For the Birds Radio Program: Couch Potato Birding

Original Air Date: Jan. 4, 1989

What bird sounds are heard in popular movies?

Audio missing


(Recording of a Red-shouldered Hawk)

Last week my family was reduced to the status of couch potatoes by a nasty case of the flu, and we found ourselves watching TV and an endless series of videotapes, but I still managed to see and hear a few birds.

Children’s programs were big on birds all week. Captain Kangaroo visited a zoo and saw several. Big Bird had plenty of avian visitors on Sesame Street during the many nature film clips throughout the week. And Mrs. McPheely brought a parrot to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, too.

But the first videotapes of movies I watched didn’t have many birds. Old romantic movies were never big on birds–I didn’t find a single one in the 1957 Cary Grant film, “An Affair to Remember,” the classic “Casablanca” or the more recent “Tootsie.” “Hello, Dolly!” at least has a phoebe singing outside Horace Vandergelder’s store–not to mention the hundreds of feathers in Dolly Levi’s hats.

You would think that birds would be even more scarce in science fiction flicks—I can’t think of a single Star Trek TV episode with any bird sounds at all, though the only one I watched during our flu epidemic was “The Devil in the Dark.” The movie “Star Trek IV” doesn’t have any bird calls either, but it at least has a few Herring and California Gulls flying along the San Francisco coast and some pigeons in a parking lot to add a bit of avian authenticity. But the “ET” soundtrack includes the calls of at least 10 different species. The bird sounds used were well chosen in terms of the time of day—the loons and owls were calling by night and the hawks and songbirds by day—but whoever dubbed the soundtrack obviously didn’t realize that canaries, Blue Jays, Eastern Screech Owls, and Red-shouldered Hawks don’t live in California, or that Common Loons make their breeding calls only on northern lakes. The sound editor also didn’t know that birds sing mostly in late winter, spring, and early summer—not around Halloween, the time when ET supposedly takes place.

The Shirley Temple version of “Heidi” doesn’t have a single bird or bird song in it—though I’m sure if it were filmed today there would be birds galore on the mountaintop, including the eagle which featured prominently in the book. “Mary Poppins” supposedly takes place in London, but the robin robots are clearly American. These poor out-of-place birds must have had some difficulty finding mates, because the two building a nest together are both males. At least Disney didn’t resort to canary calls for them—he chose a human whistler to make the robins sing. But whimsy is part of the magic of Disney films. The crows in “Dumbo” and the raven in “Sleeping Beauty” have yellowish orange beaks. They’re still easy to identify— Maleficent’s raven has a shaggy throat like a real raven, where Dumbo’s crow buddies are more sleek. But why the yellow beaks? A clever birder might assume that the Disney artists got the idea from the fact that the Yellow-billed Magpie, a relative of crows and ravens, is found only in the area of California right around the Disney studios, but he’d be wrong. I wrote to the Disney archives two years ago and Ward Kimball, who created the crows for Dumbo, cleared up this important issue—he answered that they made the bill that color because a more realistic black bill made the bird fade into the background, and that, in fact, the illustrators had never even heard of a Yellow-billed Magpie.

(Recording of a Red-shouldered Hawk)

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