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.

2. Galliforms from BambiRing-necked pheasant and California quail (1942)

Bambi has its fair share of generic, primary-colored monochrome passerines, but otherwise it does a reasonably decent job of representing actual species. There's a great horned owl, a brief appearance of what are probably pileated woodpeckers, a robin, mallards, and a handful of galliforms that make repeated appearances. One of these is a mother quail with a long line of little babies. The physical appearance of this quail mother most closely resembles a California quail: the females have topknots like the males do (though smaller), but the babies should not have them. It could also be a Gambel's quail, but the range maps of the other Bambi critters suggest it takes place further north than Gambel's quails stray. The movie is based on an original novel (which is a beautiful read and I highly recommend it) by Felix Salten and is meant to take place in Germany or Austria, but the species diversity of the movie clearly indicates it's meant to take place in western North America, probably in the wilds of Oregon or Washington state. This is consistent with the range maps for white-tailed deer (as they were in the 40s, when the movie was made), skunks, rabbits, etc.

Left: female California quail by Alan Vernon (creative commons). Right: Screenshot of quail with babies from Bambi.

The other notable galliform is the ring-necked pheasant, a mother of which makes a repeated appearance, also with babies. There's one particularly harrowing scene where a group of pheasants is hiding in the tall grass from a hunter, and one female is unable to control her fear and ends up flying and getting shot. These pheasants are all meant to be females in the context of the movie, and indeed their coloration is more akin to that of female ring-necks, but they all strangely have the bit of head-tuft distinct only to male pheasants. As the movie accurately portrays, ring-necked pheasants are a popular game bird and were in fact originally introduced to North America with the sole intention of hunting them.

Left: female ring-necked pheasant by Marek Szczepanek (creative commons). Right: screenshot of pheasant from Bambi.

3. The Birds from The Fox and the Hound: Great-horned owl, red-headed woodpecker, and American goldfinch (1981)

The Fox and the Hound is one of the only Disney movies I can think of whose inclusion of actual animal species is fairly accurate for its region. Again, this may or may not be intentional on the part of the writers, and may be a happy coincidence. The movie famously features a trio of birds that are reasonably recognizable. The first, Big Mama, is obviously a great horned owl: large, powerful, with spotted breast and prominent ear-tufts. Great horned owls are widespread across most of North America, so this is no problem.

Left: screenshot of Big Mama from Fox and the Hound. Right: great-horned owl by Eric Liskay (used with permission).

The obligate "sidekick and comic relief duo" is comprised of Boomer, a large woodpecker, and Dinky, a small, dull-yellow passerine. Boomer is fairly obviously a red-headed woodpecker, with his striking red head and two-toned black and white wings and body (perhaps a nearly-grown subadult, since he has some small breast spots). Dinky is harder to puzzle out, since he is a fairly nondescript dull-yellow passerine. So let's look at geographic location to narrow him down:

We have a handful of distinct species in this movie, most of which have limited ranges. Other than the great-horned owl, red-headed woodpecker, and obvious red fox, we also have a black bear, an American badger, and a porcupine. Red-headed woodpeckers are eastern North American species. However, we also know that Dinky and Boomer migrate in the winter, which means that the movie must take place in the northern edge of their ranges, since red-headed woodpeckers don't migrate in most of the continental US. American badgersporcupines, and black bears all have ranges that extend to the west and to north-eastern NA, though. If you overlap the range maps, there is one general region that stands out as being a perfect overlap: the swath of north-midwest interior ranging from northern Minnesota down to northern Michigan and southern Ontario.

Left: screenshot of Dinky and Boomer from Fox and the Hound. Right: red-headed woodpecker by Dave Menke (creative commons).

So what about Dinky? My first instinct is that he's probably intended to be an American goldfinch, but his coloration is much more typical of females. He could be a juvenile or a male with female coloring, which does sometimes happen in the bird world. His small size suggests perhaps a kinglet, wren or warbler, but his bill is much more finchlike. His coloration also doesn't change from winter to summer, which it would if he were an adult warbler or finch with typical male coloring. He's a bit of a puzzle, but my final opinion is that he's probably a goldfinch with juvenile or typically-female plumage. This is consistent with the aforementioned range map, which would place the movie squarely in the region of southern Ontario, northern Minnesota, or the northern tip of Michigan.

Left: Screenshot of Dinky from Fox and the Hound. Right: Female American goldfinch by Darren Swim (creative commons). 

Woodpeckers are voracious insectivores, and while finches are mostly seed- and thistle-eaters, they do occasionally go after insects, which would explain the movie-long obsession with catching the caterpillar. Shame that we never get to see Big Mama take a big meal, though.

4. Marahute from Disney's The Rescuers Down Under: Haast's eagle (1990)

I've seen a lot of people refer to Marahute as a "golden eagle", clearly because of her fierce nature and gorgeous golden plumage. She's also referred to as "the great golden eagle" in the movie, but this has to be more of a descriptor than a species name. There are a few major issues with the golden eagle ID: her plumage pattern doesn't quite match up to that of a golden eagle, which have dark underparts and golden heads, with dark brown barred wings and tail. Marahute is entirely white underneath with no dark areas or bars. Secondly, golden eagles do not live anywhere close to Australia, being confined almost entirely to the northern hemisphere. Lastly, her large size seems highly aberrant, and while it could be shrugged off as just an exaggerated Disneyism, there might be a more plausible explanation.

Haast's eagle is a recently-extinct bird thought to have been extinguished around 1400 by Maori hunting of its primary food source, moas, and deforestation. It is well-known as the largest bird of prey currently known to mankind, with a wingspan approaching ten feet across in larger female specimens. This is still smaller than Marahute appeared in the movie, but such an exaggeration seems a little more reasonable in context of a Haast's eagle being the largest known raptor. All specimens of the Haast's eagle are known from New Zealand, and while it may or may not have strayed so far as Australia, it's at least within the realm of possibility.

Left: illustration of Haast's eagle by John Megahan (creative commons). Right: screenshot of Marahute from The Rescuers Down Under.

Perhaps most interestingly, though, is that Marahute's ID as a Haast's eagle also makes considerably more sense in the context of the movie. As you'll know if you've seen it, one of the main plot thrusts of the Rescuers Down Under is the preservation of Marahute and her eggs from the evil poacher McLeach, who had previously killed Marahute's mate. Marahute's species is implied to be significantly endangered, which golden eagles (as well as Australia's three indigenous eagle species) are not. It can therefore be implied that perhaps Marahute isn't just rare, she and her eggs may be literally the last of her species: a hidden relic of bygone centuries.

Haast's eagle or not, Marahute's coloration seems to be loosely based on the Australian white-bellied sea eagle.

5. Iago from Aladdin: Scarlet macaw (1992)

Psittaciformes are confined almost entirely to the southern hemisphere, with notable presence in south and central America, Oceania, India and southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. They are noticeably absent from the middle east/central Asia where the original Arabian Nights tales are supposed to have taken place.

Left: Screenshot of Iago from Aladdin. Right: Scarlet macaw from Wikimedia Commons uploaded by user VC-s.

Iago clearly resembles a macaw parrot, and is probably meant to represent a simplified color scheme of a scarlet macaw (the white unfeathered facial area is a big giveaway). Scarlet macaws are central and south American parrots and it's hard to imagine how someone in the middle east would have acquired one in the time the Aladdin story was intended to take place. However, one very notable line from Jafar in the movie may provide a little bit of a clue as to how Iago might possibly be a South American bird.

6. Chocobos from the Final Fantasy series: Derived galliform (Most notable appearance: 1997)

Chocobos are a popular species of large, (usually) flightless bird that is ridden and cared for in the series much like real-life horses, which are absent from the series. They first appeared in the series in Final Fantasy II, but VII was the first game where any details of their biology and anatomy were revealed. Chocobos, being very large and flightless, superficially resemble ratites, but a number of contextual and anatomical features point more towards them being, essentially, really freakin' huge chickens.

One of the diagnostic features of ratites - ostriches, emus, cassowaries, and related animals - is that they entirely lack a hallux, the small inner toe that is reversed in most species of perching bird. Ratites have adapted very nicely to a cursorial lifestyle, which as in many cursorial lineages (again, see horses) involves a reduction in number of phalanges that contact the ground - in some cases to the extreme, as ostriches only have two toes, one of which is highly reduced. Chocobos, though, only have three toes, but one of these is a functional reversed hallux. What use would a cursorial, flightless bird have for a reversed hallux? Well, the answer may be in Final Fantasy IX, which features a type of Chocobo that can actually fly. So it must be the case that Chocobos are very recently flightless birds, having descended from a recently flying ancestor. Certain species or subspecies of them, therefore, may still be able to fly, perhaps with some selective breeding. This is also consistent with the fact that official art shows Chocobo retrices as being asymmetrical, which would only be possible if the lineage were only very recently flightless. All of this is consistent with the placement of Chocobos as galliforms closely related to chickens rather than as ratites.

Left: Illustration of Chocobo from Final Fantasy X, taken from Final Fantasy wiki. Right: photograph of chicken by Wikimedia Commons user Iskrin (creative commons).

This, of course, begs the question of why people in the Final Fantasy universe never seem to eat them. They're farmed, bred, and very large birds, which would make them the perfect candidates for a harvested livestock animal for towns and villages. Mm... tastes like Chocobo.

7. The Bird from A Bug's LifeSummer tanager (first-spring male) (1998)

The bird in A Bug's Life has no name, and represents a sort of natural power that no bug can contend with, not even the villainous grasshopper named Hopper. This bird is largely yellow with a reddish head and shoulders, and makes various appearances in the movie. It could potentially be a tropical bird, so the first order to business is to narrow down the location where A Bug's Life takes place. This is actually fairly easy to do, as in the first few minutes of the movie, one of Hopper's underlings comments that Hopper was once "almost eaten by a blue jay". Blue jays only live in the eastern US, so we know the movie must take place somewhere in this area.

Of possible birds confined to this region, the Bird looks by far most like a summer tanager first-year male. Adult summer tanagers are all-red and females are mostly yellow, but first-spring males have yellow bodies with splotchy red shoulders and red heads, a fairly dead ringer for the Bird in A Bug's Life. The mystery is: why is a first-spring male tanager feeding a nest of chicks... in late fall? I assume this was just a cock-up on the part of the writers, but we see the bird having a nest of eggs in the summer, and then having chicks to feed "after the last leaf has dropped". Birds in the eastern US nest in the spring, so this doesn't make a lot of sense.

Left: Screenshot of The Bird from A Bug's Life. Right: photograph of immature summer tanager by Dennis King (used with permission).

There's also the question of why a juvenile is feeding chicks, when usually passerines only breed after their adult plumage has come in. There is evidence of cooperative breeding in related tanager species, though, so I suppose it's not totally outside the realm of possibility that the Bird is an older sibling of the current brood, and the actual parents are nowhere to be seen. In any case, the Bird's feeding habits are certainly accurate in the movie, as it is a voracious insectivore and both hymenopterans and orthopterans are high on the menu.

8. The 5th Colossus (Avion) from Shadow of the ColossusArchaeopteryx (2005)

Shadow of the Colossus is an adventure game for the Playstation 2 that revolves around the tracking down and slaying of 16 massive giant creatures ('Colossi') made of stone and earth. Most of these creatures have some design similarity to living things: several are humanoid, one looks like an eel, several are based on quadrupedal mammals, etc. The fifth Colossus - the battle with which takes place in an enormous lake - is clearly supposed to be some kind of bird, but its shape seems unmistakably based on that of Archaeopteryx (look at that tail!).

Left: Screenshot of "Avion" from Shadow of the Colossus. Right: Illustration of Archaeopteryx by Emily Willoughby.

There's not quite as much to say about this one, other than that, if intentional, it may be the first depiction of an archaeopterygid in any video game. Its remains also sink to the bottom of the massive lake when defeated - perhaps an unintentional Archie reference.

9. Kevin from Pixar's Up: Himalayan monal pheasant (2009)

Up is an interesting case where several seemingly unrelated references overlap in a way that actually makes sense. It's completely unclear whether all of this was intentional on the part of the writers: you decide.

Kevin looks at first glance like an unrealistic, overly-stylized "generic bird", but she (yes, she) does appear to be based on a real bird, though some of the details of her anatomy have been changed. Though much larger, presumably flightless, and more ratite-shaped in general, Kevin seems to be modeled loosely after a male Himalayan monal pheasant, a very colorful galliform bird indigenous to the cold, high-altitude temperate forests of the Himalayan region.

Left: Male and female Himalayan monal pheasants by Charles Knight (public domain). This painting was created for use in William Beebe's A Monograph of the Pheasants. Right: Kevin from Up (taken from Pixar wiki).

But what's especially interesting about the idea of Kevin being based on a Himalayan monal lies in the similarity of the movie's main villain, Charles Muntz, to the early 20th century explorer William Beebe. Much like Muntz, Beebe was an intrepid explorer who went on various expeditions to India, the Galápagos Islands, Brazil, and British Guiana. Many of Beebe's expeditions - including those to South America - were for the sole purpose of collecting and researching bird specimens, and on them he studied dozens of bird species that had never before been studied in the wild. He was also a renowned deep-sea diver and named and described numerous sea animals as well. Some of these creatures were so fantastical that for many years the validity of these discoveries was questioned by the media and by scientists, and ichthyologists continue to debate whether some of them are valid species. Charles Muntz of Up had a similar issue, when the giant bird skeleton he brought back to America was called a fake and his reputation destroyed. The fictional "Paradise Falls" from Up is based on a park in Venezuela, and Beebe also made multiple expeditions to Venezuela. Beebe was also a well-known friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who Muntz claimed to have played gin rummy with on a safari to Somalia ("he cheated"). They even look somewhat similar (it's the mustache):

Left: William Beebe in 1921 (public domain). Right: Screenshot of Charles Muntz from Up.

It's hard to say for sure whether the similarity between Muntz and Beebe is coincidental or intended by the writers. It's possible that Muntz was based simply on the stereotype of the early 1900s American explorer, a stereotype that William Beebe strongly informed. However, Beebe was the first explorer who observed and documented the Himalayan monal pheasant in the wild, and Kevin is clearly based on this bird. This is a little too much coincidence for me to comfortably stomach, so I'd hazard a guess that at least someone on the Pixar writing team was familiar with William Beebe and his work.

Incidentally, the illustration of monal pheasants above is by the esteemed Charles Knight. (How many of you knew he used to illustrate birds alongside his paleoart?)

10. Loftwings from Skyward Sword: Shoebill (2011)

This latest in the main-line series of the Legend of Zelda prominently featured a species of bird large enough to be ridden in flight by human characters. These birds are highly intelligent, empathetic, and form a deep bond with their human rider. They have a certain prehistoric quality about them, with a strong S-curve neck and ponderous bill. They are in fact based reasonably closely on a species of very large African stork known as the shoebill.

Shoebills are highly predatory, solitary birds that don't have much in common with Loftwings demeanor-wise, but the visual similarity is unmistakable, and the similarity has been publicly acknowledge by Nintendo in the book Hyrule Historia.

Left: Official art of Princess Zelda and her Loftwing companion (taken from Zelda wiki). Right: Shoebill stork by Bob Owen (creative commons).

Given the similar physiology, it stands to reason that Loftwings would have a similar diet to shoebills as well. Shoebills are primarily piscivorous but are also known to ingest a wide variety of small animals including lizards, turtles, small mammals and occasionally other birds. However, the Loftwings of Skyward Sword are confined to the handful of floating islands above the clouds, and will not descend to the surface world below the clouds. This begs the question of what on the floating islands could sustain so many large carnivorous birds, since there are no large bodies of water or forested areas (this also begs the question of what the humans of Skyloft eat as well... other than pumpkins, anyway).

So many birds, so few movies!

Finding "real birds" in games and movies is a big treat to birders, and it's relatively rare. There are some movie birds whose species are explicitly obvious, like Harry Potter's Hedwig being a snowy owl, and movies like Zambezia and The Owls of Ga'Hoole are chock-full of "real" birds. But all too commonly creators of games, movies and television shows don't seem to put any thought into what birds they're using, or any thought into bird design beyond what will look cool or interesting. So let this be a shout-out to all fictional creators to please put some thought into your birds! There are those of us out there who really appreciate it.

To those reading, what birds in fictional sources have you been able to identify? Share your IDs!


  1. Rescuers was an interesting idea! I always just assumed it was a stylized Wedge-Tailed Eagle but what you proposed makes more sense now that I think about it. Wish there was a way to find out for sure.

    1. The wedge-tailed eagle was indeed one of the species we considered for Marahute. It definitely has more of a golden sheen than the white-belly. Maybe the artists referenced various Australian eagles when designing her color scheme.

    2. I always thought she might have been a Haast's eagle.

    3. I tend to lean toward the "various Austarlasian eagles" theory. her color scheme looks like a lighter version of a white-bellied sea eagle, for instance.

  2. Fantastic post, Emily!

    As a side note, the original Aladdin of the Thousand and One Nights* is in fact set even further east yet: in China -- though very much a fictionalised China seen through a middle-eastern perspective.

    *There are further complications here as Aladdin was never among the original manuscripts of the Thousand and One Nights, but has come to be regarded as belonging with the Nights when the first French (and European) translation was published with its inclusion by Antoine Galland. But I digress very heavily from your original post...

    1. Thanks for the comment, Natee! When researching the history of Aladdin, I found the same issue: that the original tales were generally set further east, but that the Aladdin story was not among them and was added much later. I think I was unable to pinpoint exactly where that tale was supposed to have been set - and when - but I think it's safe to assume that Disney rendition was intended to be set in the middle east (though time period is another question. I assumed it to take place around the 12th century as in the original tales, but Disney retellings of old tales are usually so needlessly chopped up and altered that it's anyone's best guess).

    2. Oh, yes, the Disney version is 'generic fictionalised middle east', certainly. I wouldn't worry about when it's meant to be, though. Determining any specific location and period in Disney films is almost a pointless exercise. I remember someone describing it as like 'throwing a dart at a board'. They're always a complete hodge-podge.

  3. Great article :) I've heard the suggestion that Kevin in Up! is actually inspired, in part, by phorusrhacids. If you recall the scene where we see a skeleton in Muntz's collection, I think it has tridactyl, clawed forelimbs - these perhaps being similar to the clawed hands once thought typical for these birds.

    1. Thanks Darren! And yes, I think this is the relevant screenshot. Seems to have an oddly long tail, too.

  4. What about the clash of the rocs in the Adventures of Sinbad (1979) = Teratorn vs super-Archaeopteryx! Beat that!!! (starts at about 9:00)

    Erm...Marahute's wings are proportionally far too large for her to be Harpagornis. However, there *is* an undescribed huge accipitrid from Pleistocene Australia (presented at CAVEPS by Priscilla Gaffe a few years back) that was probably in the same size range. Highly fragmentary but probably not closely related to Harpagornis or the modern Aquila.

  5. "it may be the first depiction of an archaeopterygid in any video game"

    Archaeopteryx shows up as a background animal in Carnivores: Ice Age.

  6. Great article. I read this article properly. This is one of the best posts. Thanks sharing this article
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