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. 

Image result for bald eagle arkive

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!

Image result for falcon marvel Image result for peregrine falcon flying

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!

Image result for oregon tech hustlin owls Image result for minnesota soccer

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.

Image result for roadrunner Image result for roadrunner

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.



Hungry Hawks

If you’ve read my blogs before, you know that I enjoy using my passion for wildlife and my pun-making skills to write song parodies. Last year, I posted a parody titled “Bird of Paradise” based on the Coldplay song “Paradise”. Now I’ve decided to mangle improve another Coldplay song using birds of prey. Before we get to the song, let me talk to you about Chukars. Chukars are partridges that are native to Eurasia and were introduced to the western U.S. as a game species. They forage around the ground, primarily feeding on seeds and grains. This song is about a hawk who hunts many animals, but ultimately longs to feast upon a tasty chukar. Coldplay, I apologize for using one of your most famous songs in this way. Enjoy!

ChukarImage result for northern goshawk

Left – Chukar. Right – Hungry Northern Goshawk.

Hawks (Based on Coldplay’s “Clocks”)

The kites come out and I can’t be saved
Winds that I tried to fly against
Have blown feathers into my beak
Oh I want, I want to eat a grebe, singing

Come out to the ducks and bread
Tear the wing off a redhead, and a,
Cardinal that can’t be named
A raptor’s waiting to be tamed, singing

Chukar Chukar

Confusion among the flocks
The screeching calls of the hungry hawks, gonna,
Scare prey back to its home
Why can’t they stop, the jay and crow, singing

Watch out O chickadees
Scold missed opportunities, should I,
Fly now to the fields
Or should I wait up in the trees, singing

Chukar Chukar
Chukar Chukar
Chukar Chukar

And now I just eat hares
And now I just eat hares
And now I just eat hares

Chukar Chukar

Home, home, where I wanted to roam
Home, home, where I wanted to roam
Home, home, where I wanted to roam (Chukar)
Home, home, where I wanted to roam (Chukar)

Stacking Hawks

I recently wrote another silly song about animals.  Lately it seems as though I just can’t help myself.  The song is sung from the perspective of Harris’ Hawks.  Here is some background information about Harris’ Hawks and their unique behaviors from one of my previous posts. 

Harris’ Hawks are unique among raptors in that they often hunt in packs.  Sometimes they will all converge on their prey and other times, one hawk will flush out a rabbit while the others wait in ambush.  Hunting in packs has proven to be much more effective than when the hawks hunt alone.  The best part about Harris’ Hawks, in my opinion, is that they stack!  What happens is one Harris’ Hawk will land on a cactus.  Then another will ball up his/her talons and land on the first hawk’s shoulders!  Sometimes a third hawk will then stack on the first two!  What is this good for?  Scientists aren’t completely sure.  Some think that the hawks stack to gain a better perspective of their surroundings when they are not flying.  Another possibility is that stacking is a bonding exercise that helps establish hierarchical order.


My song about Harris’ Hawks is based on Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle”.  Without further ado, here is “Stack on the Cactus”.

Stack on the Cactus
(To the tune of “Back in the Saddle” by Aerosmith)

We stack
We stack on the cactus again
We stack
We stack on the cactus again

Flyin’ in the desert heat
By the light of the sun
We’re looking for some tasty meat
See crazy jackrabbit run
Oasis give us a drink
Because our mouths are dry
Rodent leaves in just a blink
That makes a grown hawk cry

We stack on the cactus again
We stack
We stack on the cactus again
We stack

Come easy go easy
Right into the rising sun
We’re calling all the hawks tonight
This shared hunt will be fun
Peelin’ off the fur and skin
Our feet are sore
Four bites leaves us hungry again
We scream for more

Cool breeze out from the west
Talons keep males in check
The female rules the nest
We come again to stack

We stack on the cactus again
We stack
We stack on the cactus again
We’re flying, we’re chasing down all our prey
We’re flying, we’re eating a large green jay
We’re flying, we’re ambushing some field mice
We’re flying, these white-winged coots just taste nice

We stack on the cactus again
We stack
We stack on the cactus again
We stack

Flyin’ high
Flyin’ high
Flyin’ high already

How to Identify Backyard Birds: Part 3

What’s the difference between a hawk and an eagle?  What about a vulture and a falcon?  If you’ve ever spent sleepless nights wondering about such questions, then this blog is for you.  If you love to watch birds of prey or want to know more about them, then this blog is for you.  If you want to learn a few more tips on how to identify birds you might see in your yard or at the park, this blog’s for you.  If you like watching cartoon birds, this blog’s for you.  And if the only thing you like about birds is shooting them or eating them, well, I just might have something that suits your fancy.  In the third post in my bird identification series, birds of prey are the focus.  Now on to the birds!

In my last post on identifying birds, I mentioned the importance of looking at the shape of a bird’s body and bill.  Let’s use those features to examine birds of prey.  First of all, what are the differences between hawks, eagles, falcons and vultures?  Here is a picture to illustrate some of the differences.

 (Silhouettes picture from Hilton Pond Center)

Here is where looking at the shape of a bird can really come in handy.  Take a look at the silhouette of the falcon.  Notice that falcons have narrow, point wings and a long thin tail.  If you’re wondering what in the world a buteo or an accipiter is, don’t worry, I’ve hidden a secret message in this blog that explains them.  A harrier is a kind of hawk that has a face shaped similar to an owl, which allows for a great sense of hearing.  Ospreys are pretty cool birds that I have often seen when vacationing in Florida.

adult femaleAdult female

(Top – Northern Harrier photo from  Bottom – Osprey photo copyright Kim Taylor, VA, August 2009)

Ospreys are unique among raptors in that they dive to catch fish.  Their wing shape is also different from most hawks.  Pay attention to the ‘M’ the body seems to form while in flight.  Ospreys are usually found near bodies of water and due to their fish-hunting efficiency, are often the target of eagles who are hungry for an easy meal.  Bad pirates!  Now do you want to know what a buteo is?  I’ll tell you as soon as the U.S. is no longer in debt.  Okay, okay.  Buteos are hawks which have large, broad rounded wings and fan-like tails.  Most hawks that you see soaring over your neighborhood or in the country are buteos.  Accipiters are hawks that dwell in wooded areas and have short wings and long tails that enable them to quickly fly through the trees.   Because they spend a lot of time in the woods and tend to shy away from heavily inhabited areas, accipiters are seen less often than buteos.  Here are some pictures to help you visual the differences between these two groups of hawks.


(Left – Red-tailed Hawk, Right – Cooper’s Hawk.  Photos from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Take a close looks at the hawks above.  Which one is a buteo and which one is an accipiter?  Check out the size of the wings and the shape of the tails.  The Red-tailed Hawk is a buteo and the Cooper’s Hawk is an accipiter.  Red-tailed Hawks are prevalent throughout the U.S. and can be seen in almost any habitat.  I often see Red-tails perching on a tree or powerline near roads.  Cooper’s Hawks, often called sparrowhawks, are shy birds but there is a female that has been visiting my house lately and even landed by my patio.  She is possibly being attracted by the tasty buffet of songbirds feeding on birdseed.  I should also point out the presence of bands on the Cooper’s tail, which can prove helpful in identification.

Okay, here is another test, see if you can figure out which of the birds below is a falcon, which is a buteo hawk and which is an accipiter hawk.

Juvenile Light morph

(Pictures from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Now let’s take a quick look at eagles and vultures.  Eagles are heavy raptors with long wings and large, hooked bills.  Vultures are not as large as eagles and have smaller heads and bills.  Here are some pictures for comparison.

Adult in flightJuvenile

(Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Obviously, vultures and eagles have very different heads.  Here the Turkey Vulture’s pink head stands out.  But if you saw these birds flying high in the air, shape and flight patterns would be important.  This is an example of where behavior comes into play.  Vultures tend to flap their wings in short bursts and soar in a v-shape with wobbly flight patterns while the flight of eagles is more level with slow, powerful wing movements.  Also, the Turkey Vulture’s wingspan is around 65-70 inches while Golden Eagles, like the one shown above, have wingspans between 73 and 86 inches.  Discerning between vultures can be tricky as immature Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures both have grayish heads.  Black Vultures are a bit smaller and tend to fly with their wings flat, instead of the v-shaped posture of the Turkey Vultures.  Also, Black Vultures have white primary feathers near their wingtips.  Think of them as wearing gloves.  Here are pictures for illustration.

Adult in flight

Most of the time you would be able to distinguish an eagle from a hawk by the size and coloration of the bird.  Besides their larger size, eagles also have larger beaks.  In the U.S. we only have two common eagle species, so if you have the eyes of a hawk you would easily pick out an eagle with practice.  Of course, identification can be very tricky with immature Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles, but that’s a topic for another time.


(Left – Golden Eagle, Right – Zone-tailed Hawk –> Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Well, I’ve decided to write one more blog on identifying birds which will be posted this week.  I still want to examine behavior and habitat and songs.  I’ll also tell a few stories about my birding adventures.  In case you’re wondering, a roadrunner is a real bird that runs through the deserts of the western U.S.  Could a coyote catch a roadrunner?  Who is the greatest cartoon bird of all time?  I’ll have the answers to those questions and more in my next blog!  One more thing, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology just came out with a really cool bird ID app.  The app is free and helps you identify birds by asking questions and showing pictures.  If you have an iphone or ipad, be sure to this out –> Merlin Bird ID

When Hawks Attack

Birds have always fascinated me.  I especially have enjoyed working with and studying raptors.  No, not velociraptors.  I tried working with them but they became too aggressive and started trying to eat my research assistants.  I liked most of my assistants so I sent the velociraptors to the Bermuda Triangle and haven’t seen them since.  Part 2 of my blog series on birds of prey (click here for part 1), will take a look at some of the wonderful members of the hawk family.

Have you ever been watch a TV show or a movie where a bird of prey is circling in the skies?  Perhaps the camera scanned up to show a vulture in a western or an eagle in the wilderness.  Then you hear the powerful screaming call of the bird which sounds something like “Key-eee-air!  Guess what?  That’s not the call of a vulture or an eagle.  Most vultures don’t make calls and Bald Eagles sound much wimpier.  That famous call is actually coming from a Red-tailed Hawk.  If you want to hear the call for yourself, click here.  The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in North America and can often be seen perching on telephone poles or trees along highways.  Why do these hawks hang out around highways?  Let’s just say they really enjoy fresh meat.  When they’re not feasting on roadkill, these opportunistic hawks hunt small mammals, birds and reptiles.  One time, my sister was visiting a zoo and was observing the prairie dog exhibit.  Suddenly, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped down, grabbed one of the poor prairie dogs, and flew off!  Everyone there was pretty shocked but this just illustrates one of the reasons why these hawks are so successful.  The destruction of forest habitat doesn’t affect Red-tails as much as other hawks as they are very adaptable and thrive in open areas.

SANY0059 SANY0009

(Red-tailed Hawks that I handled at the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis.  Notice the distinctive tail for which the hawk is named.)

A close relative of the Red-tailed Hawk is the Augur Buzzard.  Now many Americans tend to equate the term ‘buzzard’ with vultures.  Buzzards are actually species of hawks that live in Eurasia and Africa.  Most likely, earlier settlers in America called vultures ‘buzzards’ because they appeared similar to the buzzards in Europe.  Anyway, Augur Buzzards come in two phases; light and dark.  The dark ones are often brooding and angry while the light ones are cheerful and playful.  I worked with an Augur Buzzard at the World Bird Sanctuary and she was a very well behaved bird.


(Augur Buzzard)

Another cool hawk is the Swainson’s Hawk.  This bird breeds in western North America and spends its winters in Argentina.  Swainson’s Hawks migrate in huge flocks and according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, some individuals may travel as many as 6214 miles!  These hawks sometimes eat grasshoppers and I think it would be quite entertaining to watch a young hawk attempt to catch a fast grasshopper.


(Swainson’s Hawk)

Finally, I come to my favorite hawk of all, the Harris’ Hawk.  Why is the Harris’ Hawk my favorite hawk?  Let me tell you!  First of all, the eyes of Harris’ Hawks change color with each season.  Sky blue in the winter, light green in the spring, red in the summer and orange in the fall.  Okay, I made that up.  But it would be totally awesome if it was true.  Harris’ Hawks are unique among raptors in that they often hunt in packs.  Sometimes they will all converge on their prey and other times, one hawk will flush out a rabbit while the others wait in ambush.  Hunting in packs has proven to be much more effective than when the hawks hunt alone.  The only problem is, sometimes the hawks disagree on what they want for supper.  “Hey Johnny!  Let’s go get a rabbit!”  “No Benji, I’m in the mood for something reptilian tonight.”  Harris’ Hawks often live in family groups and will even help a couple raise young.  The best part about Harris’ Hawks, in my opinion, is that they stack!  What happens is one Harris’ Hawk will land on a cactus.  Then another will ball up his/her talons and land on the first hawk’s shoulders!  Sometimes a third hawk will then stack on the first two!  What is this good for?  Scientists aren’t completely sure.  Some think that the hawks stack to gain a better perspective of their surroundings when they are not flying.  Another possibility is that stacking is a bonding exercise that helps establish hierarchical order.

When I interned at the World Bird Sanctuary, I got to interact with several Harris’ Hawks.  They were well behaved birds with great personalities and a lot of fun to work with!  Sometimes when I would get a Harris’ Hawk ready for training, he/she would excitedly jump up and down on my glove.  Several times I got to engage in a falconry training exercise called a ‘hawk walk’.  I would walk outside while a hawk followed me around.  Then I would call the hawk down to my glove where it would receive a tasty reward.  Then I would release the hawk and the process would continue.  I’ve posted this picture before but for your entertainment . . .


(birds-of-prey tumblr)

Feel free to switch the term ‘Harris Hawking’ for stacking.  You can Harris Hawk dishes or pancakes or movies.  You can also name your fantasy football team, ‘The Stack Attack’.  Endless possibilities are now at your disposal!  Also, there is an incredibly cool experience called parahawking where you can paraglide with Egyptian Vultures or Harris’ Hawks!  Google parahawking and you’ll find some awesome videos!  My next post will dive (pun intended) into the world of Falcons and Eagles.  May you scream like a Red-tailed Hawk and may your children enjoy grasshoppers like a Swainson’s Hawk!  Wait, did that come out right?

International Vulture Day

September 7th was International Vulture Awareness Day.  This is a day set aside to raise awareness for vulture species that are threatened across the world.  As someone who loves working with birds and observing their behavior, I’ve decided to write a 4 part blog on birds of prey.  Today I will obviously be starting with mourning doves, who are the often forgotten members of the vulture family.  What’s that?  Doves aren’t in the vulture family?  Well, let’s go with lawyers then.  Man . . . I’m fighting the urge to make a bunch of cheesy lawyer/vulture jokes right now.

The first thing you should know about vultures is this

– Comic Strip

Linus is absolutely correct, I have never seen a vulture wait for prey during a snowstorm. If you ever have the urge to play dead during a snowstorm, you’ll be perfectly safe from vulture attacks, though a polar bear may mistake you for a delicious seal.  Be sure to watch out for circling birds during sandstorms and volcanic eruptions.  Everyone knows that vultures turn vicious during catastrophic events.  While vultures are scavengers and usually feast on carrion, they have been known to eat fruit, insects and rotten pumpkins.  Next time you carve a pumpkin, try leaving it in your neighbor’s yard to see if you can attract a vulture.  Now vultures have been historically placed in the birds of prey family, but recent evidence has led many scientists to declare that New World vultures, including Turkey and Black Vultures, are actually more closely related to storks.  Hmm . . does that mean that babies in the U.S. might be delivered by vultures?

Now for a few basic facts about vultures.  Those of us who live in the U.S. are probably most familiar with the Turkey Vulture.  Many people call these birds buzzards but that is incorrect as buzzards are actually species of hawks that live throughout the Old World.  Turkey Vultures are unable to produce many sounds because they lack the necessary vocal organs, but they are capable of hissing.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could turn politicians into vultures?  Debates would become nothing more than hissing matches.  Oh wait, would that make things different?  TVs, as I shall refer to them from now on, are effective gliders because they use rising currents of air called thermals.  They are able to hone in on dead animals with their excellent sense of smell.  Because of their super smell ability, TVs are often the first ones to arrive at a carcass, which is good because when it comes to fighting, TVs are wimps.

Due to their love of dead things, TVs are often viewed as disgusting creatures.  I’m here to spread the love for TVs by noting that they are responsible for eliminating many harmful diseases.  The acid in their stomachs allows them to digest toxins and bacteria that would often be lethal to other creatures.  This means that vultures actually play a part in preventing diseases like anthrax from spreading to you and me!  On the other hand, vultures sometimes urinate on their legs, which is kind of gross.  Scientists believe that they do this to help eliminate bacteria and to provide a cooling effect.  Vultures are also known to vomit but hey, no one’s perfect!


(Photos from  Top left – Turkey Vulture Top right –  Hooded Vulture Bottom – Egyptian Vulture)

I want to conclude this post by briefly relating my personal experiences with vultures as an intern in 2010 at The World Bird Sanctuary.  During my time at the sanctuary, I got to work up close with Black Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Hooded Vultures, King Vultures and Turkey Vultures.  One of the things I remember most about the vultures is that they liked to try to nip my arms and hands a lot.  The Hooded Vultures in particular were fond of “accidentally” biting my hand instead of the food in my glove.  They were really cool birds to work with though and I remember them fondly.  Several times I had the chance to help train a Hooded Vulture and enjoyed it.  I also laughed at the antics of the Turkey Vultures when they were getting excited about feeding time.  Sure, they may not be the prettiest birds but they have unique personalities and are fun to watch.  So let’s hear it for the vultures; nature’s clean-up crew!  Well, that’s all for now.  My next blog post will be about hawks.  Red-tailed Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks and Tony Hawk.  May you soar like a vulture!