Top 10 Cartoon Birds in Film and Television
Gooses, Ducks, Canaries - and just birds ...
From early in the development of the film industry, animation has been one of the most popular versions of the art form. When cinema really took off in the 1920s, theatre owners were hungry for product to show their huge and growing audiences, and several animation studios were founded to produce innovative, quality entertainment for this audience. Several of these studios became iconic; Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Terrytoons, and MGM, to name just a few, and the animated characters they introduced to the film going public quickly became enormously popular. Many of these early characters have endured to this day as household names, their likenesses adorning all manner of consumer products as well as their own cartoons, feature films, and television series. Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, and other beloved characters are as popular now as when they first appeared - some even more so.
More Popular then People
Although some very popular cartoon characters were human – Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop, and Elmer Fudd for instance – animal characters soon came to dominate the pantheon. These animals were anthropomorphised - most of them spoke and behaved like humans – but being animals gave their creators a lot more scope in what they could do and allowed them to exploit the animals' natural tendencies for comic purposes. There was no limit to the different species of animal portrayed in cartoon form: rabbits (Bugs Bunny, Roger Rabbit), cats (Sylvester, Top Cat, Tom, Felix, Snagglepuss, Sourpuss), Mouses (Jerry, Speedy Gonzales, Mickey Mouse, Danger Mouse, Mighty Mouse), Dogs (Huckleberry Hound, the Barnyard Dawg, Deputy Dawg, Brutus), and pigs (Porky Pig), were among the many that became famous as cartoons.
Birds ... and ducks
Perhaps the most popular among animators, though, were birds: Canaries, crows, penguins, chickens, gooses. And ducks. For some reason, ducks seemed to capture the imagination of artists and audience alike, and some of the most popular cartoon characters ever are ducks. Perhaps because their goofy, awkward appearance lent itself to comedy, maybe it was their strange quacking that inspired the great voice artists of the classic era of animation: Paul Frees (Ludwig von Drake, Dinky Duck), Clarence 'Ducky' Nash (Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Hewey, Dewey, and Louie), and Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck).
Let's take a quack look - er, I mean a quick look - at some of the funniest and cleverest cartoons from nearly a century of awesome animation, as I count down my Top 10 Cartoon Birds.
10. Donald Duck
At number 10 in our countdown is probably the most famous cartoon bird of all - Donald Duck. But why only number 10 you ask? He's an icon, loved by millions, instantly recognisable the world over. Well, truth is - this is a personal top 10, and - well, I have to admit, I don't really like him. He's obnoxious, bad tempered, not very bright, and he wears a jacket, cap and bowtie, but NO PANTS. And I don't like the way he talks, so I can never understand him anyway. There - I've admitted it . All credit to Donald though - since his first on screen appearance in 1934 in the animated short "The Wise Little Hen" (in "Silly Symphonies") he has grown to become hugely popular - one top 10 cartoon characters list has him at number 3, behind Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse - and he is mascot for several air force squadrons and sports teams, as well as official mascot of the US Coast Guard.
Nominated for several Academy Awards, Donald Duck won the Oscar for best animated short film in 1942 for "Der Fuehrer's Face", a wartime propaganda film that parodied Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Whether you like Donald or not, he is ubiquitous - one of the very first film characters to be extensively merchandised - and he features in an enormous number of comic books first published in 1937 and still going strong all over the world.
He received his long overdue star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005 - 71 years after his first appearance. No list of top 10 cartoon birds (or any cartoon characters) would be complete without Donald Duck.
Donald Duck in "Toy Tinkers"
Have a look at this short, featuring Donald and his nemeses Chip n Dale. Listen carefully to the opening theme song - delightfully ironic lyrics about the volatile, quick tempered, and obnoxious duck.
Donald Duck in "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1942)
Academy award winner Best Animated Short (1942)
Donald Duck's relations
and a few friends
Donald Duck's extended family is surprisingly large. The below list is not exhaustive - some of these characters appear only in the comic books and some only in film. The relationships of some of them are the subject of debate, as is the very existence of some others.
(With thanks to lovely old Wikipedia for this list)
Residents of Disney's Duckburg and the Donald Duck/Scrooge McDuck universes
* Scrooge McDuck (Donald Duck's uncle)
* Huey, Dewey, and Louie and their lost brother Phooey Duck (Donald's nephews)
* Mrs. Beakley
* Webby Vanderquack
* Launchpad McQuack
* Doofus Drake
* Flintheart Glomgold
* Gyro Gearloose
* Magica De Spell
* Fenton Crackshell and his mother Mrs. Crackshell
* Donald Duck
* Daisy Duck
* Gladstone Gander (Donald's cousin, actually a goose)
* Brigitta MacBridge
* Bubba the Caveduck
* Daphne Duck (Donald's first girlfriend)
* Della Duck (Donald's sister, mother of Huey, Dewey, and Louie)
* Downy O'Drake
* Dugan Duck (Fethry Duck's Nephew)
* Eider Duck
* Fethry Duck (Donald's cousin)
* April, May and June Duck (Daisy's nieces)
* Humperdink Duck
* Pintail Duck
* Quackmore Duck (Donald's father)
* Shamrock Gander (Gladstone Gander's nephew)
* Scrooge McDuck (Donald Duck's uncle)
* Angus McDuck
* Dingus McDuck
* Fergus McDuck
* Gideon McDuck (Scrooge's brother)
* Hortense McDuck (Donald's mother)
* Hugh McDuck
* Jake McDuck
* Malcolm McDuck
* Matilda McDuck
* Quagmire McDuck
* Sir Eider McDuck
* Sir Quackly McDuck
* Sir Roast McDuck
* Sir Stuft McDuck
* Sir Swamphole McDuck
* Howard Rockerduck
* John Rockerduck
* Gandra Dee
* Dimwitty Duck
* Moby Duck
* Upsy Duck
9. The Road Runner
Like Donald Duck, this guy is also a bit irritating - sometimes you just want the coyote to get him. But you gotta admire a character that just runs and usually trusts to dumb luck to escape the culinary plans of Wile E. Coyote. Created in 1949 by the great Warner Brothers animation artist Chuck Jones, The Road Runner and The Coyote appeared in many theatrical shorts and eventually some television cartoons.
The Road Runner never speaks - except to say "Beep Beep", which infuriates Wile E. and drives his endless (and always unsuccessful) attempts to catch, kill, and eat the bird. His "Beep Beep" was voiced by Paul Julian - a Looney Tunes background artist who worked on Sylvester and Tweety, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck shorts, and also directed the occasional film himself.
Wile E. Coyote finally catches the Road Runner
You wanted it ... you got it ...
You got it again ...
The makers of Family Guy feel the same as the rest of us ...
8. Dinky Duck
Dinky Duck was a fairly obscure character created by Paul Terry's company Terrytoons, and first appeared in 1939. His first short film was "The Orphan Duck", and he made another 14 films of his own until 1957. He was originally voiced by one of the great voice artists - Paul Frees - whose CV includes many of the best known animated characters of the 20th century, and who worked for most of the great animation and film studios - Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, MGM and Rankin/Bass among them.
Dinky was a recurring character on other Terrytoons cartoons "The Mighty Mouse Show" and "Heckle and Jeckle", and appeared in comic books during the 1950s. He is interesting today as an example of low budget animation primarily conceived as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Disney's Donald Duck, and Warners' Daffy Duck. The fact that he failed to do so to any great degree does not detract from his charm - ducks don't get much cuter than this.
Dinky Duck in "Much Ado About Nothing"
Don't you just love the gratuitous violence? It escalates from a minor misunderstanding between the baby chicken and Dinky Duck, and just look what happens. Parts of this one (the second Dinky Duck cartoon – from 1940) made me laugh out loud. Apologies for the film quality – it is a You Tube clip from an old 16mm film. Great fun though!.
7. Chicken Little
On holiday a few years ago in Takaka (a beautiful little town in Golden Bay at the top of the South Island in New Zealand), we were at a loss for something to do in the evening. There was a cinema in town and we decided to go and see whatever was showing. Lucky for us it was this modern take on the story of Chicken Licken. Apprehensive at first, we were soon charmed and delighted by this, one of the wittiest animated films ever. Chicken Little thinks the sky is falling in. It turns out he is right (in a way - it's an alien spaceship!), but no-one believes him. He also has issues with his widowed father, and is a bit of a nerd that nobody takes seriously, except for his gang of misfit friends. Loaded with pop culture references and brilliant gags (you need to see it at least twice to get them all), Chicken Little is witty and warm, and recommended for the whole family (or just Mum and Dad!). The lovely title character is in our countdown because he's cute, decent, brave, resolute, and loyal. He turns out to be a hero - we just knew he would - saving the baseball game AND the planet. And - his Dad finally understands him. (It's a bit of a tearjerker too!).
Chicken Little the Hero
Chicken Little saves the baseball game. Alright, it's a bit corny, but I bet you want to cheer at the end, too. I know I did!
6. Gandy Goose
Another entry from the Terrytoons studio, Gandy comes in at number 6 in the countdown for his sheer, dumb optimism, which stood in direct contrast to his regular pal - the gruff, grumpy Sourpuss He first appeared in "Gandy the Goose" in 1938, and made a total of 48 animated shorts until 1955, mostly with Sourpuss, with whom he also appeared in comic books. Another forgotten treasure from the early days of animation.
Gandy Goose:The Last Roundup (1942)
Another entry in the series of wartime propaganda cartoons that were common during the Second World War. This one is similar to Donald Duck's film "Der Feuhrer's Face" in that it uses comedic excess to parody the real excesses of the Nazis and their fanatical leader, Adolf Hitler. Fast paced and laugh out loud funny, this is one of the best of its type.
Gandy Goose in "Lights Out"
In "Lights Out", Gandy and Sourpuss, like Donald Duck and other cartoon characters during the war, have joined the army. This has little bearing on the strange goings on in this short, though, which serves as a good example of Wikipedia's description of Sourpuss and Gandy Goose films: "Their surreal adventures often showcase extended dreams, bookended by coarse bedroom arguments."
5. Foghorn Leghorn
One of the most popular of the Warner Bros Looney Tunes characters, Foghorn Leghorn is number 5 on our countdown. Like so many of the greatest cartoon characters of the 20th century, he was originally voiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc. His main missions in life were to irritate and assault the Barnyard Dawg, who retaliated in kind, and to woo Miss Prissy by acting as a sort of mentor to her son Egghead Jr. He appeared in 28 films between 1946 and 1963, and remains much loved to this day, perhaps not in spite of, but because of his loud, pompous bluster, and his cheerful, casual violence.
Foghorn J. Leghorn had a rather ignominious end to his career - he fronted a series of commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken, in which he encouraged viewers (and Henery Hawk - another of the Warner Bros. characters) to go to KFC for "chicken done right". That's just wrong on so many levels, so I won't show the clip here.
Foghorn ... I say, Foghorn Leghorn
Foghorn Leghorn was also known for his highly quotable quotes: "Pay attention to me boy. I'm not just talkin' to hear my head roar!" "Gal reminds me of the highway between Fort Worth and Dallas. No curves." Check out this You Tube video montage of some of his best ones.
Snoopy's friends are often birds, and none more so than Woodstock, his best friend. They met when a mother bird built a nest on Snoopy's stomach and laid eggs in it, then flew away and never returned. Two babies hatched and eventually flew away, one returned - mainly because he was really crap at flying. He eventually became best friends with Snoopy and has remained so ever since. Woodstock only speaks bird language, but Snoopy understands him, which is quite handy when they engage in one of their regular rows.
It has never been established what kind of bird Woodstock is - his creator, Charles Schulz, has never said, although he did confirm several times that he was named after the legendary music and peace festival of 1969 (check out The Health Lady's brilliant page about the Woodstock Festival - Woodstock 69 ) about 3 years after he first appeared with no name. Here is an interesting piece from Wikipedia about Snoopy's attempts to identify his species:
"Snoopy has often wondered what type of bird Woodstock is. Snoopy attempts to identify him using his "Guide to Birds." The birds which Snoopy suggests and Woodstock attempt to imitate are: crow, American bittern, Caroline wren, rufous-sided towhee, yellow-billed cuckoo, Canada goose, warbler, and a mourning warbler. Snoopy finally gives up trying to figure it out, and hurts Woodstock's feelings by saying, "For all I know, you're a duck". While Schulz never definitively answers what type of bird Woodstock is, it could be argued that Woodstock is simply a canary due to his slight resemblance to Tweety."
Woodstock is one of the most popular birds ever - he is more down to earth than Snoopy, and often punctures the beagle's pretensions, but remains a loyal friend and devoted servant.
Woodstock is a beautiful whistler. Check out this lovely scene from "She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown."
One of the best loved and most well known cartoon birds ever, you just can't help loving Tweety. Which is a bit odd really, because his main mission is much the same as the Road Runner's - to avoid being eaten by his nemesis, and to annoy said nemesis as much as possible in the process. In Tweety's case the hungry enemy is Sylvester the Cat, who will stop at nothing to make a meal out of Tweety, but unlike the Road Runner, Tweety only annoys Sylvester, not the viewer. Perhaps it is because Road Runner just runs and says "Beep Beep"; his escape from Wile E is just down to dumb luck and the coyote's own incompetence, whereas Tweety outwits Sylvester by his own efforts and intelligence. His catchphrase - "I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat" became so popular that it became the title of a hit single sung by Mel Blanc - in character, as both Tweety and Sylvester, of course.
Tweety is so popular and ubiquitous nowadays (in our house my wife has Tweety beach towels, seat belt cushions, car sunscreens, pictures, and other ornaments) that it is hard to believe that he only appeared in 48 cartoons, beginning with "A Tale of Two Kitties" in 1942, in which he appeared in his original form - a naked, pink, baby bird with no feathers and big yellow feet. He was eventually redesigned by Friz Freleng (later responsible for the Pink Panther) as the cute, mischievous, and iconic character that we know today.
Like so many of Warner Brothers' most famous characters, Tweety was voiced by Mel Blanc, as was Sylvester. Watch the clips below, paying attention to the voices, and you will get some idea of how talented and versatile Mr Blanc was, and how he came to dominate nearly a whole century's worth of cartoon characters.
Tweety & Sylvester in "Canary Row" (1950)
"Canary Row", from 1950, is classic Tweety and Sylvester. Their style of farcical, slapstick comedy, coupled with their complimentary characterisations - Sylvester the always hungry, aggressive, but ultimately feckless cat, and Tweety's wide-eyed innocence concealing a devious, sadistic, violent streak (always in self defence, of course) - has ensured their enduring - and growing - popularity.
"Man of a Thousand Voices"
He bestrode 20th century cartoons like a colossus (sorry about the hyperbole, but it's true!). No other single person is so closely associated with the most popular cartoon characters of the 20th century than the great voice artist Mel Blanc, the "Man of a Thousand Voices". Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Tweety AND Sylvester, Porky Pig, Barney Rubble, PepÃ© Le Pew, Tom AND Jerry, Speedy Gonzales, Elmer Fudd – the list is almost endless, a literal who's who of cartoon characters.
He also performed sound effects – cars, horses, and assorted noises – and was a regular performer on early radio shows – The Jack Benny Program, The Great Gildersleeve, and The Abbott and Costello Show among them, as well as having his own radio show – The Mel Blanc Show – in the mid 1940s.
Mel Blanc was an astute businessman who realised the value of his unique talent, being the first voice actor to receive screen credit as part of his contract – "Voice Characterisation by Mel Blanc" becoming a standard and well known title in the opening credits of most of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons from 1944 on. He and his estate also instigated legal action against individuals or studios who he felt were infringing his rights, and in 1961 he sued the City of Los Angeles after poor road design caused his near fatal motor accident on Sunset Boulevard.
Mel Blanc voiced so many characters for so long – record setting tenures as Daffy Duck (52 years), and Bugs Bunny (49 years) – that no single artist has ever been able to replace him. Those of his characters that have still been used after his death have all been voiced by different actors – a testament to his enormous talent and range.
"What's Up David?"
Mel Blanc's appearance on David Letterman's show in 1981 is a great showcase for his famous cartoon voices and sense of humour. It is also notable for his interesting comments on the process of animation and voice recording.
Mel Blanc with Johnny Carson and Jack Benny
In this, Jack Benny's final appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1974, it is obvious that he holds Mel Blanc - his longtime colleague and close friend - in very high regard. He hardly talks about himself at all; his stories are all about Mel. A nice chance to see some of the classic comedy the two legends performed on their radio and television shows in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
"That's All Folks"
It is difficult to pick any of Mel Blanc's hundreds of characters or their catchphrases as the most popular or well known, but he chose his own favourite – Porky Pig's closing credit "That's All Folks" – as the epitaph on his tombstone after his death in 1989 aged 81.
2. Woody Woodpecker
Cheeky, obnoxious, destructive, and very, very funny, Walter Lantz Studios' Woody Woodpecker makes number 2 in the countdown for his sheer, outrageous insolence and his unforgettable laugh. His naughty, violent antics made every little boy in America (and round the world) laugh for decades, and his comb forward hairstyle even became popular among the same boys for a while in the late 1940s. Originally voiced by - you guessed it! - Mel Blanc, other voice actors took over when Blanc left Walter Lantz studios and took an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers. Lantz's wife Grace Stafford took over the voice duties in 1950, ten years after Woody's first appearance in "Knock Knock", and became the Woody Woodpecker most remember now, playing him for over twenty years at a time when he went from appearing in theatrical shorts to having his own television show. Television stardom required a toning down of the gleeful violence and wilful, wanton trouble making that had made Woody Woodpecker so popular, but he is such an amusing little s**t that he is still loved and laughed at today, by little boys and their Grandads everywhere.
"Knock Knock" (1940)
Woody Woodpecker first appeared in this 1940 Andy Panda cartoon, "Knock Knock". He was unnamed at the time, but Walter Lantz discovered he had a potential hit on his hands, so Woody got a name and the first of over 200 of his own films.
"Wet Blanket Policy" (1948)
Woody Woodpecker also featured in his own hit single, "The Woody Woodpecker Song" in 1948, which was the first song from an animated short to be nominated for an Academy Award for best song (it lost to "Buttons and Bows", from "The Paleface".) It is used here as the intro song for "Wet Blanket Policy" (1948)
"Puny Express" (1951)
"Puny Express" was the first Woody Woodpecker film to feature Walter Lantz's wife Grace Stafford as the title voice (although at her own request she was not credited for this for several years), and it also marked the first appearance of Buzz Buzzard, Woody's new nemesis. This is a great short, with lots of clever visual comedy that parodies the conventions of the western, a film genre that was at the height of its popularity when this was made.
1. Daffy Duck
My number one top cartoon bird of all time just has to be - the one and only Daffy Duck. Quick tempered, aggressive, violent, and a hilariously innovative troublemaker, Daffy is funny when he doesn't mean to be, and mean when he's being funny. He sticks up for himself against all-comers, and sometimes causes trouble just for fun. You'd better not cross him - he's relentlessly vengeful, and he recovers ridiculously quickly from any violence committed upon him, whether it be the old classic 100 ton weight dropped from on high, or Daffy's own personal favourite - being blown up by a stick of cartoon dynamite that rearranges his face and leaves his beak on the wrong side of his head.
Perhaps the best thing of all about Daffy is his hilarious way of speaking, thanks of course to the inimitable Mel Blanc. His strange lisp is great fun to imitate, and is perfect for a duck who speaks as emphatically as he does. It is a very similar vocal style to Sylvester the Cat, but the recording is sped up slightly to give his voice a higher pitch. Whatever the technicalities, it's a great cartoon voice characterisation, and with it, Mel Blanc holds the record for the longest time a cartoon character has been performed by his original voice actor - an incredible 52 years! (1937-1989).
As ubiquitous through merchandising as Tweety and Bugs Bunny , Daffy Duck is number one in our countdown of Top 10 Cartoon Birds because he deserves to be. (And he would probably blow up Squidoo if he wasn't!)
Daffy Duck's First Appearance
Daffy Duck first appeared as a fairly regular looking duck in "Porky's Duck Hunt" (1937). Like many cartoon characters of the time (see Tweety for instance) he was developed and redesigned by successive animators, until he became more like the classic Daffy that is best known today.
"Duck Amuck" (1953)
In his 1990 book "That's All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation", Steve Schneider describes "Duck Amuck" as "one of the few unarguable masterpieces of American animation." The legendary animator and director Chuck Jones, who was responsible for the classic versions of many of Warner Bros iconic characters, had redesigned Daffy and adapted his characterisation for the film, which was eventually included in the United States National Film Registry alongside other important examples of film-making art.
That's Not Quite All, Folks ...
The Legends Live On
In 1988, Walt Disney Pictures released the feature film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", a blend of live action and animation done in the style of classic film noir. Ostensibly a murder mystery set in 'Toon Town', the highlight of the film was the numerous appearances by iconic cartoon characters from the golden age of animation (including several of the birds on our list), playing themselves as residents of 'Toon Town', a neighbourhood populated by Toons who act in Hollywood cartoons. Generously, Disney included many of the well known Warner Bros. and other studios' characters alongside their own household names, and this led to the first and only time Mickey Mouse has appeared with Bugs Bunny, and the first joint appearance of Donald Duck and Daffy Duck (see You Tube clip below). Not to be overshadowed by the household names, new characters Roger Rabbit, and especially his sultry, sexy wife Jessica emerged as stars in their own right, with Jessica making such an impression on male film fans that she has often been included in Sexiest Film Star lists - and not just cartoon ones.
A very clever and enjoyable film, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was a great success for Disney, and rumours abound that a sequel will be released in 2012.
" ... Thsomebody with a Thspeech Impediment"
My favourite scene in this terrific film is the piano duet between number 1 and number 10 on our Top 10 Cartoon Birds countdown - Donald and Daffy Duck. (Gorgeous appearance by Betty Boop as well, and as for Jessica Rabbit ... )
I'll bet my beak and feathers that I've missed some great cartoon birds in my countdown. Let me know if I have - I might even swap them for one I don't really like! I'd love to hear your quacks, er ... I mean comments, on this lens.