairies will be increasingly nuanced. Educating and enlisting the support of the public, mainstream media, political and agency leaders from Washington DC to Ottawa, and state and provincial leaders is part of a long-term strategy to build support for sustainable conservation measures across the prairies.
A key to that is working with farmers and ranchers to find ways to produce both food and birds. For Adam Putnam, former Florida congressman turned DU CEO, working with agriculture is something he’s done for much of his career. He formerly served as Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture, and it didn’t take him long to reach out to the farming community in his new role at DU.
Celebrating the positive role farmers can play on the prairies is a key element of the film, for 90 percent of the ducks produced on the prairies originate on private farmlands. Additionally, some 70 percent of all the ducks in North America are hatched on the prairies, so it’s no surprise that DU has identified the prairie wetlands as the most important and threatened waterfowl habitat on the continent.
“The film does a brilliant job of showcasing the beauty and importance of the prairies,” says Putnam. “For people who will never set foot on them, this film is the next best thing to help them understand just how vital this ecosystem is to both people and wildlife.”
The producers enlisted Academy Award nominated filmmaker Andrew Young and the best bird cinematographers in the IMAX world to create the stunning film that was more than two years in the making. In addition, they attached Hollywood A-lister Michael Keaton to narrate the film—who better than Birdman? Moreover, to add some star power to a crane courtship sequence, the producers went to Grammy winner Huey Lewis to secure rights to his chart-topper, Power of Love. What most people don’t know is that both Keaton and Lewis have long supported conservation causes, so signing on to Wings Over Water was, well, a natural.
With millions of self-described bird lovers in America and the support of both Ducks Unlimited and the National Audubon Society to activate local audiences, “We’re seeing a great deal of interest in the film from theaters across not only North America but the globe,” says Amber Hawtin of Toronto-based SK Films, the international distributor of Wings Over Water.
“The ability of IMAX and Giant Screen films, which often stay in theaters and institutions for six months to a year, to impact communities and school systems is unmatched,” says Hawtin. “Family and school field trip visits to these important venues are the perfect avenue to reach the hearts and minds of future conservation leaders and influencers.”
In addition, Potter is working with Capturing Kids’ Hearts, one of the largest teacher training companies in America, to take content shot for the film and integrate it into their proprietary school channel reaching thousands of school systems across America. “We’re excited to showcase the importance of the prairie wetlands to millions of teachers and students across the country with the film’s unforgettable imagery,” says Flip Flippen, the founder of Capturing Kids’ Hearts.
“The school systems and curriculum that has been built around the film has an additional goal of driving audiences to theaters,” says Potter. “Create interest, elevate awareness, and motivate people to be champions of the prairies—it’s really that simple.”
For Sam Reiman of the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation, hosting a recent premiere gala for the film was a chance to advance their own national conservation efforts, and to engage Pittsburgh in the effort to preserve the prairie wetlands.
“Like the producers of Wings Over Water, we see this amazing film as our chance to be involved in fundamentally changing the way people view their role in the future of conservation. Part of being leaders is forging new paths forward…and we know that we don’t have time to waste.”
For the millions of birds that depend on the ever-shrinking prairies, no statement could be more true.