Thursday, February 20, 2014

Top 10 Fictional Birds Based on Real Birds

Voracious birders tend to look for birds wherever they go, and that includes in fictional sources. For a serious birder, a movie bird is just as much of an opportunity to exercise the ID skills as a legitimate birding trip is. Over the years, movies and video games have included an embarrassing share of "generic" birds that aren't much of anything: usually a boring small passerine, often monochrome. However, a handful of well-known birds in popular culture are probably based on actual species, though it sometimes takes some considerable inference to figure out exactly what. So here is Jon's and my list of Top 10 Fictional Birds Based on Real Birds, in chronological order.

1. Eagles of Manwë from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Golden eagle (first appearance: 1937)

These giant, mysterious, immensely powerful birds of prey are a sort of deus ex machina in the Middle Earth world, always showing up at exactly the right moment. While they are clearly not actually supposed to be golden eagles - they are much larger, sentient, and exist in a fantasy universe - they are probably based on them. One of the first renditions of the giant birds was painted by Tolkien himself and appeared with the original version of The Hobbit. This illustration clearly resembles a golden eagle, and according to Tolkien's son Christopher, the painting was based on a picture of an immature golden eagle by Archilbald Thorburn. With a bit of digging, we found the original painting.

Left: original illustration of an Eagle of Manwë by J.R.R. Tolkien. Right: the painting on which it's based, a golden eagle by Archibald Thorburn (public domain). Interestingly, Thorburn also produced bird illustrations for William Beebe's books (see entry #9 below).

Subsequent renditions of the giant birds are also consistent with this imagery. The officially licensed "Fell Beast vs. Eagle" diorama shows the bird clearly modeled after a golden, including the diagnostic whitish "ankle" fuzz that all golden eagles have (many eagles' leg feathers stop at the ankles, but goldens have feathers all the way down to the feet). The rendition of these eagles seen in the new Peter Jackson Hobbit films is also consistent with this depiction.

Tolkien, in other writings, implies that these eagles might in fact be Maiar - spirits taking a biological form in order to address some important task on Middle Earth - using a bird-shape. If so, it would make sense that such a powerful creature would choose a form inspired by a golden eagle, as golden eagles are known all over the world as being legendary for their power and majesty.