Despite its flippant title, For the Birds is a difficult watch. The documentary centres on Kathy Murphy, a rural New Yorker whose decades-long, all-consuming hobby of raising barnyard fowl has raised complaints from family and neighbours. All well and good and quirky, but the health of her approximately two hundred chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys are in jeopardy, and complaints from neighbours lead to animal welfare visits and eventually to court. Compounding the stakes is the film’s considered stance: the birds’ welfare is first and foremost, but Murphy is never dismissed as a crazy bird lady.
Director Richard Miron, making his feature debut, cuts footage of the current legal battle with film from a happier time, before the house was entirely overrun with birds, when Murphy and her husband were active members of their community. The result is an incredibly close and vulnerable portrait. The damage Murphy unwittingly causes to her life and relationships through her lack of control – both her human bonds with husband, children, and neighbours as well as her caretaking duties to her avian family – is palpable. Her bird-hoarding actions, especially the ones that damage the health of her charges, are never defended, but the camera is unfailingly sympathetic to her emotional stress and underlying attachments. This depiction creates some tonal whiplash – one particular sequence portrays a just conclusion that is both joyous and mortifying – but Murphy’s loving hoarding is neither quantifiable nor coherent.
For the Birds struggles to balance compassion and dispassion, not always hitting the right tone or consistency and too short to explore its subject and ethical implications beyond simple observation. That said, its kind lens is a necessary antidote to the shame and vitriol that often accompanies television’s depictions of hoarders, granting all parties dignity.
CAST: Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, Sheila Hyslop
DIRECTOR: Richard Miron
WRITER: Richard Miron
SYNOPSIS: This documentary follows a woman with 200 barnyard birds in her backyard and the ensuing legal battle when she is found in violation of animal care and zoning legislation.