Bird Buddy Blog

Birds on the drawing board – feathered cartoons and where they came from

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Like the world of birds, the world of cartoons is vibrant and chaotic, and many don’t tend to engage with it much after childhood. (Not you, dear reader!) Of the uncountable birds in animation, there are some who became household names, and here we take a look at their origins.

The cinematic boom of the 1920s spawned several animation studios and, along with human characters, animals became hugely popular with audiences. By anthropomorphising them, (that is, bestowing human behaviours upon them) their creators allowed them to get up to far more than a human character could ever consider reasonable, or even possible. Of all the animals portrayed in cartoons, birds were the most abundant, possibly because we can encounter them often in our daily lives. Especially ducks. They loved the ducks.

Of all the animals portrayed in cartoons, birds were the most abundant.

Wreaking havoc or delighting in sarcastic revenge, these birds would revel in their enemy’s failed exploits. Episodes involved frequent violence whose effects (a throbbing lump on the head here, an exploded tail there) were often inconsequential. Some characters merely used casual psychological abuse in their day-to-day activities, whilst others were more prepared to inflict direct pain: all in the name of entertainment.

Employing a pain scale, we’ll take you through 6 of the most popular animated birds of all time.

Worst pain possible – Daffy Duck

Based on an American Black Duck, Daffy first appeared on the silver screen in 1937 in “Duck Hunt” with a frequent companion, Porky Pig. Violent, aggressive, mean, jealous, scheming, and relentlessly vengeful, Daffy is also verbose, and can be quite eloquent in his misplaced anger, which is made very amusing by his unique spluttering. Voiced by acclaimed vocal actor Mel Blanc for 52 years, this popularly mimicked lisp combined with his overarching ego makes Daffy a perfect blend of visual comedy and schadenfreude. No one feels bad when Daffy’s trademark stick of dynamite rearranges his beak to the back of his head, as he constantly brings it upon himself.

As Bugs Bunny’s fame soared, Daffy’s creators saw a perfect opportunity – instead of consigning this angry black duck to the cutting room floor, they instead chose to focus his envy and rage on Bugs, and Daffy became his arch nemesis, spawning yet another multi-million-dollar franchise through Daffy’s ill-fated attempts to achieve stardom.

Extreme pain – Woody Woodpecker

Sharing physical and vocal characteristics of the flame-headed pileated woodpecker, this cartoon bird was actually based on an acorn woodpecker, as it was one from that species that kept honeymooning couple Walter and Grace Lantz awake one night in their cabin in the Californian hills. Close to dawn, a downpour began, and it was then that the not-so-happy couple found out that the holes that had been drummed all night long were in fact in their cabin roof. Walter wanted to go out and shoot the bird, but calming him down, Grace appealed to his artistic side as an animator and suggested instead he make a cartoon character out of it. Citing artistic licence, Woody took on the likeness of the pileated woodpecker, as the red crest and maniacal laugh suited the frenzied nature of our protagonist perfectly. Over time, again due to censorship as he moved from the big screen to television in the 1950s, Woody was redesigned from the elongated and frankly bonkers woodpecker to a smaller, milder, cuter version. His blue-black plumage lightened to royal blue, and his quiff moved further forward on his head to give less of a lunatic appearance. He became far less wilful, causing only minor mischief. However it has to be said that when he did inflict pain, it usually had a sort of virtuous message: setting light to poachers, electrifying illegal foresters, that kind of thing. 

This cartoon bird was actually based on an acorn woodpecker.

Initially voiced by Mel Blanc, Woody’s signature laugh was delivered by other actors, finally coming full circle with his last long-term voice supplied by the very person who suggested him in the first place, Grace Lantz, stage name Stafford.

The birding community spent some time hotly debating the ID of Woody until renowned US ornithologist Kimball Garrett clarified the origins after Walter Lantz gave him a copy of his biography in the late 80s.

Severe pain – Foghorn Leghorn

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“Pay, I say, pay attention, boy! Boy’s got a mouth like a cannon, always shooting it off… Now, that was a joke, son, that was a joke!”

Episodes involved frequent violence.

Foghorn is an overweight and very tall rooster who physically and mentally assaults other birds, cats and dogs, using his considerable girth as well as other farmyard objects like rakes, planks of wood, axe-heads, pitchforks, cartwheels, lassos, and so on. He also makes regular sotto voce asides to ‘camera’ breaking the fourth wall during his put-downs: “He’s so dumb he thinks the Mexican border pays rent”, he mocks from behind a raised white-fingered wing. In his eyes he is nurturing and informative, and if he were created today, we may refer to him as a “gaslighter”, were it not for his pompous blustering that exposes him as simply full of himself with no-one else to talk to.

Foghorn Leghorn was actually inspired by a fictional TV Senator who in turn was based on a real-life Texas rancher. His name Foghorn refers to his propensity to talk loudly, confidently and at length on any subject, and Leghorn is an Italian breed of chicken.

Moderate pain – Tweety Pie

Originally called Sweetie Pie but changed to Tweety due to a speech impediment bestowed upon him by Mel Blanc, Tweety is a male yellow canary. He actually began life in 1942 as a nonspecific naked and pink baby bird born in the wild, whose temperament seemed to come from Hell – a diminutive yet aggressive character, he originally delighted in Sylvester the Cat’s doomed attempts to catch him, often grinning maliciously and narrating the worst turns of events in a deep growly voice. Censor objection and a desire to appeal to more families covered up his ‘nakedness’, when in 1945 he was given his now familiar bright yellow feathers, and he became “cuter”, with big blue eyes and a higher voice. Taking a backseat in the cat shenanigans, he would eventually just sit by and watch the inept Sylvester’s failures, but not before innocently proclaiming his manipulative signature line “I tawt I taw a puddy tat! I did, I did taw a puddy tat!”, thereby dropping the poor feline in it and eventually getting what he wants.

Slight pain – Road Runner

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Possibly one of the truest to physical form cartoon characters, Wile E. Coyote’s just-out-of-reach quarry simply tore up and down the rocky desert plains of Arizona throughout every cartoon, blurting “Beep beep!” as he sped past the eternally hungry canine. Inflicting no harm himself, the Road Runner would still gleefully look on as yet another madcap plot to capture him involving various Acme products literally blew up in Coyote’s face. Roadrunner would even screech to a halt and return to the cliff-edge just to watch Wile E.’s plummeting form recede and then thud at the bottom of a canyon, a rising dust cloud all that remained; until the next episode. Roadrunners, also known as chaparral cocks, are indeed fast-running ground cuckoos that have been known to run at speeds in excess of 25mph.

No pain – Woodstock

The Buddhist of the cartoon bird world.

The Buddhist of the cartoon bird world, Woodstock has no known species origin; creator Charles Schulz has never identified him, leaving us to only know his name comes from the 1969 music festival.

Even his best friend Snoopy has a go at identifying him with his field guide, musing at times if he is a Carolina wren, American bittern, yellow-billed cuckoo and even a Canada goose. Defeated, Snoopy exclaims, “For all I know, you’re a duck!” to which our tiny feathered friend takes great umbrage and cries, until he is comforted back to mirth by a very contrite Snoopy.

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Woodstock wasn’t the first bird to appear in the much-loved Peanuts series; Snoopy would regularly share his kennel with many birds for their union meetings or for their card games, but initially he would allow tired migrating birds to rest awhile on his rooftop or on his stomach. It was there, on the perfect white mound of his warm belly, that one bird built a nest, and in it hatched two chicks. Both left with momma for their winter migration, but one found that his flying skills were very poor, and as he watched his mother and sibling fly south across the autumn skies, he headed back to the place he first knew as home, and stayed there, with Snoopy, shunning migration for life-long friendship. Snoopy and Woodstock had their arguments like all good friends but never a cruel word was said; Woodstock would often be right anyway.