Birds in Pop Culture

What famous superheroes and villains have bird-like abilities or appearances? How many professional sports teams in the U.S. incorporate birds into their logo? What bird call is often used by shows and movies to represent both vultures and eagles?  Why do storks carry babies? How large are the eagles in Lord of the Rings? Can roadrunners really outrun coyotes? This blog will dive into the influence of birds in pop culture and reveal some interesting facts. I’ll try my best not to make up stories along the way. 

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Who wouldn’t want to fly like an eagle?

We seem to be in the golden age of superheroes. The upcoming slate of movies is extensive, not to mention the dozens of movies that came out in the last few years.  Superhero TV shows are also rising, and there seems to be no end in sight. You probably know that many superbeings can fly like an eagle, but what about a vulture? The upcoming Spiderman flick is set to have a villain named The Vulture, who uses an electromagnetic harness and wings to increase his strength and take flight. Vultures are often excellent fliers, using updrafts from cliff faces or rising currents of warm air called thermals to soar and glide across the sky with minimal flapping. Unlike the Spiderman villain, vultures are not deadly killers and prefer to scavenge on carrion. Birds of prey are often viewed as strong and fierce, so it’s not surprising that two of the more famous “bird” superheroes are Falcon and Hawkman. Falcon is shown in the recent Marvel movies to have sharp vision and the ability to fly and dive at high speeds using special technology. The real-life Peregrine Falcon is the fastest creature on earth and can dive at speeds of over 220 mph!

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Left – Marvel hero Falcon. Right – speed hero Peregrine Falcon.

Image result for vulture spiderman  Turkey vulture stretching its wings


At least 15 pro sports teams in the U.S. include a bird in some version of their logo, ranging from songbirds to raptors to . . . the Mighty Ducks! There is even a soccer team in Minnesota that uses a loon in its logo! If they turn off the lights in the arena and play a loon call, that could be eerie and intimidate their opponents. There are also some really interesting bird choices for some college teams. Among my favorites are the Endicott Power Gulls, the Oglethorpe Stormy Petrels, and the Oregon Tech Hustlin’ Owls. There are also over 70 collegiate teams that use some kind of eagle in their name, which brings me to my next point. Most of the time when an eagle is pictured in a show or movie, the call used is that of a Red-tailed Hawk. One possible reason for this is that the Bald Eagle has a wimpy sounding call, while the screaming call of the Red-tail sounds more fierce. I’ve even noticed that Red-tailed Hawk calls are used for vultures in scenes from Westerns!

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The exact origin of the myth that storks carry babies is unclear, but the stories most likely originated from German folklore. This concept became more widespread after a story about storks was written by Hans Christian Anderson. I just read the tale and . . . well let’s just say that the story is unusual and a little disturbing. Anyway, storks have been unfairly villainized due to their evil deeds in Lord of the Rings. There is a sword named “Sing” that glows and plays bird songs every time a stork is near. I guess you want me to put a stork in this joke? I will as soon as I finish eating some stork chops. Speaking of Lord of the Rings, giant eagles play small, but important roles in The Hobbit and in The Return of the King. The movies portray them as very large and impressive birds, but what about Tolkien’s books? There is one reference from the Silmarillion that states that Thorondor, the mightiest of the eagles, had a wingspan of 30 fathoms. As one fathom = six feet, Thorondor’s wings stretched about 180 feet!! Just the wind force from him flapping his wings could have probably taken out quite a few enemies! In comparison, a Golden Eagle has a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet.

White stork landing with nesting material Proof: Gandalf Planned on Flying to Mount Doom

Left – White Stork preparing for babies by practicing with a stick. Right – art showing Gandalf riding on an eagle in LOTR.

Now for the answer to the question that you’ve been dying to know: could Roadrunner truly beat Wile E Coyote in a footrace? Coyotes can reach speeds over 40 mph, while the Greater Roadrunner can run about 15-20 mph. However, Roadrunner was much larger than the average roadrunner and had really long legs, so I believe it’s possible that he could run close to 50 mph. On a side note, roadrunners are most commonly found in deserts in the southwestern U.S., which is why many of the classic cartoons were set in the desert. Also, roadrunners are related to cuckoos and are active predators, even feasting on venomous lizards, scorpions, and snakes! Roadrunners will sometimes work in pairs to kill a snake, with one bird distracting the snake while the other bird goes for the head. Roadrunners will also eat eggs, chicks, fruit, seeds, and amphibians.

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Left – Roadrunner’s giant feet help him make large strides. Right – Greater Roadrunner photo by Christopher Schwarz/Audubon Photography Awards.

Hopefully you’ve learned something from this brief foray into the world of birds in pop culture. Maybe you’ve also gained a deeper appreciation for the avian world and realized that you should never mess with a roadrunner. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to create an intimidating logo for a new sports team – the San Diego Sandpipers.



Angrier Birds!

In my last post, I described a few members of the avian world who tend to get wild and angry. I mentioned how little chickadees hammer my hand with their tiny bills and hummingbirds act like they’re B-52 bombers. Now is the time to move on to the really angry birds. The ones with anger issues who have the weapons to really inflict some damage. Some of these birds have legit reasons for being upset, others just want to watch the world burn.

Black kites flying around flames and smoke from bush fire, chasing insects

The Dark Kites rise from the ashes.

There have probably been a few times where you heard a flock of crows screaming incessantly. Many times, this means that danger is near. If an owl is in the vicinity, crows will harass the owl in an effort to drive it away. Owls have been known to hunt and kill crows and other birds in the night, so the crows have reason to be angry. By the way, did you know that a group of crows is called a murder? Sounds like the anger and violence goes both ways! Anyway, crows will not only yell loudly, but they also may swoop down at the owl. Jays and other birds will also harass owls in this fashion. The owl will usually grow tired of the noise and retreat to a quieter place. However, there have been some cases where the owl strikes out and kills a mobbing bird! On the other hand, mobbing crows have also been known to injure or even kill owls!

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Left – crows surround a Barn Owl. Right – awesome picture by Jim Neiger of a crow bombing a Great Horned Owl.

As much as I love owls, I’m not going to pretend that they never get angry and are always the victims of rage. Owls can become quite agitated if something or someone disturbs their nesting site and threatens their chicks. Last year, a number of people hiking in a park in Salem, Oregon inadvertently stumbled into owl territory and were attacked by an angry Barred Owl. The owl became notorious for attacking hikers and was nicknamed “Owlcapone”. Many of the victims reported being struck on the head and sustaining minor cuts. Owls have been known to inflict much worse injuries and even gone for the face with their sharp talons. Officials in the area warned hikers to stay vigilant and to carry an umbrella or wear protective gear, such as a hat.

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Actual sign used by the Salem Parks Foundation.

Barred owl in flight hunting for prey Barred owl on broken pine branch

Barred Owls are fairly common in many areas of the U.S.

Owls are not the only raptors known for being angry attackers during the breeding season. Many other birds of prey also will strike unfortunate victims who come to close to their nest or their young. In fact, researchers studying Peregrine Falcons often wear hard hats and protective clothing when checking on nesting sites for population or behavioral studies. The falcons have been known to dive-bomb and strike their talons across a person’s head. Making things especially tricky is the fact that Peregrines often nest in high places, such as cliff faces or tall buildings. Even with the hard hats, the force of the strikes can still be felt! Of course, no one can really blame these birds for getting angry, they’re just instinctively protecting their homes and their children. Researchers, such as those from the Peregrine Fund, have played a major part in the successful revival of Peregrine Falcon populations. Peregrines where on the endangered species list due to toxic chemicals such as DDT, which contaminated the environment and the prey that the falcons were consuming. This led to a thinning of eggs shells, which meant that the eggs were often crushed under the weight of an incubating parent. Peregrine Falcons are now doing fairly well across the world, though scientists are still trying to learn more about these amazing birds that can dive at speeds of over 200mph!

Peregrine falcon at nest with youngImage result for peregrine falcon nest

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed learning about a few angry birds and have gained some insights into their behavior. I encourage you to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the nature around you. Watch angry cardinals munch on seeds. Observe the flock of crows mobbing a predator. Enjoying the scintillating battles between angry hummingbirds. Gaze in awe at the powerful owls and falcons. My next blog will detail some of the personal experiences I’ve had with crows and birds of prey. Until then, watch out for angry birds and cover your face if an owl attacks!




Love is in the air

Because today is Valentine’s Day, I thought this would be a good time to start blogging again. Now few things are as powerful in saying I love you as little chalky candy hearts with cute messages, but I’m here to give you the next best thing – a blog about love between falcons. My fieldwork studying American Kestrel behavior has come to an end, so here are some of the insights into romantic love I’ve learned from these fast flyers.

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1. Love is extravagant – Male kestrels often court potential mates by flying high in the air and making quick swoops down while calling out “klee klee klee klee klee!” Males will then repeat this aerial dance and show off their beautiful blue wings in an effort to impress females. This desire to impress the opposite sex with song and dance never happens in the human world.

Male American kestrel in flight

2. True love involves good food – Men often take their significant other out to eat as part of a romantic date. Male kestrels are similar in that they will bring food to the female to cement pair-bonding. The female often whines in anticipation of the free meal, but I’m too afraid to make any comparisons to the human world here. The meal is usually an insect or rodent, but kestrels also hunt birds, lizards, frogs, and even snakes! Guys, take note and bring a snake to your next romantic dinner. What works for the kestrels has to work for humans, right?!

Nothing says I love you like a freshly-killed snake.

3. Love fights together – While I was following pairs of kestrels around for my graduate research, I occasionally observed encounters with potential predators such as Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks. One pair of kestrels actually used a nest box close to a Red-tailed Hawk nest. This meant that there were numerous interactions with the pair of Red-tails. I watched the kestrel pair team-up multiple times to dive-bomb and harass the invading hawks. This kestrel pair also chased off a Cooper’s Hawk that came too close for comfort. While the kestrels were certainly protecting themselves, their main motivation most likely came from the desire to protect their nesting territory and their young. Lesson in love? Work with your partner to fight against neighbors who are different from you or want to eat your kids.

American kestrel pair, male (left) female (right)

A family that fights together, stays together.

Hopefully you now realize that falcons have a lot to teach you about love. I didn’t write everything that I’ve learned from watching kestrels because that could fill an entire book . . . or at least a large bumper sticker. Go spend time with the ones that you love and appreciate the life God has given you. If you eat a few chocolates and scream like a kestrel while you’re at it, that’s cool too. Falcon out!

Fighting Falcons

When most people think of falcons, they imagine a fierce, fast-flying bird that hunts with sharp talons. Other may think of the NFL team which appears to be fast and powerful for a few games before plummeting to the earth with a quiet whimper. Perhaps a few of you associate the word ‘falcon’ with the popular fighting game “Super Smash Bros”. Captain Falcon is best known for his special move where flames would appear around his fist in the shape of a falcon as a voice yelled “Falcon Punch!”

Down you go: The falcon takes down a glider in South Bay, Los Angeles, after it flies to close to her nest

Peregrine Falcon that didn’t take kindly to an intruder. She was probably angry at the Cleveland Browns colors.


Falcon Punch!

The “standard” falcon that is often used in falconry for hunting and that many people are familiar with is the Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are spread throughout the world and are the fastest animals on earth, capable of reaching speeds of over 200mph in dives! These falcon dive at extreme speeds when pursuing aerial prey, such as pigeons or waterfowl. Peregrines can pack quite a punch when striking prey with their talons with great force at high speeds! A falcon may even strike a bird in the air, then swoop around and dive to strike it multiple times before the prey hits the ground! The fighting ability of a peregrine in flight is nearly unparalleled.

Peregrine falcon diving

Peregrine falcon ssp. macropus with parrot kill

Yes, Peregrines occasionally eat parrots.

The American Kestrels I’m studying for my master’s research are of the smaller, more colorful variety of falcons. American Kestrels have been used in falconry, especially by beginners. My studies focuses on the behavior of wild kestrels. Even though kestrels are small for falcons (9-10 inches long, about Robin-size), they have a lot of fight for their size. I’ve observed quite a few occasions where a kestrel dive-bombed a Red-tailed Hawk, which can weigh twelve times more than a kestrel and have more than double the wingspan!

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This is a beautiful male named Eastside that I’m following for my research. Still from a video taken by a friend (M. Cannon).

The preferred hunting method for kestrels involves waiting for prey from a perch, but sometimes kestrels will snatch insects in mid-air or hover-hunt, where the kestrel will seemingly hover in place by facing a strong wind and rapidly flapping its wings. I recently watched a kestrel strike a butterfly while chasing after a hawk. It’s like the kestrel was thinking “Ooh, a butterfly . . . I think I’ll kill it on my way to attack my enemy.” Kestrels usually hunt insects or small rodents, but will occasionally prey upon lizards, snakes and small birds. Just a few days ago, I saw a male kestrel munch on a small snake and then discard the skin to the ground!

Photo: Alberto Lopez/Audubon Photography Awards

Kestrels will also engage in battles with their own kind. I’ve seen kestrels respond to unwelcome intruders with alarm calls and swooping displays. Recently, I watched a pair of kestrels vigorously chase off another kestrel. One of my experiments involves using a kestrel model with playback of “klee” calls. Sometimes the kestrel I’m targeting will call back and engage in the swooping displays, which is pretty fun to watch! Hopefully you’ve enjoyed learning more about peregrines and kestrels! I would not recommend imitating the hunting style of peregrine falcons, but maybe you could perch and wait for food like a kestrel. A great idea would be to perch on top of a counter or table and wait until your spouse/significant other brings out some food. Then you can pounce quickly upon your prey (the food or the person, whichever you prefer). May you fly like a falcon!

American kestrel flying


Fun with Falcons

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my master’s thesis work involves studying American Kestrels; small falcons that nest in cavities and nest boxes. Keeping up with such quick and mobile creatures can sometimes be exhausting. If I had a hoverboard things would probably be easier, but apparently grad students can’t afford such things. Observing kestrel behavior can often be an enjoyable experience . . . provided I don’t want to finish experiments or accomplish actual work.

Male American kestrel in flight

One of the fascinating things about kestrels is their plumage. Many raptors in the U.S. have plain brown, gray, or white plumage with occasional touches of reddish-brown or blue-gray. American Kestrels, on the other hand, have rufous and blue and black and white colors. The males are especially beautiful with their blue wings and rufous belly. Kestrels exhibit reversed sexual dimorphism (RSD), where females are larger than males. One of the hypotheses for RSD (not to be confused with LSD, which makes kestrels have a wide variety of colors and sizes) is that the smaller size of males may increase agility in capturing prey items such as insects. Males often provide much of the food during the nesting season so being a good provider would be an important advantage for a male.

American kestrel holding prey in beak

This male would make a good provider.

Another interesting thing about the kestrels I watch is that they have different personalities. Some of the falcons are very skittish and fly away whenever I drive up by their territory. I always call out to them in their native tongue (klee klee klee!), but they never listen. One of the kestrels that is often shy is J.J. Abrams. J.J. has frustrated many an experiment by flying from tree to tree and hiding behind the leaves. Other kestrels are bolder and even curious. These kestrels will usually let me get fairly close. Duncan (named for the Dunkin’ Donuts nearby) hunts out in the open near a main road and is used to cars, while Howie and Heidi are a pair that usually behave for my experiments

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J.J. Abrams is very secretive, except when you taunt him with an intruder (female model) and playback of alarm calls!

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Howie is more open and approachable.

Observing the interactions between a pair of kestrels is also fascinating. Yesterday I saw a male and female circling in the sky together. The show they put on was almost as entertaining as the presidential debates. The female would make a pass at the male and then he would make a pass at her. They also called out to each other and did various swooping displays. I wonder if swooping displays and singing would work for me? Anyway, I’ll talk more about the behavior of my kestrels and some of the cool things I’ve seen in my field work (including falcon fights!) in my next blog. For now, I leave you with a short clip of kestrel nestlings peeking out of a nestbox.



A Song About Falcons

As a biologist who is studying American Kestrels, I’ve come to appreciate their beauty and aerial agility. Like other raptors, they do not sing but instead give a few distinct calls. There is a chitter call which occurs between a pair of kestrels and is often associated with mating. The whine call is done by the male when he brings in food for the female, who then whines until she receives his catch. Nestlings tend to whine a lot when they want food as well. Finally, there is the klee call, which is usually given when a kestrel is alarmed or excited. Yesterday I was thinking about klee calls, when a bright idea hit me and I was inspired to write another song parody. With apologies to Journey, here’s Don’t Stop Your Kleeing.

American kestrel with killAmerican kestrel flying

Don’t Stop Your Kleeing
(Sung to the tune of Don’t Stop Believing by Journey)

[Verse 1]

Just a city bird

Living in a lonely world

She took to flight that night going anywhere

Just a country bird

Born and raised near a cow herd

He took to flight that night going anywhere

[ Verse 2]

A bird sings out to break the gloom

Flowers bursting into bloom

For a call two can share a flight

It goes on and on, and on, and on


Falcons waiting

Up and down the country road

Their keen eyes searching in the light

Street poles, bare trees

Places great for hunting rodents

Hiding somewhere in the night

[Verse 3]

Female hunting from the line

Little nestlings start to whine

Doing anything to get a bite

Of just one more bug

Some will eat, some will cry,

Some were born to reach the sky

Oh, the calling never ends

It goes on and on, and on, and on


Falcons waiting

Up and down the country road

Their keen eyes searching in the light

Street poles, bare trees

Places great for hunting rodents

Hiding somewhere in the night


Don’t stop your kleeing

Even when you’re eating

Street poles, kestrels

Don’t stop your kleeing

Even when you’re eating

Street poles, kestrels

Don’t stop your kleeing

Even when you’re eating

Street poles, kestrels

Driving Me Crazy

Usually my blog posts focus on my experiences in nature, but today I have a special treat for you. I’m going to categorize some of the people who drive me crazy by the way that they drive on the road. I’ll even throw in some bird analogies as a bonus. By the way, Morgan Freeman is definitely welcome to be my chauffeur.

Hey did you know there’s this great invention called the turn signal? A flashing light signals your intentions to other drivers so that they can prepare themselves. All you have to do is move your hand over a few inches and pull the lever. I realize that many people in the United States are resistant to any form of physical activity and that consistently using your turn signal could take years off your life, so I guess this isn’t a big deal . . . WRONG! I can’t tell you how many times I barely avoided an accident because someone was driving 60MPH and then decided to slam on their brakes and quickly turn without warning. Also fun is when a driver rapidly cuts into your lane without signaling. From now on, I’m calling everyone who repeatedly refuses to use turn signals Turn-offs. You’re turning me off.

Ironically, sometimes drivers forget and let their turn signals continue to flash long after they made a turn. I’ve had a few nervous moments trying to pass a semi when I realized the left turn signal was on. Most of the cars I’ve been in have loud signals that are annoying, which makes them hard to ignore. Maybe those drivers have their music blaring and can’t hear the signals? Birds don’t use turn signals either. The falcons that I’m studying repeatedly make quick turns to fake me out. They know I trying to make some observations and act quickly to ruin them. Mourning Doves, Pheasants and Woodcocks are notorious for taking flight at the last possible second. They enjoy allowing unsuspecting travelers to walk up close before bursting into the air and startling the living daylights out of the walkers.

Did you know that the left lane is supposed to be used for passing slower drivers? That means three things: don’t drive 15 mph below the limit in the left lane, don’t linger in the left lane for hours, and don’t abuse the system and drive 15 mph above the limit screaming at people to get out of your way. Instead of trying to be considerate drivers and respect the rules of the road, so many people want to rush everywhere like they are in a car chase with Jason Bourne. Hmm . . . can I shoot some tires out? Would that be acceptable? Anyway, drivers try to figure out what they can get away with. Driving 75 in a 55 is okay because the speed trap isn’t for another 3 miles, right?

Jason Bourne does not make the safe drivers list. (Scene from The Bourne Identity)

Birds do not follow speed limit laws. I recently found an American Kestrel perched on a 30 mph sign. As I began to make some observations from my car, he promptly flew off. I tried following him, but he flew at speeds of around 40 mph. Speeding up would not have been advisable as I was on an army base with explosives, nerve gas, and security teams. Peregrine Falcons definitely break all speeding laws when they dive after prey at over 200 mph!! Other birds seem a bit clueless and meander about as slowly as possible. Robins, for example, love to hop along the road. Car coming? Hop very slowly so you don’t have to fly. Bobwhites and Killdeer also enjoy running just in front of my car as slow speeds. Hey guys, you know you’re allowed to veer off into the woods, right? Of course, nervous quail are better at staying in their lane than many drivers I’ve seen. Maybe some drivers should learn from the birds. Which reminds me, I have seen drivers give each other a bird during an incident of road rage.

Male American kestrel in flight Peregrine falcon diving

Top – American Kestrel (my study species). Bottom – diving Peregrine Falcon

Killdeer shading eggs from sun

Killdeer enjoy running directly in front of your car at slow speeds.

One of the traits common to drivers in central Kentucky, is that they tend to sit still for long periods of time after the light has turned green. This is one of the driving traits that really annoys me. Everyone acts like they’re in a hurry all the time. Speeding around corners, cutting in front of other cars, and zooming through red lights. Then when those drivers are stopped at a traffic light, they take FOREVER to start going. I’m not expecting anyone to go Nascar and accelerate to 60 mph in a few seconds, but get off your cell phone and pay attention to your surroundings. I’ve had numerous occasions where drivers sat for so long at a green light that the light turned red again without almost anyone getting to go. Drivers on the phone are always dangerous because they’re not very focused on what is happening.

One of the most dangerous bad driving habits is cutting out in front of another care at an intersection. Smashing into the side of another car can be devastating. I can’t tell you how many times someone has cut in front of me and I had to slam on the brakes and swerve to avoid an accident. Most of the time, the other driver could have just waited 3 seconds for me to pass and been fine. We’re so impatient in the U.S. that we are willing to risk an accident to save 3 seconds of time.

Now it’s time to talk about the driving maneuver that bothers me the most – tailgating. Nothing makes me want to slow down more than someone riding my bumper. Don’t like it that I’m trying to show respect for the law and avoid accidents by driving the speed limit? Maybe you need to readjust your priorities and check your attitude. Tailgating is also a problem because there is little margin for error. If a turn-off makes a sudden maneuver, the tailgater may plow into the back of the other car. There are also times where the car in front may have to suddenly stop. This is not mario kart, you don’t gain turbo boosts by riding the drifts of the car in front of you. Hmm . . . if we could have mario kart in real life, I would drop some banana peels to stop tailgaters and run into turn-offs with green shells. Then I could shoot red shells at left lane abusers and strike speeding cars with lightning.

I want this to happen in real life to bad drivers.

Stay away tailgaters!

Despite my annoyances with bad driving habits, I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe someone had a bad day or is really tired or is dealing with screaming kids, or made an honest mistake. I’ve accidentally made poor driving decisions before and I’m close to perfect, so I know it’s possible. Who am I kidding? Every driver that makes a bad move is terrible and should be shot. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pretend to be Toad from Mario Kart and zoom through life. YAHOO! YAHOO! YA-YA-YAHOO!!