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.


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?

Super PAC-hyderms: Advertising’s political heavyweights

The eye of an asian elephant at Elephant Natur...

The eye of an Asian elephant at Elephant Nature Park, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Something’s been weighing on me, like the elephant in the room. The one on my flat-screen TV.

More elephants seem exploited in commercials lately, and I’m concerned not only for the welfare of the animal “actors” but whether there’s a hidden political message here.

The gentle giants are used to being saddled with political freight. Not only is the elephant the symbol of a political party in the US of A, in northern India in January 2012, all the elephant statues in Uttar Pradesh state were covered in pink and yellow tarps.  It wasn’t a new Christo installation; the national election commission ruled that those elephants, a symbol of a local political party, might unfairly sway voters in the March 3 election.

Well, there’s an election going on here as well, and I’m thinking this trunkload of ads may constitute free political air time so… where are all the donkey ad divas? Showing Juan Valdez picking coffee beans and leading his sad burro around would hardly be politically correct in this global climate of  turn-up-the-heat-against-illegal immigration.

First, a history lesson. Why the donkey and the elephant, again?

The Donkey— Bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson was the first Democrat associated with the donkey symbol. His 1828 presidential rivals tried to label him a “jackass” for his populist beliefs. Jackson was only amused and ran with it on his campaign posters. “Nasty” cartoonist Thomas Nast, also the creator of the American-style Santa Claus and Uncle Sam,  is credited with hitching the donkey to the Democratic Party. He used it to represent an anti-Civil War faction in a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly in 1870. Unsure why he couldn’t have come up with a dove-hawk concept, but no sense rewriting history.

The first political elephant, as depicted by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly in 1874.

The Elephant— Again, credit Nast. In a 1874 Harper’s Weekly cartoon, he drew a donkey clothed in lion’s skin, trying to shoo away zoo animals. An elephant in the panel, labeled “The Republican Vote,” sealed the deal. Unsure why he wouldn’t have used an albatross, but there you go.

Back to marketing. As someone perennially trying to lose weight, I take offense that the poor elephant is always the butt of big-butt jokes. In today’s ads, this king of the land mammals is cast as burdensome or hard to accommodate.

There’s the recurring weight-of-the-world, near-death allusion for Spiriva inhalers, targeted at sufferers of COPD:

Then the Residence Inn’s resident elephant, Opal, who finally has room to breathe in her spacious suite. What they should really do is build theater and airplane seats to accommodate her — more in line with national concerns. A behind-the-scenes look:

And the ads:

The Marriott-owned chain has variations on this theme using giraffes and penguins, but not as unforgettable.

There’s also the elephant selling the Samsung Galaxy tablet, refreshingly smart and real:

(A funny comment from viewer livkivi: “Great advertisement! Yep, you convinced me, im gonna buy an elephant!”)

I’ve done my marketing research, and there’s nothing new in the elephant toolbox. Tonka played its own elephant joke in the 1970s, complete with circus trick and music:

Rolo’s rollicking take:

Kleenex’s tear-jerker:

Pier I’s Kamba series:

Can’t forget MasterCard’s priceless vignette:

You’ll want to forget this banned Viera plasma TV ad, and forget I shared it:

Elephants even test well overseas:

Besides the Republican Party, tons of businesses and organizations have used the elephant as part of its branding — from the Animal Planet channel to Elephant Malt Liquor.

What does it all MEAN, besides that I can recognize taxonomy and know how to Google and embed video on my blog?

Give it a break already. Unburden these beasts from their heavy-handed symbolism.

The point is, I’m sick of animals doing double duty as pitchmen for corporations and politics (same thing). And I’m not only sick of the two-party system, I’m sick of the symbols for the two parties.

Let’s start over. Why let some 19th-century loony bigoted artist define today’s political rivalry? Let’s send the modern Mad Men back to the drawing board to come up with something better that truly defines and differentiates these parties for us. At least give the Democrats a dolphin or something on par with the elephant’s dominance, training, aesthetics and smarts  (see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Or a mouse to better serve as a contrast (again, see Hitchhiker’s). Maybe let the parties figure it out, decide what and who they truly represent.

Better symbol for the Republican Party? You vote.

The Democrats could have the northern spotted owl as the true “conservative” (read “conservation”) party. Or an ant/bee, representing workers. Republicans could have a squirrel, hoarding up those nuts for a rainy day, stashing  (not sharing) the wealth. Or is it that Republicans like being represented as a trampling elephant? Maybe a bull, for bull market?  I dunno, work with me here. If it’s about throwing weight around, a bull sea lion may combine it all.

Sadly, the dove-hawk distinction no longer applies.

A proliferating concept NOT conceived by Thomas Nast.

Oh! Mustn’t forget Libertarians. They should get an animal, too.  What animal lives with fierce abandon?

A bunny rabbit!

Speaking of skewed symbolism: Happy Easter, peeps. Yet another excuse to add girth to our jelly bellies — and better resemble elephants.

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