For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News

Original Air Date: Aug. 3, 1987

Birds are showing up here and there in magazines.

Duration: 3′11″


Birds in the News

(Recording of a Black-billed Cuckoo)

Birds have been showing up in popular magazines lately. The August Reader’s Digest excerpted a little note about cuckoos from Memphis magazine that reads:

“Some species of cuckoos have raised borrowing or ‘mooching’ to a high art form. Witness: when it comes time to lay her eggs, the cuckoo finds the egg-filled nest of another bird, lays her own egg in it, carefully dispatches one of the original eggs so the count stays the same, and then casually flies off, leaving the foster-parents–smaller songbirds, such as pipits or sparrows or wrens–to raise her chick for her…the cuckoo chick, which usually hatches first, immediately sets about trying to push the other eggs and/or chicks out of the nest altogether.” The author goes on:

“Mrs. Cuckoo …shows no conscience about it. She’s probably back on her perch, reading a good book. Borrowed, of course.”

Now the ornithological information about cuckoos is fairly sound here, except about their book-reading habits, as long as the reader realizes that nest parasitizing cuckoos are strictly Old World species. The two cuckoo species in Minnesota and Wisconsin build their own nests and take care of their own babies. One might think that such a conservative, America-first magazine as the Reader’s Digest would note that it’s collectivist Russian cuckoos, not rugged individualist American ones, that take over the private property of others–they wouldn’t even have to mention that British and West German cuckoos do the same thing. By the way, cuckoos are in the same family as the roadrunner. And, just in case you’re wondering, real roadrunners don’t say “me beep.” They sound like this:

(Recording of a Greater Roadrunner)

That same Reader’s Digest has a classic story by James Thurber, which has no connection to birds except that it’s titled “The Catbird Seat.” Thurber was clearly an urban man who didn’t realize that a real catbird seat is too precarious a place for any human to wish to be in. Although one banded catbird in New Jersey lived ten years, and one in Minnesota lived for seven, about 75% of all catbirds die their first year, from accidents and predation. Whoever coined the phrase “sitting in the catbird seat” must not have known much about real catbirds.

(Recording of a Gray Catbird)

August’s Harpers magazine has a short story in which birds play an important metaphorical role. I wasn’t quite sure how a whip-poor-will’s exuberant singing could be considered “funereal,” but I sure liked how Peter Heller, the author, likened a Blue Jay to both “a little tatter of sky,” and to “kind of a cross between Bob Dylan and a city councilman who takes kickbacks.”

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

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

(Recording of a House Wren)

This month’s issue of Harper’s has a photo of some designer birdhouses, made by upscale, trendy architects for upscale, trendy birds.