For the Birds Radio Program: Birds and People

Original Air Date: Sept. 3, 2003

Not matter what kind of person you are, there’s a bird to match.

Audio missing


People and birds are more similar than most of us realize. We sometimes say someone has an aquiline nose—that word means curved or hooked like an eagle’s beak. People with hawk eyes don’t have eyes that look like a hawk’s—that expression refers to one’s ability to focus and see things sharply. We call people with limited intelligence, who flit from subject to subject, bird brains. Our opinions about how readily we should resort to military action to resolve international disputes classify us as doves or hawks.

I often classify people in bird terms. Those people who are extremely steadfast and devoted in their relationships with others remind me of cranes or swans. Those who jump from relationship to relationship with no interest in long-term commitments are grouse. Men who take little or no interest in their children are hummingbirds. Women like that are phalaropes. Children who stick around home after they grow up and help with the family business are Scrub Jays. Children who go off on their own and don’t look back as soon as they learn to drive are like a lot of songbirds. Those who keep ties with their family long after they become independent are like geese, swans or cranes. Those who take little interest in raising their children, preferring to hire a nanny but getting all the credit once the children are grown, are cowbirds.

Hawks have traditional marriages, at least while the babies are small. The female does most or all of the actual child rearing, while dad is the main provider who does some fixit projects around the house. But hawk females are bigger, tougher, and more aggressive than their henpecked mates, who do their best to keep from displeasing the females. Robins have different tasks before the babies hatch, the female building the nest and incubating the eggs while the male defends the territory, but once the babies hatch both parents share fairly evenly with childcare. House Wren mothers grow tired of dealing with children before House Wren fathers do, and flit off to a new relationship. Mallard drakes are extremely promiscuous. They do choose a mate, but frequently engage in some hanky panky with other females. They stick with their mate during the time she’s working on the nest and laying eggs, but as soon as she settles in to brood, he loses interest in her and goes off to attract a new mate or hang out with the guys, maybe watching baseball. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have very egalitarian relationships, both building the nest, incubating, and taking care of the babies. Females even sing. Couples who are all lovey-dovey, like real doves, spend a lot of time billing and cooing, and keep their romantic ways even as they get inundated with babies and childrearing.

People who set goals and steadfastly work until they accomplish them are like woodpeckers. Mourning Doves may be romantic and steadfast with their mates, but they quickly get distracted from their responsibilities, sometimes not even finishing the floor of a nest before laying eggs in it. Standoffish people who prefer to spend most of their lives alone are Goshawks. High school girls at a prom who don’t want to be near any girl wearing the same dress are like most spring warblers, who join flocks that have a variety of other species, but no others of their own kind. High school boys who like to show off their cool video games to their friends are like Sharp-tailed Grouse, who get so focused on their own guy stuff that they pretty much ignore the girls, until finally a pretty girl persuades one to leave his buddies for a while. But the other guys know that he’ll be back.