For the Birds Radio Program: Disney's Crows

Original Air Date: Feb. 2, 1987

Laura heard from the Disney Archives and learned why they design their corvids with bright yellow-orange bills.

Duration: 3′45″


(Recording of “When I See an Elephant Fly”)

That was the song of the American Crow–at least, the subspecies found in the world of Walt Disney. For those of you who might remember, I did a program about crows and ravens just before Christmas. In it I speculated about possible reasons why all the crows and ravens in Disney cartoons have yellow or orange bills. No species of crow, raven, or jackdaw in the real world is anything but all black, and yet Disney’s birds are perfectly recognizable even with their unique beaks.

Well, last week I received a letter from the Walt Disney Archives clearing up this critical matter. The archivist went straight to the man who would know the answer–Ward Kimball, the artist who animated the crows in DUMBO, was a directing animator in many films like PINOCCHIO and ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and directed the Academy Award-winning cartoon IT’S TOUGH TO BE A BIRD, which featured a yellow-orange-billed emcee. Mr. Kimball explained that the color choice was based strictly on artistic reasons. He said, (quote) “We exercise artistic license, and yellow looks very good with black. We’re not ornithologists, and we go with whatever looks good and reads best against our backgrounds.” Mr. Kimball pointed out that yellow or orange and black is a striking color combination, and that black, as a neutral, sometimes gets lost in the shadows. By putting a very bright orange/yellow next to it, it doesn’t get lost.

If it weren’t pleasant enough for me to receive such a complete answer to my question, I also found out that the Disney Archives are now keeping a copy of the script of the “For the Birds” program about THE UGLY DUCKLING in their files. And, just to ice the cake, Mr. Kimball also congratulated me!–believe it or not, I’m the first person who ever asked the Disney Studio about the crucial matter of their birds’ beak color. So remember–you heard it here first. Don’t professional ornithologists ever watch children’s movies? Now I guess I’ll have to write to the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, where much of the finest ornithological research in the country takes place, to find out about the movie-watching habits of ornithologists.

In a totally unrelated matter, when I talked about Gray Jays a couple of weeks ago, I forgot to mention one of the most interesting facts about their nickname, Whisky Jack. It seems the name has absolutely no reference to a fondness for hard liquor–it was derived from an old Indian name, “wiss-ka-chon.” That was corrupted by white people into Whisky John, and then into Whisky Jack.

Finally, I’ve been asked by a couple of listeners what the heck the sound was at the end of the program January 21.

(Recording of a Snowy Owl)

Believe it or not, that was the call of a Snowy Owl, recorded in Sweden. By the way, all the bird calls you hear on this program are kindly provided by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology–whose staff is apparently out taping bird songs and studying real birds all the time instead of watching Disney cartoons. (Recording of a Snowy Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”