Can obsession ever be adequately explained? Many birders know from hard experience the answer is no. But at what point does obsession bloom out of mere fascination? When does it cross over into addiction? These are the questions taken up by a fascinating new documentary called Poached, in theaters and available for screenings now.
Poached is not a bird watching film, despite its ample footage of birds—eagles, plovers, avocets, goshawks, to name a few. The title refers not to a classically English way of making breakfast, either, but to the illegal hobby of stealing eggs from wild birds’ nests. Long practiced by boys roaming the British countryside, egg collecting was outlawed in 1954 in the U.K., but has lived on as an illicit thrill for a small number of practitioners.
These men (and they apparently are all men) hoard eggs by the hundreds or thousands, slowly transforming into hermits as they amass collections they can never show off. Doggedly pursuing them is a team of detectives from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who simply shake their heads at what drives these collectors, even as they track them down.
The film’s director, Timothy Wheeler, introduces us to five poachers, all but one of them reformed; several of them with regional English accents so thick they’ve been subtitled. In extended interviews they speak candidly, and with a touch of pride, about a pursuit the general public regards as somewhere between deplorable and sick.
They lead us out into the field to demonstrate the basics: how to ruffle the grass with a trekking pole to flush nesting birds; how to climb a tree without ropes; how to blow out egg contents; how to hide eggs from the police.
One long thread of the movie follows John Kinsley, a hapless ex-collector who’s trying to get his life back on track. He means well, and some moments, particularly with his 6-year-old son, are both sweet and funny. Yet in an astonishing long take, we see him wrestle with the decision to acquire a large collection of eggs from an antique dealer. He’s been working for years to develop credibility as a nature photographer, and now he’s terrified of being caught. Anyone who has struggled with a self-destructive friend will recognize the tangle of rationalizations, best intentions, and excuses that pour out of him. He’s the only one who can’t understand how he got into this jam.
Playing against Kinsley’s muddle of good intentions is the conflicted but self-assured Matthew Gonshaw. He’s a truly notorious poacher whose obsession has taken him to prison four times and left him banned from Scotland indefinitely. In his fifties, with a round, bony skull and narrow-set brown eyes, Gonshaw looks rather like a nestling bird himself.
He’s quite possibly a thoroughly unpleasant person, so it’s a tribute to the film that he wins back some sympathy from us. In plaintive discussions about his egg collecting, we see echoes of an addict’s downward spiral—an estranged family; a failed relationship; an apartment that is little more than a yoga mat and a pet finch. Most of his possessions have been seized by police. He speaks to the camera from a single chair pushed up against one bare wall.
Contrasted against these egg-obsessed men is a group of nest guardians who keep watch over rare White-tailed Sea-Eagle nests in Scotland. Is it a coincidence that the nest guardians are mostly women? Whereas the men seem motivated by adventure—finding nests, eluding authorities, gaining notoriety—the women speak simply about the bond between mother and child. “I know you—the egg thief—don’t care,” a guardian says, reprovingly. “You should care.”
A ray of hope arrives with a man named Mark Lawrence. He has managed to transfer his egg obsession into a volunteer position banding birds for the British Trust for Ornithology. Now, when he finds nests, he leaves the eggs alone, slips a numbered metal band on the birds’ ankles, and reports the data to the BTO.
It’s a win-win for him and for researchers, who recognize that egg poachers are some of the very best nest finders in Britain. As a birder, I wished for a bit more on this topic of the poachers’ skill as naturalists. In summer, birds are nesting all around us, everywhere. Yet how do you zero in on even one nest within that tangle of green?
To its credit, the movie retains its focus on how something as trivial as a drawer full of eggshells can lead people to jeopardize their lives and marginalize their futures. “Without passion you’ve got nothing in life,” is as close as any of them comes to offering a reason. And if there’s anything to envy in these men, it’s that they have felt so strong a passion. Any bird watcher who has ever stumbled upon a longed-for bird in some misty sunrise will relate. Just don’t try to explain it to your friends.
Poached is a 90-minute documentary directed by Timothy Wheeler. It won Best of Festival at the 2015 International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana and is in select theaters during fall 2015 and winter 2016. You can find a showing near you or request a screening in your area here.
Watch the Poached trailer:
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