Pick a pecking order: How birds and politics mix

The rufous hummingbird was recently named the American Birding Association’s 2014 Bird of the Year. How did it pull that off? Don’t recall any campaigning.

$T2eC16RHJGEFFm6!7qebBRzq,,WZdQ~~60_35We humans take care of that. Explains Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA: “We listen to member ideas, but, so far, the staff makes the call on Bird of the Year.” It’s also based on “geography, cool biology and outrageous beauty — not necessarily in that order,” pipes in Ted Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine.

When promoting birds in general, one can’t help but show favoritism now and then. Artists and artisans do it. Ever wonder why male cardinals grace so many Christmas cards? Are they easier to paint/photograph, or just easier to spot?  (I personally prefer the females.) And what’s the deal with owls lately? It’s not just snowy owl irruptions; there has been an eruption of owl ornamentation in a range of products from home decor to personal wear over the past several years.

Some birds seem perennially and unfairly freighted with symbolism. Consider:

Top 5 symbolic birds

1. Eagle (patriotism). And it coulda been the turkey. See American history, or the Broadway musical “1776,” for the animated explanation.

2. Dove (peace). Still, those male cardinals are giving them a run for their money. What people don’t realize is cardinals are more like Angry Birds than sirens of serenity.

owlaamilne3.  Owl (wisdom). Winnie-the-Pooh’s delightful friend “Wol” is even semi-literate.

4. Turkey (Thanksgiving, sure, but also refers to “a lemon” or a lunkhead). This is probably the first bird every kid learns to draw, outlining their hands then rendering in felt, glue and construction paper.

5.  The twin pillars of the stork (birth & hope) and the raven (death & fear)

Other birds get drawn into the political fray through no fault of their own.

Top 5 political birds

On that whole national bird / state bird thing: It shows a lack of imagination when you have some birds (again with the Northern cardinal) monopolizing seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia) as an emblem. Mention the American robin to sensitive Michiganders, and they may get a little ticked: It’s their state bird even though it’s a migrant in Michigan. Whose decision was this?

Illegal immigration has always been somewhat of an issue for birds — just ask the European starling or house sparrow, or the boat-tailed grackle, which has become a target for hunters eager to “help” control populations. Here are a few other feather rufflers.

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Big Bird makes a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment with Seth Meyers.

1. Big Bird – Embroiled in a 2012 controversy over federal funding of “liberal-leaning” PBS, the good Sesame Street neighbor helped to roast Mitt Romney’s presidential chances.

2. The northern spotted owl / the snowy owl – More owls! The first species was caught up in a Northwest conservation fight / the second, amid this crazy irruption into the Southern states, has been touted by some as evidence of climate change (a politically freighted term all its own).

3. The Canada geese that downed Sully’s aircraft – The risk of bird strikes has triggered miles of legislation and local skirmishes about policing bird nesting areas near airports. A sad tale close to home: the eviction of nesting eagles at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, situated next door to Norfolk International Airport. This is where politics and symbolism intersect. (I blogged about this last year, during March Migration Madness.)

4. The stork – Embodies the idea of sex education, or lack thereof, i.e. how we don’t give our children the straight story, or even the gay story.

5. Poultry — Meaning chicken, as in “tastes like …” Does modern farming of food run afoul of animal rights? Everyone from Whole Foods to PETA has a cock in this fight.

Dear reader, do you have a “pet” wild bird or cause?

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!