For the Birds Radio Program: Big Bird

Original Air Date: Dec. 10, 1986 Rerun Dates: Dec. 6, 2010; Dec. 10, 2009; Dec. 11, 2006; Dec. 9, 2003

What kind of bird is Big Bird? Laura examined the question in 1986.

Duration: 4′11″


Katie’s Birthday–Big Bird

(Recording–Big Bird, “There’s Just One Me”)

The rarest bird in existence in the United States today, a species with only one lone individual remaining in the whole world, is Big Bird.

Big Bird is the only flightless bird endemic to North America. Determining his phylogenetic relationship to other birds is a difficult task, because many avian relationships can only be determined by a close examination of the skeleton, and Big Bird’s is still in use. But, based on some of his morphological structures, it’s safe to say that he probably belongs to a diverse group of flightless running birds called ratites. He shows no obvious similarity to kiwis or tinamous, but bears some resemblance to the ostrich of Africa, and the emu and cassowaries of Australia. Some ornithologists speculate that he is probably most closely related to the rhea of South America, but the species probably diverged millions of years ago. The bright yellow plumage of Big Bird, so different from the dull feathers of all other ratites, may be due to an ancient hybridization with Wilson’s Warbler, or, possibly, with the American Goldfinch. The orange and purple banding of the tibia and femur bones on Big Bird’s legs may have some adaptive value in his New York City habitat, perhaps distracting predators or attracting taxis, but so far ornithologists have been at a loss how to explain this unique feature. The bright pink coloration of his nictitating membranes may indicate that the species is sexually dimorphic, but since no female is known to exist, this is sheer speculation.

It is a well-known fact that Big Bird’s range is somewhere deep within New York City. Because of his extreme endangered status, the few ornithologists aware of his precise location guard the secret religiously. I contacted a spokesman at the Environmental Protection Agency and one at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find out if they would be willing to tell me how to get to Sesame Street, but they refused to divulge the information, even for public radio. Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, to actually see Big Bird in the wild, there does exist some excellent film footage of him in his natural habitat, which is occasionally broadcast on television. On one memorable occasion, I saw film of him manipulating a basketball. Although this was clearly not a natural behavior of his, it did demonstrate either a phylogenetic relationship with, or at least convergent evolution with, another species, the Larry Bird.

Big Bird’s vocalizations have a tragic implication–his existence as the last of his kind means that his songs can never fulfill the purpose of bird song, to attract a mate and defend his territory against other Big Birds. But even with this sad quality, there is a cheerful exuberance in Big Bird’s songs unique in the bird world.

One of Big Bird’s greatest admirers, a little girl named Katie, is three years old today. Big Bird may be the rarest bird in the country, but Katie is equally unique and special, and this program has been for her.

(Big Bird, “There’s Just One You”)

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