For the Birds Radio Program: Vice Presidential Debates

Original Air Date: Oct. 14, 1988

An encounter between two birds brought to Laura’s mind the debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle.

Duration: 3′43″


Recording of a Merlin)

A couple of days after the Bentsen-Quayle debate, I watched a debate between two birds. Now a bird has a lot in common with a vice-president—after all, neither seems to have much impact on presidential policy, neither has the foggiest notion how to handle the deficit, and both insist that they didn’t know anything about selling arms to the Ayatollah. So I was curious to know how an avian debate might compare to the vice presidential one.

The contestants were a cocky young Merlin—a small falcon— that was hatched this year at the Lakewood Pumping Station, and a mature Yellow-rumped Warbler that was migrating through. The warbler had been daydreaming along in the skies with all the aerodynamic skill of a Charles Schulz’s Woodstock when the Merlin dive-bombed him at high speed. Now warblers can’t fly very fast— one of the ways you can quickly tell a migrating warbler from a migrating finch or sparrow is by how relatively slow and weak the warbler’s flight is. So I figured this was one Merlin about to feast on the avian answer to fast food takeout. The warbler didn’t have much of a chance—it was at least 50 yards above the trees, and the Merlin had as great an advantage in speed as George Bush has in predicted electoral votes, but warblers don’t keep track of either public opinion polls or the speed records of falcons, so it kept bravely darting around. It wisely didn’t make a B-line for the trees—that was exactly the move that the Merlin’s media advisors had prepared it for. The falcon was taken off guard when the warbler abruptly flitted up and switched directions. Suddenly the warbler was flying every which way— sort of the way candidates dodge the issues. The Merlin flew skyward to set himself up for another high speed attack while the warbler headed straight for the trees, but the moment the Merlin dropped, the warbler darted off course again, and the Merlin missed.

Birds are much more concise and to-the-point than vice presidential candidates, and so their parries lasted only about three minutes instead of 90. In the end, the warbler reached the trees and safety. Falcons are much better at outflying their prey in open skies, so the Merlin ignominiously winged off in search of easier pickin’s down the shore. Spin control experts for both sides declared the match a victory.

Whenever I watch these avian debates, I root for the underdog—the prey species. I don’t know why—after all, every little warbler spends its life as a predator too—eating butterflies and other small insects. And it’s awfully hard to be a hawk—I’ve witnessed a lot more near misses than I’ve seen falcons actually winning a match. But no matter who I root for at the beginning of the encounter, the outcome always somehow feels right. The best bird always survives, and the loser loses honorably. But it was satisfying to vote for the winner of this particular debate, something I have never yet managed to do in a Presidential race.

Yes, this time the warbler was victorious, and the little falcon ended up hungry and embarrassed. And just to add insult to injury, as the warbler victor flitted through the trees, I distinctly heard him say to the ineffectual little predator, “I served with a Peregrine Falcon, I knew a Peregrine Falcon. Senator, you are no Peregrine Falcon.”

(Recording of a Merlin)

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