Birds in popular culture: Flicks, ’toons and tunes

For those who missed it, I reported in USA TODAY last week on the big birding news that many likely missed.

Bird fans twittered for days about my statement: “Arguably no animal — not even man’s best friend — is as intertwined with human experience as birds, which serve graciously as muse, meat and messenger.”

That bears out in popular culture. A sampling.

5 great under-the-radar bird flicks that aren’t Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (which turned 50 last year):

1. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). This documentary explores the bond between an unemployed musician squatting in San Francisco while tending to a flock of feral cherry-headed conures.

2. Kes (1969). Based on the 1968 novel A Kestral for a Knave, this British film about a boy’s hardscrabble life buoyed by a bird is told in such accented English you might need subtitles or repeated viewings to get all the dialogue. The universal emotion cuts like a knife.

3. Fly Away Home (1996). A Disney-esque tale of a father (Jeff Daniels) and daughter (Anna Paquin) attempting to lead orphaned Canada geese on their migration route.

4. Winged Migration (2001). This spectacular French documentary in the vein of 2005’s must-see March of the Penguins will literally change your worldview.

5. Birdy (1984). Based on the William Wharton novel of the same name, two Vietnam vets deal with their post-traumatic stress in this Alan Parker pearl. One, an avid canary keeper (Matthew Modine), takes his obsession too far and finds sanctuary in believing he is a bird, while the other (Nicolas Cage — aptly named) is enlisted to help free Birdy from his illness.

5 most inspiring TV cartoon birds

1. Road Runner Has an uncanny ability to escape every scrape with danger.

2. WoodstockNamed for the legendary 1969 three-day music and peace festival on Yasgur’s farm in the New York Catskills, Snoopy’s loyal sidekick is famous for busting through pretensions.

3. Woody WoodpeckerVoiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also did Tweety Bird), he’s a rascal who even inspired young boys to imitate his comb-forward hairstyle. (And if you’re still trying to identify what type of woodpecker he is, here’s the definitive word.)

4. Daffy Duck & Donald DuckYou’d think the Looney Tunes mascots might include a loon, but these two resilient comic fowls are linguistic marvels, showing kids everywhere that they can become thhhhomebody even with a thhhhhhpeech impediment.

5. Toucan SamThe mascot for Froot Loops cereal since 1963, he defies birds’ typically inferior sense of smell with an ability to sniff out sugar anytime, anywhere while showcasing an advanced bird brain capable of speaking Pig Latin (OOT-fray OOPS-lay).

6 signature bird songs by humans (selecting just one per decade)

thunderbird11. 1960s: “Surfin’ Bird” — The Trashmen
Released in 1963, it soared to No. 4 on Billboard Hot 100. Its wide appeal and longevity might be explained by it being a blend of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons: Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and The Bird’s the Word, which was sparked by Red Prysock’s radio jingle advertising a cheap brand of wine, Thunderbird: “What’s the word? Thunderbird. How’s it sold? Good and cold. What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price? Thirty twice.”

2. 1970s: “Free Bird” — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Debuted in 1973, it is “the most-requested song in the history of rock music,” says Amazon.com music reviewer Lorry Fleming. The band itself is a bit like a mythical phoenix, having made a comeback after losing key members in a fiery plane crash.

3. 1980s: “The Chicken Dance” — In the repertoire of any wedding band worth its salt
Composed by Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas, the translated name is “The Duck Dance.” The accompanying fad dance, often performed at wedding receptions and safe for the whole family to embarrass themselves with, was introduced to the U.S. in 1981 at Tulsa’s Oktoberfest by the German Heilbronn Band. They wanted to perform it in duck costumes, but couldn’t lay their hands on any, so a local TV station donated a chicken costume, hatching the new name.

4. 1990s: “I Believe I Can Fly” — R. Kelly
Featured on the soundtrack of 1996’s “Space Jam” and forever linked to NBA superman Michael Jordan, the song gained universal fame when used as a wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and, later, on Oct. 13, 2012, as Endeavour’s theme song when the space shuttle program was ceremoniously retired. Given that birds first piqued humankind’s aspiration for flight, this fits even though birds aren’t mentioned (but images of a hawk are overlaid with images of a young basketball player in the official music video, and there were plenty of animated birds in the movie, like Daffy Duck).

Beirne Lowry's eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Beirne Lowry’s eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

5. 2000s: “Where the Stars & Stripes & the Eagle Fly” — Aaron Tippin
Hard to pick just one country song mentioning eagles. Released Sept. 10, 2002, this hit embodies post-9/11 patriotism and the allusion that the eagle and the mystical phoenix are synonymous with the American spirit that continually arises from the ashes.

6. 2010s: “I Like Birds” — The Eels
With childlike awe, this ditty reflects a gentle sensibility and hipster evolution of our love of birds — as understated as a Facebook “like.”

But no song can rival the calming magic of actual birdsong. Happy exploring!

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