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September 2020

(Best) Bird Cartoons

Clearly, a comprehensive review of bird-related cartoons would have to include the likes of Donald Duck, the Roadrunner, Woodstock from Peanuts, or even Tweety. But none of those fictional characters actually reflect the real features of the birds they portray. Nor are viewers ever given the scientific binomial for the species they are meant to represent. No one could possibly learn real natural history from them.

The "best" bird cartoons, in this reviewer's opinion, are those created by Australian political cartoonist Andrew Marlton, as part of his long-running First Dog on the Moon (FDOTM) series in The Guardian. Since 2007, he has offered over 700 delightfully drawn, deeply felt, and historically astute commentaries on public affairs and our individual responses to them. Add to that mix a big heaping of scientifically-based (mostly), and environmentally outraged (usually) observations of the state of the birds in his land, along with a bemused and wry sense of "humour", and you'll see what you get if you take a look at the 24 strips involving avian matters found in the First Dog on the Moon/Guardian archives. Scientific names and habitat details abound.

This article chooses 6 of these cartoons as the "very best" of a very good lot, and even presumes to have a "Favorite". The entire collection is available from the September Supplement linked above. Your opinion may vary, but the ones described and linked below were chosen for their inspiration, significance, and (often) humor. They are ostensibly about Australian birds, but the ecological principles, sense of respect for the natural world, and indignant humor (was that mentioned?) which First Dog offers us have universal application.

Australia is home to two of the planet's largest flightless birds, one an ostrich-like flocking species, while the other is the best argument that birds are really dinosaurs. The first great strip in this review gives us the surprising history of the Emu Wars[1] of dry Western Australia. That's pronounced "ee-mew", by the way, and since it's their bird let's use their name. As in every panel, it's manifest where FDOTM's sympathies reside. And next, despite having described it in earlier strips as "the death bird that hates us", our second delightful cartoon encourages us to Think More like Cassowaries[2]. We're taken to the far north (tropical part!) of Queensland to meet "Snitty", an outspoken representative of this anti-social species.

Lest readers think only large, iconic Australian birds merit attention, the First Dog on the Moon Institute, based in Tasmania (see map in next strip), has partnered with the Difficult Bird Research Group (you've heard of them, surely?) to investigate smaller, less-well-known varieties such as the King Island Scrubtit[3]. Are these, and other tiny birds like them truly rare? And if they're not, whose fault is it, after all? Aussie humor, remember.

Turning more serious - and make no mistake, these "funnies" are all intensely engaged commentaries by an unabashedly progressive political cartoonist - we are taken to Aboriginal land in the very center of the country to search for the rare and important (at least to "white fellas") Night Parrot[4]. Just one of many members of the parrot-related families in Australia, the fact that it alone forages at night in the Outback makes it seem more exotic and less familiar to "colonist" Australians in the cities, where most of them live.

One common and well-known bird species which this reviewer saw and photographed near Sydney Harbor is the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, which looks in the resulting treasured image like it's saying "G'day mate!" as it holds a crust of bread in one claw. Nominated as the 2019 Bird of the Year[5] (a Favorite), First Dog suggests that some members of the species might be rigging the vote. Which the Australian Magpies could have done (see the Supplement for the link) had they thought of it.

For the final entry in this much-too-short list of (Best) Bird Cartoons (Collect 'em all!), we arrive in Tasmania (terrible, First Dog assures us) to hear some good news about yet another parrot. And it even involves fire! As the title of the strip explains, It is possible to pay attention to science and then help actual animals on purpose[6]. It is this note of hope coming up out of the depths of realistic and clear thinking that marks everything that First Dog on the Moon, a self-described "National Treasure", produces. It is this reviewer's opinion that he is in fact a Global Treasure, and deserves a wider audience. Do check out this month's Supplement or the FDOTM website[7] for more of his work.

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