For the Birds Radio Program: Movie Review: Snow White

Original Air Date: Aug. 7, 1987

Laura watched Snow White with an ornithological eye.

Duration: 3′57″


Snow White

(Recording of “Whistle While You Work”)

Every time an old Disney cartoon is re-released, I’m drawn to the theater like a gull to a french fry. Disney’s films have been accused of sexism, silliness, romanticism, cruelty, violence, and even that worst sin of all–ornithological inaccuracy–but that doesn’t phase me. My love for his films is absolute.

That doesn’t mean I don’t notice discrepancies between Disney’s world and reality. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is populated with birds that can be found nowhere else–like songbirds with thick, fleshy feet with two toes in front and one behind. My guess is that the artist who designed them looked at too many parrots and pigeons. Parrots have two toes in front and two behind. Pigeons have three toes in front and one behind. Both parrots and pigeons have strong, muscular toes, fleshier than a sparrow’s or robin’s. The hind toe on Disney birds is so tiny that it would be impossible to perch in any but a cartoon tree.

Disney’s songbirds are unique in other ways, too. Their heads are oversized, making them front-heavy in flight. And their breast muscles are oddly reduced. Yet, in spite of that, they hardly beat their wings and they’re airborne. Their flight is more like a pigeon than any of the tiny songbirds they resemble. Only a Disney bird can hang up a princess’s cape or fly backwards, dragging a reluctant dwarf along by the beard.

The doves in “Snow White” have the same odd toe pattern as the songbirds, but their body shape closely resembles the real thing, and their flight is just about identical to real doves.

All of Disney’s witches have a pet. The evil queen in “Snow White” has a chough–a relative of the raven. Real choughs are found in mountainous regions of Eurasia, and have a slender, downcurved red bill and red legs, just like the Disney bird, which even has the right number of toes. You can tell it’s a female when the witch calls for a gust of wind to brew her evil spell. The rush of air exposes the bird’s brood patch, which is found only on nesting females.

The condors that dine on the witch at the end are an interesting hybrid–they have the smooth, fleshy head of a California Condor and the white neck ruff of an Andean Condor. Disney’s condors have powerful talons, unlike real condors, which have thin, weak feet.

Bird carvings decorate the dwarfs’ house–there’s an owl on Grumpy’s bed and chair, owls, parrots, and a baby songbird on the calliope pipes, and bird carvings in the woodwork and door frames. The bass fiddle and banjo resemble ducks, and the staircase up to the dwarfs’ bedroom is decorated with Great Horned Owl eyes on the side of each step. Even the witch’s throne is designed to look like a peacock. But the one place you’d expect to see a bird, the dwarves’ cuckoo clock, has a frog instead.

Disney’s family of quail runs about exactly the way I’ve seen real California Quails do. But I never did get a good look at their feet. If any listener notices how many toes these quails have in the movie, please drop me a note at KUMD, 130 Humanities Bldg, University of Minn., Duluth, 55812.

(Recording “Heigh Ho”)

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