From Mother Goose to Donald Duck, these birds are on the A-list.
By Amber Bruggman
Birds are back! OK, maybe birds never really left. But it seems like our feathered friends are extra popular right now. They’re decorative. They’re entertaining. They’re in movies. They’re even angry.
A closer look reveals a love affair with birds that goes back to antiquity. Legends, poems and even Hollywood have turned simple birds into cultural icons. College and professional sports teams have borrowed the names and images of birds to strike fear into their opponents. Even the United States uses the bald eagle to symbolize freedom and majesty.
Birds are studied, enjoyed and even revered. They are useful and fascinating, big and small, brightly colored and camouflaged, easy to spot and hard to find. And a select few are even famous. Here’s a look at a few of our favorite unforgettable birds.
Disney, Photos by Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection
“Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg.”
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Ugly Duckling”
Is there a better story to give us hope than “The Ugly Duckling”? Danish master Hans Christian Andersen described it as his autobiography, and it’s easy to relate. A misfit endures years of abuse in a farmyard before he emerges as a beautiful, graceful swan, finally finding his true place in the universe. Andersen omitted the “told for children” he normally tacked on to his story titles, and the tale resonated with both young and old. Readers can still identify with the awkward swan and cross their fingers that they, too, are just swimming in the wrong pond.
“The sky is falling!"
Was the sky actually falling? Nope. But Chicken Little—or Chicken Licken, or Henny Penny, depending on which version of the story you’re reading—has stuck around in literature to remind us of the danger of mass hysteria. The story of an animal mistakenly warning of impending doom dates back centuries, and the more familiar story has been around since the 1800s. Some of the versions have happy endings, with the characters escaping the fate of becoming fox food. But some endings teach us never, ever to trust anyone named Foxy Loxy.
Tootsie Roll Industries Inc., Used with permission
“How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? *Crunch* The world may never know.”
—Tootsie Pop commercial
Why do owls seem so intelligent? In 1970, Mr. Owl became the face of Tootsie Pops when he announced that it took three licks and a crunch to get to the center of a tootsie pop. The commercial has aired in 60-, 30- and 15-second versions, the longest involving a boy asking several animals before reaching Mr. Owl. Students at various universities have used human and mechanical tongues to come up with a count, but the results have varied wildly. It seems the world will never know.
"Now obviously, this situation calls for an expert."
The wise old owl sometimes gets it wrong in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. In fact, he often gets it wrong, starting with the spelling of his own name as “Wol.” In stark contrast to the wise old owls of literature and myth, Owl is less like a scholar and more like an uncle blustering at your Thanksgiving table, getting half his stories wrong. In the Hundred Acre Wood, however, wisdom is often found in bears with fluff for brains, and it’s always considered smart to consult a bird.
Courtesy Everett Collection
“Never refer to me as an item. I’m a bird.”
—Big Bird, Sesame Street
It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t seen Big Bird teaching kids the letter and number of the day. This gangly yellow Muppet has starred on Sesame Street for more than 40 years. He loves birdseed milkshakes and his teddy bear, Radar. Despite occasional problems—his nest was destroyed by a hurricane about a decade ago and was rebuilt—Big Bird remains cheerful and kind, which is especially valuable when living so close to a Grouch.
"What’s the big idea?!"
Donald Duck isn’t always friendly, and he isn’t always honest. Goodness knows, he can’t control his temper. But maybe all that makes him a little more fun. He also has staying power. Donald has been around since 1934, and he still makes weekly appearances on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to usher in a whole new generation of duck fans. What’s not to like? He’s the only duck in history to rock a sailor suit, and he’s maintained a lengthy relationship with Daisy, who is clearly out of his league.
Courtesy Everett Collection
"The early bird need not pursue the worm when he can order pizza at midnight.”
—Charles M. Schulz
Woodstock just may be the most articulate bird to never actually speak. He made his first appearance in the Peanuts comic strip in 1967, but it wasn’t until 1970 that he actually got a name. (Yes, he was named after the famous music festival.) He became Snoopy’s best friend and was soon written into Peanuts TV specials. Somehow the beagle always understood the sounds the bird made, but the rest of us were left with mysterious scratches and punctuation marks.
Courtesy of Rovio
Available on lots of platforms, including smartphone, this fun, frenzied video game has been called “one of the great runaway hits of 2010" and "the largest mobile app success the world has seen so far." What are the birds so indignant about? Well, you’d be angry, too, if some evil green pigs stole your eggs. Taking out the porkers is the goal of the game. Bacon and eggs, anyone?
More Famous Birds
Famous birds don’t begin and end with Hollywood. They’ve been around in a big way since ancient times. Here’s a look at a few more!
Phoenix. The ancient Egyptians and many others around the world believed that this colorful bird burst into flame, only to rise again from its own ashes.
Quetzalcoatl. The Aztec serpent-bird god ruled over learning and knowledge.
Roc. Marco Polo supposedly witnessed this huge white bird of prey killing and eating an elephant.
The Raven. Could Edgar Allan Poe’s famous black bird be any creepier?
Archimedes. Merlyn’s pet owl from The Once and Future King is quite the intelligent bird.
Mother Goose. She’s the matriarch of all nursery rhymes. And a goose.
Birds on Film and Television
Woody Woodpecker. Can’t you hear that famous “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” inside your head?
Toucan Sam. This brilliantly colored fellow has sold millions of boxes of Fruit Loops cereal.
The Road Runner. Wile E. Coyote can never quite catch up to this speedy and adorable bird. Meep meep!
Foghorn Leghorn. This Looney Tunes character is a great big rooster with a good ole boy accent.