Field biology goes to Hollywood

One of the weirder things about my field site is that it is also a Hollywood set. A number of movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed at the LA Arboretum, going back to Tarzan Escapes in the 1930s.

The Arboretum had a regular appearance in the popular 1970s show Fantasy Island. In the opening credits, a midget rings the bell in the Queen Anne Cottage. This is a historic building on the Arboretum grounds that was built in the by the same wealthy California businessman who started the peafowl population in the area.

You can catch the Arboretum in many other films, since it provides a convenient stand in for the jungle a short drive away from downtown Los Angeles. Examples: The Lord of the Flies, Anaconda, The Lost World, Congo, Terminator 2, The African Queen, and too many campy horror flicks to count (Attack of the Giant Leeches?).

Several things were filmed during my three seasons there, leading me to realize that making a movie is a lot like doing field biology. Here’s how:

1. The hours. Field biologists often have to keep the same hours as their study species, working for as long as the animals are active. For some ornithologists, this can mean starting at 4 am. We were lucky with peafowl. They are late risers, coming down from their roosts around 7-8 am. They also tend to take a long siesta in the middle of the day. This meant that we had to work two shifts, coming in for several hours in the morning and returning after lunch until sunset. It made for some long days.

Film crews also seem to work long hours based on the amount of light, since our schedules would often coincide.

2. Tedium and futility. Most of the time spent watching animal behaviour is watching them do very little. Here’s an example: we saw about 20 mating events in 2010, in 500 man-hours of observation time. That’s over 24 hours of sitting quietly for each copulation.

Catching the beasts can be a little bit more active, but you still feel completely useless 90% of the time. Your main activities include: waiting for the animals to show up, looking for the ones you haven’t caught yet, waiting around for your traps to work, and worrying about all the reasons why they aren’t.

A lot of jobs in Hollywood might not be so far off. When AT&T filmed a commercial at the Arboretum last year, we met a guy whose sole responsibility was to keep the peacocks away from the set. His boss gave him a bag of bird seed. It was the cusp of the breeding season, and the crew had decided to place their set right in the middle of one particularly dedicated male’s territory. The poor guy was literally playing tag with that bird all day.

3. Costumes. Important in Hollywood, but also useful when trying to catch birds. After a few weeks in the field, most tend to settle in to a uniform, wearing the same thing nearly every day. If it works and you’ll just be getting dirty again tomorrow, why change?

Field clothes

Waterproof jackets come in handy when catching large birds. From left: Will Roberts, Myra Burrell and Roz Dakin. Photo by Bonny Chan.

This can be a problem when your animals learn to recognize the enemy. Adeline Loyau, a biologist who studied peafowl in France, told me she started wearing disguises when she needed to catch males twice in the same week for an immunological assay. She even tried a wedding dress.

When Myra and I were having trouble catching females, we briefly considered buying an assortment of hats at the Goodwill in Arcadia – but then we realized we could catch the hens quite efficiently with a technique Myra called the “bum rush”. This involved baiting the doorways to some of the buildings on the park grounds and sneaking up behind the females while they were eating, trapping them inside with us.

4. You build things, only to take them down. Before we figured out the bum rush method, my other field assistants and I tried all kinds of snares, nets, traps and blinds of varying degrees of effectiveness. We spent a lot of time tying knots and spray-painting before we’d realize that the latest contraption wasn’t much better than the last.

Drop net for peafowl

This drop net almost worked on a peahen. Adriana and I took it apart to build some other things later.

Making movies is similar: when they filmed the cheerleading movie Fired Up! in 2008, the crew put up an entire section of stadium bleachers right over the pool on the main Arboretum lawn. Seems like they could have found a real stadium on solid ground somewhere else, but I guess other critical features (like lighting or liability issues) can be harder to come by. Putting up a small building could be the least of their worries. This brings up another similarity.

5. Location is everything. I spent six months in Los Angeles because that is where the peacocks are. I hated the driving, and I’m glad I don’t need to go back this year. I do feel a little nostalgic for the sunlight, though.

6. Keeping out the gawkers. Celebrities get a lot of attention from fans and paparazzi. Peacocks also tend to draw crowds when they display their trains, which can be frustrating when your job is to sit quietly for hours waiting for the birds to do something.

Peacock at the Toronto Zoo

Fans gather around a peacock (facing right) at the Toronto Zoo in 2007.

My field assistants and I had to learn the delicate art of ignoring the humans while taking observations. Not that we didn’t do some gawking of our own: on a few slow days when we weren’t catching any birds, a stunt set for the Marmaduke movie was a welcome distraction. The binoculars also came in handy when trying to get a look at Luke Wilson, star of the AT&T commercial. As it turns out, he is not as good looking anymore as you might think.

7. Free food. Because of the long hours, film sets often have buffets. Friendly crew members who noticed the binocular-toting girls wearing in the same raincoats every day would offer to share. Few things are more exciting to a field biologist than an offer of free food. With all the tedium, and building things that don’t work while trying to scrimp on the budget, it seems like a major triumph. Incidentally, the oranges that grow at the Arboretum (and around the suburbs in Arcadia) are delicious.

8. Cleaning up after the stars. Public relations, personal assistants, rehab clinics – entire careers in Hollywood are based on the bad behaviour of the rich and famous. Peafowl, especially the males, can be pretty rotten too: I spent a lot of time cleaning up their bodily fluids. This was the least I could do for my field assistants, who had to take all of the crap while handling the birds.

A peahen inspects Penelope

A peahen inspects Penelope, our stuffed female (right).

7. The fakery. Obvious in Hollywood, but an important part of field work too. Take Penelope, the stuffed female we used to study male courtship displays. The birds could tell something was up: males would only give her sidelong glances unless they were already in display mode. But she was critical for our experiments demonstrating that peacocks orient their iridescent feathers according to the position of the sun1. Without her, there was no way to control female movement, and we needed that to be able to say that sun orientation was due to the male side of the courtship dance.

This brings up an important issue: how much Hollywood-style fakery are we willing to tolerate in the field?

Stay tuned!


  1. Dakin, R. and Montgomerie, R. 2009. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 63: 825-834.

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