By Daniel Rigney
Our younger son has made me a fan of the animated comedy, Family Guy. You may know that one of the show’s running musical gags goes: “Everybody’s heard about the bird, ba-ba-ba-bird bird bird, bird is the word.” If you’re of a certain age, you may remember that line from a popular novelty surf-rock song of the early sixties.
That song has me thinking more generally about bird memes in American culture. We have cat memes, vampire and zombie memes, and coffee-with-jesus memes out there, but let us not neglect our precious (and sometimes endangered) bird memes.
The most widely-recognized bird meme in U.S. culture is probably the American Eagle, found not only on various organizational emblems, but also on automobiles, athletic uniforms, and in nature documentaries on PBS and the Discovery Channel. The actual bald eagle now flourishes in its native habitats, but it has been and may yet be on our list of endangered species.
The turkey, Ben Franklin’s first choice as our national bird, has become instead the unfortunate (for the turkey) centerpiece of a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner table. If Franklin had had his way, would we now be sitting down each November to (perish the thought) a feast of eagle and yams?
Other significant bird memes include teal, which is the name not only of a variety of duck, but also (to my eye) a peaceful and beautiful color somewhat resembling the colors of the Oregon Ducks or the Philadelphia Eagles. Other pro and college bird mascots include cardinals, falcons, hawks (including seahawks), ravens, orioles, and a favorite of mine, the athenian owls (e.g., of Rice University in Houston).
If political orientations were colors, I would probably describe myself as a teal, or bluish-green, Democrat.
Let’s not forget the dove, a traditional spiritual symbol of peace. Lately, mourning doves seem to have made a home in our back yard, and they sometimes come over to share dinner gracefully with our dachshunds.
A more somber symbol is the blackbird, singing in the dead of night, as the Beatles sang its song on their legendary “white album.” Baltimore’s Edgar Allen Poe's depiction was equally somber: “Quoth the raven, nevermore.”
A more recent and hopeful bird meme to land in our cultural backyard is Twitter, whose logo is the bluebird of happiness. Long may it fly, and may the silent spring, bereft of birdsong, that Rachel Carson warned of in her environmental classic by that name, never arrive on these or any other shores.