Bird Watcher's General Store

Real Crows Don't Have Yellow Beaks- 12/10/04


Dear Bird Folks:

I have an aunt who likes to collect knickknacks. Believe it or not her favorite things to collect are figurines of crows. What bugs me is that most of the crows in her collection have yellow bills when, of course, crows have black bills. Why are crows so often depicted with yellow bills? I blame that old cartoon "Heckle and Jeckle"in which, for some reason, those two crows had yellow bills. Why?

-Molly, Summerville, MA

Good Molly,

I'm glad to hear about your aunt's knickknack collection. After all, what kind of aunt would she be if she didn't collect knickknacks? Isn't that what distinguishes aunts from regular people? Also, I totally agree with you on the crow thing. I'm constantly fighting with gift companies that still have these lame ideas of what birds are supposed to look like. They make storks with messenger caps on their heads or penguins wearing bow ties. What is that about? And yes, they make tons of yellow-billed crows, with some in straw hats just to put me over the edge.

How many of you reading this right now have to pause for a second and think "hmm, now that I think about it, crows really don't have yellow bills?" That's right, they have solid black bills. I'm not even going to ask how many people had to wonder if they thought crows usually wore straw hats.

There could be several reasons why this yellow-billed crow thing has been sweeping the country. The answer could marketing. Crows are black, all black. I think the Knickknack Association of America (KAA) feels that in order to catch the eye of the world's aunts, they need to add some color. They feel that without a colored bill the crows look more like a dusty piece of fudge sitting on the shelf. I say so what? Who wouldn't want fudge, even dusty fudge?

There may be some marketing involved in this crow scam, Molly, but I think your suggestion about cartoons is more accurate. However, we can't blame Heckle and Jeckle for this one. Heckle and Jeckle aren't crows and they never claimed they were. They are magpies, Yellow-billed Magpies to be exact, which are real birds. The real villain here could be everybody's pal Walt Disney. I have no research to back this up, but I think it was those singing crows in the movie "Dumbo" that started this whole yellow-billed crow fad. For some reason, perhaps only known to now frozen Walt, those Dumbo crows had yellow bills, plus the dreaded straw hats and it's been all down hill from there.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood love to show wildlife featuring a particular stereotype. They've decided that owls should be marketed as wise, so they sell toy owls wearing glasses or graduation caps. What? Owls with glasses? First of all, glasses don't make you wiser, at least they haven't worked for me. Secondly, it would be hard to name a creature that has better vision than an owl. Yet those boneheads think they need to sell owls wearing glasses. I'd like to have been around for that meeting.

Here's another one that bugs me. The next time you are watching a movie, a real movie not a cartoon, listen to the background sounds. I've seen films about people lost in the desert with scary background sounds that couldn't possibly come from that environment. Scary desert sounds might be howling coyotes or rattlesnakes or Mountain lions, even an angry badger would be good. But noooo, what you will often hear are the calls of loons. Loons? That's right loons. Why would Hollywood think that playing loons would actually scare people? Loons are water birds, much like a duck. Who's afraid of a duck?

Here is the best one. Somewhere, somehow, someone decided that Bald Eagles shouldn't sound like they actually do, which is like a gargling chipmunk. It was decided that eagles should sound ominous. So they hired a Red-tailed Hawk to do a voice-over. Since then 90% of the eagles shown on the screen are lip-syncing. Like many recent acts, all the eagle has to do is move its beak and the hawk, with its more menacing voice, does the rest. They both get paid to keep it quiet and the public is none the wiser.

Good luck with your search to find crow items for your aunt Molly. I'm glad you are fighting the stereotype. Believe me I know it's tough. If you get stuck finding something good, let me know. I have some crow's feet that I'd like to get rid of.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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