For the Birds Radio Program: Micki and Maude (reworked from 1988)

Original Air Date: Aug. 23, 1991

In what peculiar way does a radio-birdwatcher’s mind work? 3:49

Audio missing


(Recording from Micki and Maude–sounds like it was re-recorded later)

One question listeners often ask me is how I come up with new topics every week. So today I’ll give you an example of the mysterious processes involved. This week I was supposed to be writing scripts on Friday night, but instead I lazed around watching the Blake Edwards movie, “Micki and Maude” on my VCR. Dudley Moore’s nose is shaped like a bird beak, which suddenly aroused my curiosity about exactly which species of bird. Since Dudley Moore is British, I figured his nose would probably not be found in a book of American birds, so I consulted Facts on File’s encyclopedia of birds, which has pictures of all the bird families of the world. This exercise added a dimension to the movie which greatly increased my enjoyment–every time Dudley Moore turned his head, I quickly turned pages, trying to match up his profile with a bird’s. The first bird I came to that pretty much matched his nose was the Emu, a flightless bird from Australia, but since Dudley Moore is British, not Australian, I kept going. The bills of boobies had the right slope, but were a bit too long. Frigatebird beaks had too much of a hook. Crab plovers matched his nose fairly well, but they were from Africa. Finally I came to the English moorhen, which perfectly and most appropriately matched. I carefully watched the movie to see if the Dudley Moorehen would take off his shoes, revealing suitably long toes like an avian moorhen’s, but the movie failed to satisfy my curiosity on that important issue.

By this time I was also engaged in the plot, which is about a man who desperately wants children, and suddenly finds himself with two pregnant wives. Edward Blake is such a fine director that the movie managed to arouse my sympathy for the bigamist and both his wives. Which naturally brought me to the question, do birds have bigamous relationships? Since birds do pretty much the same sorts of things people do short of building nuclear weapons and creating toxic wastes, the answer of course is yes.

Birds are consummate realists–they form their pair bonds not to fulfill themselves or find romance, but to have babies, just like Dudley Moore did in the movie. Most birds don’t mate for life. Usually songbirds engage in the same sort of serial monogamy that Hollywood actors and an alarming number of regular people now do. That is, a pair remains exclusively together for a time, but eventually splits and forms new attachments. This system makes a lot of sense for birds, since they raise a whole brood of young within a period of a few months, and then it’s a long time before they’re physically capable of breeding again. Birds don’t dance, play bridge, or have VCR’s to watch movies together, so there’s little to sustain a relationship without children. Solitary birds that require large territories, like eagles, often mate for life, but that may well be just because they don’t have many opportunities for meeting others, or maybe because both of them work so hard on building and decorating their huge nest over the years that neither one of them is willing to agree to a property settlement giving the house to the other. But there are true bigamists in the bird world, too. Male Red-winged Blackbirds often have three or more mates, each in her own home. The male scrambles back and forth attending to them all and caring for his many children, much like Dudley Moorehen does in Mickey and Maude. All in all, even a movie that doesn’t have a single avian reference can tell us a great deal about the world of birds.