What, if Anything, is Big Bird?

Years ago, when I was in the early stages of my PhD, I gave a joke presentation at a graduate student conference on the taxonomy and evolution of Big Bird. It was the sort of thing you’d see at any conference on avian evolution: a Latin name, reconstructed skeleton, possible place on the great evolutionary tree of birds. The tone was completely serious, despite the subject matter—the sort of thing that might be found in the Journal of Irreproducible Results back when it was funny.

Then, in the storage cabinets of the Berlin Museum of Natural History one summer’s day, I had a revelation—an original scientific insight that I am happy now to share with the world. I realised what kind of bird Big Bird almost certainly is, and figured out something of its evolutionary history.

I presented my findings at the Christchurch PechaKucha #8 in May, and now the audio and (more-or-less) synchronised slides have been uploaded. (A pecha-kucha is a talk in which 20 slides play for exactly 20 seconds each, and the speaker tries to keep up.) All the science is real, and no Big Birds were harmed in the course of this research. Enjoy.


(This talk was BoingBoinged, twice! And I got a mention on the NPR blog too, so my status as card-carrying member of the Liberal Elite is forever assured.)

I also tweeted from Christchurch PechaKucha #8, as the format seemed well-suited to Twitter.

First, a pronunciation lesson from Mark Dytham: Pe-CHACH-ka. Perhaps easier to say if you’re drunk. • The effects of being in a car crash described as a “rapid decline in function” by a medical student. • “In 1981, Queenstown was less like Aspen, more like Twin Peaks.” • “Spotlight is my happy place: everybody else is so miserable there.” Chloe Geoghegan showed us her lovely embroidered naive signwriting. • The Master of Ceremonies got progressively drunker and more touchyfeely over the course of the evening. Called Christchurch “Auckland” not once but three times. • Jo Burzynska coined the word Oenomatapeia: music made from recording the sounds of rustling vines and gurgling fermenting wine. • The best quote of the night: “I had a recurring dream about a man putting me in the ground, cutting me up, and turning me into women’s bottoms.” • And an awkward moment afterwards: well-wishers complimented my deadpan jokes, like claiming to have a “PhD in giant flightless birds”. Yuk yuk.

6 thoughts on “What, if Anything, is Big Bird?

  1. Pingback: What, If Anything, Is Big Bird? | Pop Meme

  2. WallabyJoe

    From the MuppetWiki article on Big Bird: “In the Sesame Street Live production Everyone Makes Music, after Big Bird sings Rockin’ Robin, Baby Bear remarks that Big Bird is one rockin’ robin, and Big Bird remarks, “Actually I’m a canary.” “

  3. stevethehydra

    Why isn’t it a phorusrhacid? Titanis already had the modified wing, couldn’t it be a descendant gone herbivorous, paedomorphic and more dextrous for plant-grasping – a sort of giant panda analogue?

    Plus then you would get potential for a time travel episode in which Big Bird gets freaked out on meeting his bigger and scarier ancestor…

  4. Carol Sorber

    While looking for a pecha-kucha to use as a training example for my PBS colleagues, I ran across your presentation, “What, if anything, is Big Bird.” It’s fantastic! I don’t actually know Big Bird — he’s a big star and I’m pretty low on the corporate totem pole — but I’m sure he’d be delighted to know you’ve traced his ancestry.

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