Transcript

754: Spark Bird

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Last week, I went out in the woods in Oregon with this bird expert, Noah Strycker, looking at birds. Every day he goes out for at least an hour-- often, it's a lot more-- on trails around his house that he and his parents cleared back when he was a kid. And I'd never been birding. I had no idea how much of bird watching you're actually just listening for the birds. When we'd set out in the morning, it was still foggy.

Noah Strycker

Already, I can hear some birds calling now. So there's a spotted towhee, [IMITATING BIRD CALL], calling just behind me. That [IMITATING BIRD CALL] was a California quail waking up. Did you hear that little [IMITATING BIRD CALL]? [BIRD CALL] That was the sound of a Steller's jay imitating a red-tailed hawk.

Ira Glass

Wait, you know the birds well enough you can tell when a bird is imitating another bird badly?

Noah Strycker

Yeah, it's not a real red-tailed hawk. Steller's jays are just kind of bullies, in general, and they imitate red tailed hawks, as far as I can tell, just to terrorize other little birds in the forest.

Ira Glass

Does it work?

Noah Strycker

I don't know, honestly.

Ira Glass

What's weird about this is if Noah can tell that it's not a red-tailed hawk, and he's not even a bird, can't other birds tell? If they can, why would the Steller jay keep doing it? To answer that question, Noah tells me about how, a couple of years ago, he bought this powerful microphone, a parabolic microphone, that could capture bird sounds from a great distance.

Noah Strycker

The first bird I ever aimed it at was a Steller's jay sitting up on a branch.

Ira Glass

So he turned on his recorder, put on headphones, and waited for it to make some noise.

Noah Strycker

And I realized it was sitting up there with its beak closed, singing a very quiet whisper song to itself that only itself could have possibly heard because it was so quiet. That just blew my mind. I have never listened to birds the same sense. So I think they do make noises just for their own sake a lot of the time.

Ira Glass

Going out birding with Noah is going out with somebody who is insanely knowledgeable about birds. He's written five books about their behavior, toured the world, seeing 6,000 of the nearly 11,000 existing bird species in just one year, in 2015. So he knows a lot. But he's also still completely excited about birds. Can't get enough.

He told me this story. He goes to Antarctica for months studying penguins, and sometimes he gives tours to visitors of the penguin colonies. At first he says they love it.

Noah Strycker

They go into their colony, they see the baby penguins, which are super cute. And then, like, day five or so, people get up in the morning and they're like, where are we going to go today? And you say, we're going to a penguin colony. And there's this look that I've learned to recognize. It's like, I've just been to eight other penguin colonies in the past four days. How is this one going to be any different? But for me, I have never felt that look in my whole life. I have never got penguined out.

Ira Glass

He happily goes back to the same colony, or the same woods around his house, every single day. Noah says this endless interest in birds began in sort of typical ways. In fifth grade, he first noticed birds for real when his teacher suction-cupped a bird feeder to the classroom window, and he could stare at the birds through the glass just inches away.

He started reading the field guide, looking for birds on his own, joined a local birding club. Everybody else in the club, by the way, was in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. He was like 12. The one kid. This energetic, birdy Doogie Howser. In person, Noah actually does have kind of a Neil Patrick Harris vibe.

But the thing he says that changed him from that kind of leisure time birder into somebody who organized his entire life around it happened because of turkey vultures, one particular pack of them, when he was 16. And he saw this episode of a TV show called The Life of Birds, where David Attenborough goes into a Trinidadian rainforest.

Noah Strycker

And he has this smelly old piece of steak in his hand. And then he buries the steak under the leaflet, or on the forest floor in the rainforest.

David Attenborough

Let me hide it.

Noah Strycker

And then backs off, and then they cut. And then 45 minutes later, this turkey vulture comes sailing down through the canopy of that forest and flies unerringly right to the spot where the steak is and digs it up, moves the leaves aside, and gets the meat.

David Attenborough

It seems almost unbelievable.

Noah Strycker

When I saw that on The Life of Birds as a high schooler, I just immediately had one thought, which was, I've got to try this at home. That is the like best bird feeding idea I've ever seen in my life.

Ira Glass

It seemed incredible to him that he might be able to lure these birds that you usually see from so far away. Turkey vultures are shy, hard to get near, and he might be able to see them close up? Then he thought, if David Attenborough got one bird to show up with some old piece of steak, maybe he would improve his odds if his bait was something bigger.

Noah Strycker

Imagine how many turkey vultures I could attract with, like, a dead deer. There are so many deer here in rural Oregon on the side of the highways and freeways. I can now go out and find roadkill, bring a whole carcass home, and see how many turkey vultures we can attract. But it was kind of hard to find a roadkill, as it turned out. It took me, like, a month to track one down.

Ira Glass

Another way to put that last sentence, if you aren't a 16-year-old very eager to see turkey vultures up close-- it only took a month to find a deer carcass. Noah wrestled the heavy, bloated, gaseous, yellow jacket-covered, putrid-smelling deer into the trunk of his Volvo sedan.

Noah Strycker

Got home, put the deer in a wheelbarrow, wheeled it out to this very spot, where we're standing in this pasture, and dumped it.

Ira Glass

So it's, like, right here where we're standing?

Noah Strycker

This is the spot I chose.

Ira Glass

At this point in our bird walk, we were standing within eyeshot of the house that he grew up in, but not too close. The cow pasture's overgrown, Douglas firs and white oaks around its edges.

Noah Strycker

I thought this would be a good spot because you can see it from the sky, it has multiple approach paths from the air, so they will be as attracted as possible to this deer carcass.

Ira Glass

It was dark, so he went to bed, no idea if this was going to work. Gets up the next morning--

Noah Strycker

And there were turkey vultures everywhere. They were sitting on these trees right here. There were vultures sitting on the roof of our house, like 10 of them lined up on our roof. There were vultures circling overhead. There were probably 30 or 40 turkey vultures hanging around the yard. And when I woke up and realized that this had happened, I was so happy.

I rushed out here. And I had set up a little camouflage tarp next to the deer carcass. The tarp was just kind of in this wet grass. So if I come over here, I was hunkered down right about here. So if I get down, I was sitting under the tarp with a hole in it, and my camera lens sticking out.

Ira Glass

He's maybe 10 feet from the deer. He waited.

Noah Strycker

And then finally, it was like magic. The first one came down. And once one came down, they all started just piling down.

Ira Glass

It wasn't like what he imagined. He thought it was going to be chaos, like a pack of lions ripping into a zebra. What unfolded was very polite.

Noah Strycker

They were just delicately walking around it, standing on top of it, and starting to pick at it gingerly. It wasn't a brute force kind of thing, at all, and they were very well-behaved, I thought. There was almost, like, a pecking order involved. They knew which birds were going to eat first, and they adhered to it.

Ira Glass

Oh, so it was very orderly?

Noah Strycker

It was an orderly scene of turkey vultures eating their breakfast.

Ira Glass

Where did they start?

Noah Strycker

I thought it was so cool. So the softest parts of the deer, that's where the turkey vultures would start sticking their heads into. I was expecting them to tear a big hole in the side and just go at it, but that's not what happened at all. They actually started by pecking the eyes out. I guess those are the softest part of the deer. So they went for the eyeballs. And then they went in and very carefully ate the gums out of the deer, like around its teeth.

Ira Glass

They had to go for the soft parts because they don't have very strong feet or beaks. Instead, a turkey vulture just kind of sticks its head up inside the body. Its head is bald and red, with no feathers.

Noah Strycker

--which is handy for sticking inside of carcasses and not getting your feathers all messed up.

Ira Glass

The turkey vultures next start eating around the wound on the deer's shoulder, from where it got hit on the highway. Took turns eating around there until they got a big enough opening to get access to the chest and guts and everything else. Noah would go off in the mornings and do tennis camp and other kid stuff, then come back to his tarp for hours and hours.

Noah Strycker

I don't know how many hours I spent out here that week, but it was full afternoons, pretty much every day, all week long. So I got to see the whole process. At the beginning, the deer carcass was relatively fresh, and then gradually, it was stripped away. And by day five or day six, they were starting to disassemble the skeleton that was pretty much picked clean.

It was like being drawn into another world that exists in this world, that we are very seldom a part of. Being so close to these birds that don't normally allow us to get that close to them was like passing through some kind of force field or something, and emerging on their side of the divide, and feeling that.

Ira Glass

Yeah. And their world is not the same as ours?

Noah Strycker

No. And it has existed for much longer than ours has. I mean, humanity is not that old. Turkey vultures have been around for quite a lot longer than we have.

Man, when you stare into the eyeball of a turkey vulture and it blinks its third eyelid that birds have, that is just unsettling. They are strange, strange animals. They just have this weird, very reptilian vibe.

Ira Glass

Before this, of course, he'd seen lots of birds, but it was like checking them off a list. He saw this one and that one that he'd read about in the field guide. He'd never just stared at one group of birds for so long and watched how they related to each other or what they did.

Noah Strycker

Turkey vultures are what I would call my spark bird. For a birder, a spark bird is the one you see, usually in some kind of unexpected situation, that grabs you in a way that you haven't been grabbed before by birds, and turns you on to a wavelength that you haven't been turned on to before, in the bird world.

Ira Glass

Like people would talk about, what's your spark bird?

Noah Strycker

Birders, when we get together and go out on field trips, yes, we love to say, oh yeah, what was your spark bird? Oh, that's a cool one. What was your spark bird? And you ask just about any birder out there what their spark bird is, and they'll probably have an answer for you. For me, that week watching these vultures, being in their world just gripped me. It changed my life.

Ira Glass

That week in the pasture by his house has basically turned into his entire life, thanks to the spark birds. None of us here at our program had ever heard the phrase "spark bird" before we talked to Noah. And we thought, there must be other situations where a bird arrives and changes everything. And we went looking for stories like that. We found a bunch, a whole flock of them, in all kinds of settings.

This weekend, when families are coming from far and wide to gather together around a bird, this seemed like the perfect time to bring those stories to you. From WBZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Don’t Chicken Out

Ira Glass

Act One, Don't Chicken Out. So one thing about the birds in this show, the spark birds, is that they don't know how consequential they are. Know what I mean? They're just going about their day, picking up worms and seeds, unaware of the lives they're transforming. I'm fairly sure that that's true for the bird in this first story, though we were unable to confirm that independently with the bird.

One of the people in the story is Carmen Milito. Back when she was 13, in 1960, growing up on Coney Island in New York, one day she met this boy on the beach. Even today when she talks about him, the words she uses are "gorgeous," "beautiful."

Carmen Milito

He had just the cutest face that I've ever seen-- dimples. He just swooned me.

Ira Glass

He swooned her. That's how they did it back in the '60s. Girls were constantly swooning back then, over the Beatles, and Elvis, and whatnot. Anyway, she and the guy talked for 10 or 15 minutes. He strolls off.

Three years later, she's at a social club in some random neighborhood, far from Coney Island. There's music playing, people dancing, and the boy walks in. Fate. He's wearing a leather jacket, slicked back hair, as teenagers did back then. Carmen points him out to her friend.

Carmen Milito

And she looks over, and she goes, oh, my god, he's gorgeous.

Ira Glass

Carmen goes up to him. The guy buys her a drink. They talk for a long time. He asks her out. She's 16. His name is Bobby. She's excited. But she is too ashamed of the apartment where she lives with her mom to have him pick her up there. It was run down, she said, under the elevated train tracks. So she has him pick her up at her sister's place. Her mom is furious about this.

Carmen Milito

She was-- you're not proud of what we have here? I work my ass off all my life, and you're embarrassed?

Ira Glass

Carmen tries to tell her that she just wanted to make a good first impression. Says, don't worry, she's going to have him come to the house when he picks her up for the second date.

Carmen Milito

So that day was a Saturday. And I told my mom that he's coming again to pick me up. And she put this little face on-- so what do you want me to do? Put up the flags? So she said, well, tell me about this boy. What's going on with him? So I said, well, he's an Italian guy. He lives in Bensonhurst.

I said, he happens to be Sicilian. And she stopped. She said, no. And I said, what do you mean, no? I mean, you are not going out with any Sicilian boys. My mom is from Naples. So she had married my dad who was Sicilian, and he turned out to be a real deadbeat of a man. He deserted her when she was pregnant to me, for the babysitter, actually.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Carmen Milito

So when she heard that he was Sicilian, she thought that life was repeating itself. And the thoughts that came into her mind were like, you know, he's going to desert you. And I said, please, you're jumping the gun here. It's the second date. Don't worry. She says, I don't care. I don't-- so I said, mom, please.

Ira Glass

Carmen tells her, just go out and do the shopping while I clean the house. Her mom says, fine. She goes out. Comes back a little while later with a large cardboard box.

Carmen Milito

And in this box is a chicken.

Ira Glass

The chicken, of course, is the spark bird in this story, the one that's going to change everything for Carmen.

Carmen Milito

And it's scratching that box all over the place. And I looked at it and I said, what is that? And she goes, it's a chicken. And I said, what are you going to do with it? And she goes, I'm going to kill it, and then eat it. And I said, you never killed a thing in your life. What are you talking about? You can't have this thing here now. He's going to be here any minute, and you've got a live chicken. He's going to think we're farmers or something.

[LAUGHTER]

I just went off. And she goes, oh, don't be ridiculous. I'll put the chicken in the bathroom. Now, the bathroom was right next to the kitchen. So you close the door and you hear everything-- everything in that bathroom.

Ira Glass

And so do you figure like, oh, this is her revenge on me? She thought I was ashamed to bring him to the house, and so here's what she's doing. She's brought a live chicken in.

Carmen Milito

Oh, yeah. I said that. I said, are you getting back at me for something? And what are you doing? She goes, oh, don't be ridiculous. She said, just go. Go. Go finish getting dressed. Don't worry. He's in the bathroom. He won't hear a sound, your precious Bobby.

Well, as we're arguing, we hear footsteps coming down the hallway, and then there's a knock on the door. So she said, go ahead, open the door, very calmly. And it was like-- such an assurance about her. Like, she had a plan.

Ira Glass

In walks Bobby, well-dressed, handsome as always, polite, calls Carmen's mom Mrs. Nicastro. "Call me Ida," she says, and escorts him into the kitchen. She offers him a drink. You're allowed to drink, aren't you? Bobby was 19, but it's a weird move with the boy who's going to be driving your daughter. Carmen wonders what she's up to.

Carmen Milito

So he sits down, and she gives him a drink of scotch. And she asks him questions like, where are you from? What do you do? Now, in the meantime, that chicken is scratching its way out of that box in the bathroom. And he was so kind. Never said a word. He heard it. You could see it on his face, because he'd look around like, where's this sound coming from? Oh, my god, I just wanted to die.

And every time the chicken would scratch at the box, I would [CLEARS THROAT], cough, or I would say, you know, we've got to go. We've got to go. And my mom would say, just a minute. She had this way of saying "just a minute." Just a minute, hold your horses. Bobby, come on, finish your drink. How about another one?

Ira Glass

OK, just a word right now about Carmen's mom Ida and what she's doing here. Ida has been described to me as kind of scrappy, and sharp-witted, and willful, somebody who had to figure out how to make her way in the world. And if she wanted to convince you to do something, apparently, she was very hard to resist.

In the summer, she would pick up extra money as a barker on Coney Island, urging passersby to come in and buy tickets for the wax museum. She had worked low-paying factory jobs all her life, on her feet all day, starting when she was 13, when her parents pulled her out of school to go to work and make money for the family. When Carmen's dad her for the babysitter, she lost all of her friends, her family turned its back on her, and she had to fend for herself, learn to survive.

Carmen Milito

And she was a very sensitive woman. She would wear her heart on her sleeve.

Ira Glass

Very protective of Carmen, who was the baby of the family. Oh, but this boy in her kitchen?

Carmen Milito

She just saw Sicilian. That's all she saw.

Ira Glass

Right.

Carmen Milito

And she had a plan. She was like a little-- crazy as a fox. And then she said, wait a minute, I have to ask Bobby something. Tell me, Bobby, did you ever kill a chicken? And he looks around, he looks at me, and he goes, why, is there a problem? And she said no, no problem. She said, I just want to know if you ever killed a chicken. And so he looks at her and says-- he lied. He said, sure, yeah. I killed a chicken.

She goes, oh, I knew you did. And she goes, Bobby, listen. Do me a favor, honey. I have this chicken in the bathroom. Would you do me a big favor? Can you kill it before you leave? Well, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. It was silent. And I said, mom what-- no. And I'm screaming. I'm carrying on. No, you can't do this. He's all dressed. She goes, don't worry about it. I'll get him an apron. And then she grabs the chicken, she puts the apron on him, she goes in the bathroom, and she puts the box with the chicken on the table. And she says, here.

So he opens the box up, and this chicken's running around the box, and he closes the flap right away. And he goes, I don't know if I can do this. And she goes, you said you could. Don't disappoint me now, Bobby. Please, you promised. And he's like, looking at me, and I'm looking at him, and all of a sudden I started to say, will he do this? And he closes the flaps, and he said, [SIGH]. God, do you have a knife?

Ira Glass

OK, I'm going to spare you the details of how he killed the chicken without getting blood on his white Ban-Lon shirt, or anything else. But it was swift and surprisingly deft for somebody who had never killed a chicken in his life.

Carmen Milito

And I was, like, in shock. I couldn't move. And my mother was dancing all over the kitchen. You are a gem. I think I'm going to love you. You come back on Sunday, and I'm going to make you the best chicken cacciatore you ever ate in your life. She gives him a towel to wipe his hands. She was treating him like some god of sorts. I mean, she was, like, in heaven. And she looked at me, and she gave me this big wink and a thumbs-up sign, kind of. It's like, you have a winner here. She goes, go ahead. Go out now and have a ball. She said, you'll come back on Sunday? And he said, I think so. Yeah, I guess. And we left and did not say a word to each other.

Ira Glass

You and he didn't say a word to each other about--

Carmen Milito

Not a word. A word was not spoken. We sat in the car. And I just stared out. He stared out. And we started to laugh. And that was the end of the conversation. Never again was it mentioned.

What happened was, we continued to go out and see each other. And 56 years later, we're still married. This is the man of my dreams. We're still married after 56 years.

Ira Glass

Carmen says asking him to kill the chicken, it was a test.

Carmen Milito

Any other guy would have said, you're crazy, lady. I'm not going to kill this chicken. She believed that that would have been his response, but he just, I guess, was in love with me, and just said, I've got to do it for her, you know?

Ira Glass

Oh that's what the test proved? It proved his feelings about you?

Carmen Milito

Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, totally. He killed something for me. She knew that if he wasn't the guy for me, he would have never done this.

Sebastian

You know, I never really looked at it that way. I looked at it like my manhood was being questioned.

Ira Glass

This, of course, is the man in question, Bobby. Though Bobby was a nickname. As he got older, he switched to using his given name, Sebastian.

Sebastian

You know, like, did I have the stones to kill a chicken? I was 19. And see, when you're 19, you're insecure. And she sort of threw a test, which I thought, maybe, was some primitive ritual that came from the village that-- they were from Naples, from Sorrento. And maybe that's how they did it in Sorrento.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god.

Sebastian

They devised a test for--

Carmen Milito

Please don't call it primitive. Don't say primitive. I don't want to get letters from people from Sorrento.

Sebastian

Anyway, I didn't want to be embarrassed in front of-- I don't want Carmen to think of me as not being manly enough to do something like that. But at that point, I don't think I did it out of love.

Ira Glass

I mean, it's funny, because I think they both took it-- or at least her mom took it as a sign of, oh, you really like her. And it's funny to think that she got it wrong.

Sebastian

Well, I did like her. I mean, I was crazy about her. But I didn't say, I'm going to do this for Carmen.

Ira Glass

It was just their second date, after all. Would you have done that for any girl's mom?

Sebastian

You know, Ira, I can't think of any other girl's mom would ever ask me to do that. She was very wily, and a good person. I mean, I loved her. I loved her dearly.

Ira Glass

When Carmen was 16 and her mom pulled off this plan, she was horrified. But now, she's two decades older than her mom was that day in 1963 when this happened, and she has kids and grandkids of her own. And she sees her mom's actions that day very differently.

Carmen Milito

I adore her for doing that. I could cry, wanting that night back. The bravery of her to do something like that. I can't imagine her doing anything else, actually. She wasn't a talker. She wouldn't have sat down with him and said, listen, I want you to respect my-- she wasn't going to say anything like that. She was going to give him a test.

Ira Glass

And in that test, even though she was wrong about whether Sebastian had killed that bird out of love for Carmen, if you look at her mom's bigger conclusion, that he was going to be a reliable man for Carmen, that he was going to stick around and be there for Carmen, a half century later, it's probably safe to say she got that part right.

Coming up, the rarest bird species in the world-- so rare that only one family in Massachusetts has ever spotted them, or until right now, even knows about them. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, "Spark Bird." During this week, when the tradition is to gather together at a table around a bird, we have stories of spark birds, the birds that get it all started for somebody, that make you see things differently. And if you're just tuning in, we began our program today with Noah Strycker, who's the author of The Thing With Feathers and other books on bird behavior, somebody who's spark bird was the turkey vulture.

And one of our producers, Chloee Weiner, and I spent hours tromping around the woods with him in Creswell, Oregon, which was hours of actually doing the thing that today's show is about-- learning to see things differently through birds. And I just want to play you a little more of this, because so much of what Noah told us along the way was new to me and Chloee. For instance, Noah was telling us how this summer, late one night, he was home, and he heard this bird sound he'd never heard before.

Noah Strycker

I don't even know. It was like [IMITATING BIRD CALL]. And I came running out here with my flashlight because it was dark, because I had no idea what it was, and tracked it down. And it was a fledgling screech owl sitting on a branch.

Ira Glass

And it's just like-- it hadn't learned yet how to make the proper screech owl noise?

Noah Strycker

Yeah. Birds babble, just like human babies do. Scientists will call it subsong, and have these other technical terms for it, but it's just birds learning how to sound like birds.

Ira Glass

Birds babble like human babies do. I didn't know. I honestly never think about the fact that I live in the middle of a whole world of birds. I don't notice them. I don't hear them singing. But of course, Noah cannot stop himself from hearing them, and instantly recognizing that that's a Pacific grand, that's a chestnut-backed chickadee, or whatever. And he doesn't just hear the bird sounds when he's walking around outside.

Noah Strycker

Becoming a birder ruins Hollywood movies for you forever, because whatever bird sounds are in the background, in the soundtrack, whether they're just natural or whether they've dubbed them in, even, they're never the birds that would be in the place that the movie is set, at the season that it's set in. And it drives me nuts. I mean, how hard would it be to put the proper bird sounds in there?

Ira Glass

Like, what's a movie that this happened to you in?

Noah Strycker

Well, just yesterday, I saw the movie Spencer, the new Lady Di movie. They had red-winged blackbirds in the background. This is supposed to be, what, in like, Europe, in the UK somewhere. Red-winged blackbirds don't live in Europe. That's a whole continent away from where they would actually live. They had Steller's jays in the background, and all kinds of North American species. So obviously, this movie was filmed by North Americans who were dubbing in North American birds into a completely wrong background.

And just the lengths to which they go to get all of the historical details and period pieces accurate, the shape of the headlight, that no one is ever going to know, honestly, when you watch the movie. And yet the bird sounds are all over the map. And there are so many birders out there, like me, who know what they're listening to. That's not unusual.

Ira Glass

This, I guess, would be the downside of having a birder open your eyes to something about the world that most people don't notice. It wouldn't be hard to fix this, Noah says. There are archives with most bird sounds. Movie sound editors, Noah would love to hook you up. Drop him a line, he says. And of course, the problem is, the world doesn't care about birders. Hollywood knows that they'll continue to show up with their factually inaccurate movies and stream their error-ridden television shows, because where else are they going to go when they need to watch something that's indoors and not wild, alive, and feathered?

More with Noah

Ira Glass

Act 2, A Scrub is a Bird that Can't Get No Love from Me. So we now turn to a spark bird that started a political fight, a fight that has lasted for a very long time, concerning one state's official state bird. Bim Adewunmi tells the tale.

Bim Adewunmi

The thing about an official state bird is that it just really doesn't matter. I say that with no intended disrespect to birders across the nation. Some of my best friends are birders. But think about it. When was the last time you sat down and truly considered the scissor-tailed flycatcher, who is the avian embodiment of the state of Oklahoma? Exactly. It's absurd.

A state bird has nothing to do with the state's GDP, for example. It doesn't tell us how happy the children are. It makes no one's life materially better or worse. And yet in Florida, the debate about which flying animal deserves the title of official state bird has been ongoing for more than two decades. The state bird means nothing. But somehow, in Florida, it's come to mean a hell of a lot.

Florida was actually one of the first states to designate a state bird, back in 1927. It was probably a simple choice. The northern mockingbird is a good bird, as birds go. It likes to sing. It has an incredible talent for mimicry. And with its gray coloring, it's cute. Here's the thing, though. The northern mockingbird is the official bird of another four states besides Florida. It's actually the third most popular state bird, behind the northern cardinal and the western meadowlark.

After 72 years, some people have had enough of this spread-thin state bird. Enter the spark bird of this story, the scrub jay. The Florida scrub jay is the only bird on the planet that is found only in Florida. It's a sturdy-looking bird with a dull blue head and wings. It's unclear exactly why the late Republican Rep. Howard Futch was such a champion for the scrub jay, but in 1999, he co-sponsored a bill for it to become the state bird.

Maybe it was the fact that Futch represented Brevard County, which used to have the highest number of scrub jays in the state. But I think he just liked the bird. As he puts it, "It's got good family values, it's kind, and it's a bird that likes people."

Scrub jays do something called cooperative breeding, which means that each nest has an adult pair, but it also has helpers, usually the older siblings of the newest jay babies, who help feed the young and defend territory. Very different, in Futch's opinion, from the mockingbird. "The mockingbird, a lot of people love that sucker," he said, "but it's pretty mean."

There's nothing human beings cannot make about themselves, even birds. And the fight over the Florida state bird very quickly became loaded with familiar political tropes. On the side of the status quo, the side of the incumbent mockingbird, was one of Florida's most famous seniors, Marion Hammer. Hammer is a long-time lobbyist with the National Rifle Association, and the architect of Florida's "stand your ground" law. And she is no fan of the Florida scrub jay.

In her committee testimony, Hammer dismissed the bird as a thieving scrounger in the strongest possible terms. "They eat the eggs of other birds," she said. "That's robbery and murder." And in response to the scrub jay's alleged friendliness, exemplified by the way it eats out of humans' hands, she had a rebuttal. "Begging for food isn't sweet. It's lazy, and it's a welfare mentality." The response from the other side was just as harsh. Democrat Rep. Mark Pafford called the mockingbird "an obnoxious, plagiarizing, and promiscuous bully."

State Rep. Futch and the scrub jay have the Audubon Society on their side, and they also had a chunk of Florida citizens-- schoolchildren. Thousands of them signed a petition in support of the scrub jay. Hammer had a hunch about who was behind these passionate schoolchildren. She suggested they had been influenced by environmentalists trying to secure extra protections for the scrub jay. It's adults hiding behind impressionable children, she said. If they get it on the endangered list, you can kiss your property rights goodbye.

This had begun as an argument about something that means nothing, but now it had become an argument about the biggest things. It would have been neater if the camps were strictly Republican versus Democrat, but bird choice and party affiliation didn't always align. The choice of state bird became a proxy referendum about what traits Floridians should find admirable.

Depending on which side you were on, the mockingbird was either a stand-in for rugged, talented individualism, or it was a raucous bully. And the scrub jay, seen through one lens as nurturing family values, and sweet enough to pal around with humans, somehow also became the poster child for a reliance on big government and its handouts.

Here's where it is now. In the 2022 legislative session, there will be three new bills, from Democrats and Republicans alike, to change the state bird. By the way, there are other candidates besides the scrub jay. Every previous bill has died in committee. It always dies in committee. But hope dies last.

As recently as last month, Hammer was defending the mockingbird and making the scrub jays sound like phantoms from a '90s crime bill, calling them "evil little birds that rob the nests of other birds and eat their eggs and kill their babies. One might call that street gang behavior in the avian community."

I'm very familiar with irrational and hyperbolic debates about regional fauna. In my own home country, the UK, we are not above turning benign animal behavior into weird politicking. There has long been a PR battle waged between the indigenous and endangered red squirrel, by some accounts, a noble and scrappy creature, and the gray squirrel, a larger, invasive American interloper who has ideas well above its station.

It has brought forth every type of nativist narrative you can imagine. In a debate in the House of Lords in 2006, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy likened the red squirrel to "quiet, well-behaved people who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves, or commit crimes, and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way gray squirrels do."

When I was at University, I swear I read tabloid stories that basically compared gray squirrels to American GIs during and after World War II-- overfed, oversexed, and over here. Since 2008, Prince Charles has been the patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. In 2017, the Prince backed a government plan to sterilize gray squirrels, using Nutella as bait.

That's a step beyond what Floridians are doing. They've yet to weaponize any spreads or condiments in their fight to choose a state bird-- a state bird whose anointment will make no one's life worse or better.

(HOST) IRA GLASS. Bim Adewunmi. She fears no birds and respects only one-- the crow.

Act Two: A Scrub Is a Bird That Can’t Get No Love From Me

Ira Glass

Act 3, We Need to Talk About Birdly. OK, I just want to say a word about what I find interesting about this next story. I think every couple, there are the things that you share and talk about with each other, and then other things you don't share so much. But each couple has to kind of invent or discover the territory of stuff that they have in common, and where they meet up. And the more stuff in that territory, probably, the better because the more chances you have to connect, and feel close, and all that.

The couple in this story, they had their stuff. They were even raising kids together, which is obviously a huge thing like that. But as the kids got older, the couple invented this whole other original common ground for themselves. Also, there's birds. Sean Cole explains.

Sean Cole

Before I get into what this story is about, I just want to say that the couple in question, Peter and his wife Maddy, are normal people.

Sean Cole

You must be Maddy.

Maddy

I am.

Sean Cole

Hi.

Maddy

Nice to meet you, Sean.

Sean Cole

Great to meet you. How are you?

Maddy

Welcome. Come in.

Sean Cole

Thank you. Their house in Northampton, Massachusetts is so normal, it's beige. Four bedrooms upstairs, one for each kid. Peter and Maddy crammed themselves into the attic for a long time. They're a blended family. Peter came to the marriage with two sons. Maddy has a son and a daughter. All of them are grown, doing well. Now, it's just the parents at home. Maddy works as a lawyer. Recently won a big case through the Innocence Project.

Maddy

So I do trial work and I do appellate work.

Sean Cole

Peter is a professional musician, has toured Europe playing Bach arrangements on a special guitar he designed.

Peter

Like, I've been an artist all my life. I think about it, I'm really grateful for that.

Sean Cole

And for more than 10 years now, a sizable number of their conversations with each other concern a family of imaginary birds with whom they live. Six birds who do not exist, and yet each have names and distinct personalities, successes and failures. Most of them have corresponding stuffed animals associated with them.

Peter and Maddy might spend more time talking about these birds than about anything in reality. The birds' lives resemble those of grade-school children. They attend Bird Academy, ride there on the bird bus, and they're kind of little menaces, always accidentally spilling things on themselves and throwing parties at the house when Peter and Maddy are away. Yet they somehow also medaled in the Olympics and recorded a Grammy award-winning record. Here's Maddy.

Maddy

It's odd. I mean, I know it's odd. Upon reflection, because it's like this Byzantine storyline now-- it's every day. And it's, like, woven all through the day. And for example, if I was doing something at work, like a difficult meeting with a client at a jail, or something, then afterwards, when I would call Peter to say, I'm on my way home, or whatever, then he would say, how were the birds? Like how did they do? And then I would say, terrible, usually. Usually, the birds do terribly. So the birds had a tantrum in the car with my colleague. The birds were rude to the investigator. Like, that's sort of how it arises a lot, is asking how the birds managed what we were managing, sort of.

Sean Cole

Like, when Peter went up to Maine to visit his son Chester, who just fixed up an old boat that he was sailing and living on, which Peter is really proud of him for having accomplished.

Peter

And of course, when I'm on the phone with Maddy, calling her from up there, it's like, well, the birds didn't really like the boat. The boat is really small. They thought it was going to be like the boat on the TV show Succession, the nice yacht.

Sean Cole

Which, by the way, is not how Peter felt about the boat. The views and opinions of the birds do not necessarily reflect those of Peter and Maddy. Sometimes, they do, but it's not that simple. It's more like they're this messy Greek chorus that always has to be accounted for and factored into almost every experience. And it's like a very elaborate running joke. They like seeing what each other is going to come up with next, poke fun at each other via the birds.

Peter

Push and pull and go, no the birds don't do that. The birds do this. What are you talking about? The birds hate skating. And it's like, wait, what about Birds on Ice?

Maddy

The birds have an annual event called Birdfest.

Peter

Which is always canceled at the last minute.

Maddy

At the last minute, it will turn out they didn't really have a permit, they hadn't really spoken to Beyonce's manager.

Sean Cole

The throwing out ideas and coming to a consensus is a lot of how they built the bird world. For instance, the birds are really into milkshakes. Their birdmobiles are outfitted with special shake machines. But they filed a lawsuit against Shake Shack after one of them got his head feathers caught in a ceiling fan.

Peter

Which is really a shame, because the birds love Shake Shack.

Maddy

But they're not banned from Shake Shack.

Peter

They're not banned, but it must have soured them on the whole Shake Shack experience.

Maddy

I don't think so, honey. They got a ton of money, and they still can get shakes there.

Peter

OK. Yeah.

Sean Cole

It's important to say, too, this is the first time Peter and Maddy have ever talked about the birds in front of anyone. Other than their kids-- and Peter's therapist once or twice, in passing-- they've never mentioned the birds to a single soul until now. It's just too out there, they told me, and too hard to explain, which means this is also the first time they've had to answer any questions about the birds.

They've never examined any of this, even in private. So when I asked them something like why they do it, or what they get out of it, they really had to puzzle together those answers in real time, as I sat with them.

Peter

I'm not trying to sell it. You know what I'm saying? I'm just reporting it, that it's happening here.

Sean Cole

And the whole thing with the birds, it isn't just frivolous. It's actually been helpful in the family in some ways, and hurtful too, which I'll get to. But just to say how it began, the birds first entered their lives about a dozen years ago, when Maddy's daughter-- Peter's stepdaughter-- Eva, bought Maddy a little stuffed toy monster. Technically, it was something called an UglyDoll, but to Maddy, it looked like a bird. Eva was only about 12 years old at the time.

Maddy

And I do think it was the first thing that she had ever bought for me. So it was a very sweet gift. And I just loved it so much. And then I gave it this silly name, Birdly.

Sean Cole

So Birdly was the spark bird, the bird that sparked the, capital B, Birds. Maddy started bringing Birdly everywhere. Birdly rode in the car with her. She took him on vacation. Peter would idly toss him to the other side of the bed, and Maddy would be like, hey, careful.

And this hadn't dawned on Maddy until we talked about it, but this was around the same time that her custody arrangement with her ex-husband was changing. Used to be, the kids would never be away from her for more than three days at a time. But then they switched to one week on, one week off.

Maddy

And in the beginning, the week that I did not have them felt like an eternity. It was a challenge. I think it was fair, and I think it was the right thing to do, but that was a period that I was missing my children. So I think that may have been why I got super attached, even, to the bird that she gave me.

Sean Cole

And very quickly, Birdly grew a personality of his own-- adventurous, irresponsible, Machiavellian. He'd take out credit cards in Peter and Maddy's names, neglect to file his taxes for five years. But Maddy would dote on him nonetheless.

Peter

At first, I found Birdly really annoying. She just got so exaggerated about how precious he was. And I would just be like, OK, all right, you know like, please. And then somewhere, I crossed some line and moved over into, well, he didn't do a thing to help do the dishes, or something, you know? Like, participating in it. And then she'd be like, what? He had to work on his presentation for school tomorrow. And we would talk about it--

Sean Cole

The psychologist and marriage expert John Gottman talks about how couples are always sending each other these little requests for attention-- subtle, like, wow, would you look at that sunset? Sometimes, the other partner just shrugs. But in some couples, the more contented ones, the partner responds enthusiastically, like, oh, wow, yeah! It's beautiful. I think the birds are requests like that.

Sometimes, the birds will even swoop in and help them communicate something that's difficult to express. Like, this one time-- he's fine now. But Peter was deathly ill. He had a bacterial infection in his spine. And they were driving back from a doctor's appointment where they'd gotten some bad news. The mood in the car was dire. And after saying nothing for a long time, Peter goes, oh, we have to stop at the mall. The birds want to go to the mall.

Peter

I mean, what else are you going to say, right? Yeah, I remember it as the best way for me to say something like, don't worry about me. I mean, you can't tell her not to worry. But you can talk about the birds. What about the birds? They want to go to the mall.

Sean Cole

And then here's the way in which the birds have not been so great for the family. Again, there are four kids. And they each had somewhat different responses to Bird World. The oldest, Torsten, thought it was kind of funny, and he left for college anyway, not long after it started. Hank was indifferent, accepted it as some kind of code that his parents used to communicate. Chester, the very youngest of the four, thought it was annoying and not funny. And then there was Eva who, again, gave Maddy, her mother, the doll in the first place, and who was the most aggrieved.

Eva

Oh I was definitely jealous.

Sean Cole

This is Eva. She's 25 now.

Eva

I was jealous of Birdly. I don't know if I felt forgotten, but I was definitely jealous.

Sean Cole

Now, as the youngest of Maddy's two kids, Eva was used to being the baby, doted on, showered with affection. And suddenly, she had to bear witness to this overwhelming, overweening geyser of praise and attention her mom gave Birdly and the other birds.

Eva

The theme that bothers me the most is, if you say something about your life, and then the birds have their own thing about their life. So it would be like, if you got an A, the birds either got an A++, or they got an F-. But mom is still, somehow, more interested in their F- than she is in your A, which I'm sure wasn't true, but that's just how it felt at the time. That's really when the intense dislike of Birdly began to build.

Sean Cole

And build, and build, and build, until sometimes, it exploded.

Eva

I don't think I was clear enough that I wasn't kidding when I am saying that the birds thing bothers me. I'm not playing along with the bird universe, where nobody likes the birds, and they're sticky and annoying, and they're failing out of classes, and their teachers are reporting them. I really, really don't like it. Like, I couldn't say that, or I wasn't saying it right. So I think that it was like it always felt like it was playing along, until I had a tantrum. And I would scream at her that they're not real, which I think did hurt her feelings.

Sean Cole

And looking back on it now, Eva says her mother was giving her an appropriate amount of attention, affection, praise, all of that. But back then, she really felt like she was in competition for it. And after all, the birds didn't deserve it because, you know, them not existing and all. Anyway, for the first couple of years, it was just Birdly, just the one bird. And then, this one fateful day, Eva took action.

Eva

I'd had enough. And I stole him, and I hid him between the box spring and the mattress of the bed that I slept on. And then I forgot that I did that. I honest to goodness forgot that I had done that.

Maddy

I felt panic. I tore the house apart. I mean, I felt the panic that you feel if you have an indoor/outdoor cat and they don't come home at night. I was so disappointed in myself that I had carelessly lost him.

Sean Cole

Which, of course, in Eva's mind, confirmed all of her fears that Maddy loved Birdly more. She got even more jealous. And then, finally, Peter went out and bought another Birdly-- exactly the same doll, same color, whole thing. But instead of telling Maddy, here, honey, I know how much you miss that doll, so I bought you another one, he claimed to have found the original Birdly, which was just more willful suspension of disbelief.

Like, of course, Birdly isn't someone you can just go out and purchase at a store any old time. He's unique. A bird in a million. And that was good enough for Maddy. She felt a lot better. But then a couple of months after that, Maddy's doing a really thorough cleaning of the house, is in her daughter Eva's room, turns the mattress over-- and you can see where this is going.

Peter

She comes to me and she's like, look what I found. And I was like, that's-- you're right. That's Birdly, and that's because all this while his twin sister has been pretending to be him to make you feel better while he was-- he had to go out into the world.

Sean Cole

And his twin sister, being the newer, more pliant, cleaner one.

Peter

Correct. Yeah, who had an amazing likeness for him. It's like out of-- what is it Twelfth Night-- or something, you know? I'm kind of proud of that, although I'm also bewildered by it. And she just loved that.

Maddy

So that is how Birdladette was born.

Sean Cole

Birdladette, Birdly's twin. And soon, all of the other birds joined the flock too. One of Peter's sons gave Maddy a doll she called Dr. Botley.

Maddy

He looks a little like a robot, but he's a bird and a doctor. He's received the Nobel Prize for medicine for having cured space rash.

Sean Cole

Eva gave me the insider scoop on Dr. Botley.

Eva

He's also missing. I think that I hid him, and I don't know where.

Sean Cole

He's currently missing?

Eva

He's been missing for years. But if you ask mom, she'll tell you he's on sabbatical.

Sean Cole

Next came Hubaletta, or Hubsie. She's an owl. Then there's Penguino, a penguin who's studying to be a birdmobile mechanic.

Eva

He is in the car, and we use him as, like, a lumbar pillow.

Sean Cole

And finally there's Wing, who, he's not embodied. No physical incorporation whatsoever, stuffed or otherwise. So at this point, Eva's original goal, to disappear Birdly so that Maddy wouldn't pay so much attention to him, could not have backfired more badly. Her parents' conversations now involved exactly 500% more birds than there had been. And to make matters worse, her older brother Torsten, when he was home, would occasionally get into the act, egging their mother on to keep telling bird stories.

Eva

And again, it was like there's no malice there. They thought it was just the same as any other teasing that we as a family did all the time. But I felt replaced. And there's no way that that could have been addressed, because what are you supposed to even say, after having yelled at them? I know the birds are fake. Like, I hate you. I hate you and your fake birds. They're not real. They're just stuffed animals. To then be like, but also, I do feel they're real, and you're hurting my feelings. [LAUGHS]

Sean Cole

Because they feel real.

Eva

They are real.

Sean Cole

They are real.

Eva

I mean, what is real, other than what everyone around you says is real, right? I mean, if everybody around you is talking about them and they are having significant social, emotional, psychological impact on your life, I don't see what's realer than that.

Sean Cole

Eva says she's still not a fan of the birds these days. But in the last couple of years, she's finally reached a little equanimity with them. A lot's changed. She's older, has a good job. Not living at home anymore has helped. Plus, she's unpacked a lot of personal stuff that made her especially hypersensitive and insecure as a teenager. She'll even ask her mom, from time to time, how the birds are doing, just as a way of connecting with her.

She read me this text conversation she had had with Maddy a couple of days before our interview, something about the birds needing an attachment in their birdmobiles to hold the dipping sauce for their French fries.

Eva

I said, birds need that. There's ranch all over the bird mobile. The steering column can barely turn. It's gooey with honey mustard. And then she said, exactly. Honey mustard is the worst because it attracts fruit flies. And I said, yes, the gearshift is all sweet and soured up. Also, ranch has dairy in it. It's a total nightmare. So that was a totally normal bird conversation. Totally entertaining. Totally fun. I started it.

Sean Cole

And Maddy's met Eva partway too. She even apologized for filling the house with so much Birdliness, especially when she learned-- through this story, amazingly-- that Eva actively stole and hid Birdly way back when. I had planned to ask Maddy about that thing Eva said earlier, about the birds being quote, unquote, "real." It was on my list of questions. But before I even got to it, she actually brought it up first, told me she had been worried I was going to propose the "are they real" question.

Maddy

You know, here I am, it's amazing that I'm a defense lawyer, and then I'm asking myself the question I didn't want to be asked. But I mean, I'm putting it out there. But I can't say that they aren't real to me. I can't shift off of that. I won't shift off of that.

Sean Cole

Because what would happen if you did?

Maddy

I mean-- OK. What would happen? I think we'd be a huge loss. I think it would be a huge loss.

Sean Cole

The kind of loss you might feel when you have to stop playing your favorite sport because your body can't hack it anymore. Or maybe the loss you feel when you finish watching all five seasons of your favorite show, except way, way more so, because this is their show. They created it, and constantly update it, and it's been going on since their real children were in middle school. It gives them some of that feeling of being parents, I think, except without any of the worries, and without having to watch the birds get any older, or fly away.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - ROBYN HITCHCOCK, "WE'RE GONNA LIVE IN THE TREES"]

Our program is produced today by the man you just heard, Sean Cole. The people who put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Dana Chivvis, Aviva DeKornfeld, Chana Jaffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Mary Marge Locker, Tobin Low, Lini Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Alissa Shipp, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Chloee Weiner. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Kris Cole, Jennifer Bogo, Katharina Eggman, Emma Young, and Anny Chelsea. In Act 1 of our show, Carmen Melita misspoke. She has been married for 55 years, not 56. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can stream our archive, over 750 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos, there's lists of favorite shows, tons of other stuff there too. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia, who's actually sitting right here. Hey, Torey, could you look at your watch and tell me, how much time do we have left in today's show?

Carmen Milito

Just a minute.

Ira Glass

Thanks, buddy. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - ROBYN HITCHCOCK, "WE'RE GONNA LIVE IN THE TREES"]