PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where people who took an amazing journey through life somehow end up here. It’s called Not My Job. Jason Ward was a teenager in the Bronx when he saw a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon. Instead of the normal reaction – disgust with a little bit of gratitude to the falcon – he fell in love with birds and grew up to become a famous birder, especially in urban settings, and the national outreach director for the Audubon Society.
Jason Ward, welcome to WAIT WAIT… DON’T TELL ME.
JASON WARD: Thank you so very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
SAGAL: It’s a pleasure to have you. So that’s a famous story about you. Is it true?
WARD: It is true.
SAGAL: Your first exposure to birds was seeing a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon.
WARD: Yes. Yes. So it was, like, my spark moment, my aha moment. It was the moment that I realized that birds had the special ability to make me smile. My – one of my very first memories of birds – and a lot of people out there probably can identify with this – is being pooped on by gulls in the parking lot of a supermarket. So that is my very first memory. But it wasn’t the coolest.
MO ROCCA: Hold on. Can I ask about the poop, though, very quickly, since we’re on that subject? Is it good luck? Because I have been pooped on a lot. And I had a terrible experience in college. I was walking across campus, I swear to you, and I was kind of half-running with my kind of face…
SAGAL: Oh, God.
ROCCA: …In front of my body.
SAGAL: This is going to be bad.
ROCCA: And so a bird that must – probably was flying towards me – the poop ended up in my mouth.
ROCCA: It was so disgusting.
BILL KURTIS: (Laughter).
ROCCA: And somebody said to me at the time – they said, it’s good luck if a bird poops on your head, so it’s, like, really great luck if it gets into your mouth, which is very difficult to have happen.
WARD: That’s never happened to me.
WARD: So either you have an amazing amount of luck or the opposite. I don’t exactly know which way that goes.
SAGAL: Now, there’s a certain stereotype about birders. I’m thinking, well, affluent, white, old ladies. That’s what I’m thinking.
WARD: You’d be right.
SAGAL: That’s – all right. Wait a minute.
NEGIN FARSAD: (Laughter).
SAGAL: So you’re saying that this stereotype has roots in truth – is what you’re saying.
WARD: Yes, 100%. Birding is largely thought of as something that’s done by our grandparents.
WARD: And I am one of the many voices of individuals who are trying to break down that stereotype and introduce a new era of birders – birders who do things their own way and who break a lot of those traditionalist ways of doing things. And I wear what I want when I’m birding as well. I think that’s the major…
SAGAL: You’re, like, to hell with the cardigan vests.
WARD: This is going to get me just completely ostracized from the community. But, yes, I don’t wear floppy hats. I don’t wear khakis. I’m out there wearing whatever I want. I can bird in a pair of flip-flops and some basketball shorts. It doesn’t really matter.
SAGAL: Wow. You’re, like, a punk birder.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: So…
ROBERTS: I have two questions.
SAGAL: All right, Roxanne. Go ahead.
ROBERTS: OK. Question number one, do you walk around being really distracted a lot? Because it seems to me that if you’re always on the look for birds, then you’re always going to be kind of looking around just in case you might find one.
WARD: You know what? That’s a great question. No matter what I’m doing, if – I could be walking down the street having a conversation with someone, I’ll notice a bird out of the corner of my eye, or I’ll notice a bird’s song in the middle of their sentence. So I’ve developed an ability to, I guess, just pay attention to multiple things at once.
For example, owls are really, really good at that. They’re really good at being able to hone in their attention on just one specific thing. Owls can hear a mouse’s heartbeat underneath a foot of snow. So you think that with that kind of hearing, they’d just be absorbing everything happening in their environment. But they have this ability to just tune in to one specific area and block everything else out.
So when I’m driving, or when I’m walking and talking, I can simultaneously pay attention to either the road or the person that I’m with and also, like, every single bird that’s in a given area at any given point in time.
ROCCA: So you’re like an owl, basically, is what you’re saying?
WARD: I would like to think so, yeah.
ROBERTS: Do you – well, so that would lead to my second question. Do you kind of have a favorite kind of bird?
WARD: Absolutely. So my favorite bird is the peregrine falcon, that very first one that gave me the aha moment. It is the fastest animal on Earth. Take that, cheetah. It is also found on six of the seven continents. It’s highly adaptable, highly resilient and extremely powerful.
SAGAL: Aren’t those the kind of birds that often become sort of social media celebrities when, like, people put cameras on nests and everybody starts naming them and just falling in love with them and hoping that they kill a lot of things and make themselves happy?
WARD: You know what? That’s interesting. Yes, people love doing that. They love placing cameras on the nest of birds of prey. And usually, it’s a really nice, just heartwarming story until it isn’t. There was…
WARD: There was a very famous incident that happened in Pennsylvania several years ago in which they were watching a bald eagle nest, and mom bald eagle brought back some really nice, cuddly kittens for…
SAGAL: Oh, no.
WARD: …Dinner one day. And, of course, that made a lot of people very upset. My response to that is, I totally understand why that upsets people. And this is why the best place for your cats are inside.
SAGAL: And housecats are bad for birds. So it’s, like, score one for the birds. They evened the score a little bit.
ROCCA: Have you ever seen a roadrunner?
WARD: Yes, I’ve seen a ton of roadrunners. I’ve seen a roadrunner and a coyote, by the way, one time.
ROCCA: Did you – and what were they – how did they interact?
WARD: They were getting along. They were getting along.
WARD: I think…
SAGAL: No anvils involved?
WARD: They’ve been lying to us – propaganda all of these years. The cartoons have been lying to us. But (laughter) these are birds that eat whatever they want, right? They prey on mostly large insects, but they’ll catch another bird out of the air and just knock it against the ground and eat it. So these are…
SAGAL: A roadrunner.
WARD: Roadrunners – yes, roadrunners.
SAGAL: You mean the hero of the cartoons is actually a horrible cannibal.
WARD: Let me tell you something. There’s an image out there that we can probably look up after all of this. There’s a notorious bird called the loggerhead shrike. It’s known as the butcher bird. It’s a songbird that impales its prey on thorns or barbed wire. So this is a hardcore small bird. Roadrunners eat them.
SAGAL: And so that horrible, tough, torturing bird…
SAGAL: …That vicious, amoral killer the roadrunner just eats.
WARD: Yeah – gobbles it up.
SAGAL: That would be an interesting turnabout ending to one of those cartoons, if the roadrunner just turns around and devours the coyote because that’s the way it is.
SAGAL: Has – I’m just going to ask, has it been good for your romantic life? I mean, are people like, oh, wow, you’re a birder? Tell me more.
WARD: You know what? Going into it, I thought, you know, this is going to suck. But it surprisingly hasn’t.
WARD: So if any of you are out there listening, hey, let’s go birding sometimes.
SAGAL: Jason Ward, it is a pleasure to talk to you about birding, but we’ve asked you here to play a game we’re calling…
KURTIS: Watch These Birds, You Nefarious Pig.
SAGAL: You’re an expert on birds, but what do you know about Angry Birds – that computer game where you throw birds at pigs? It’s become a huge sensation in the last decade – bunch of movies. Answer 2 out of 3 questions right, and you’ll win our prize for one of our listeners – the voice of their choice on their voicemail. Bill, who is Jason Ward playing for?
KURTIS: Kevin Bell (ph) of Boston, Mass.
SAGAL: All right. Here’s your first question. In 2019, to celebrate the game’s 10th anniversary, the game’s designer company, Rovio, created which of these? A, the hyper-pig (ph), an actual breed of hog created to be especially devious; B, the Rage Rider, a scooter that goes faster the louder you scream at it; or C, real birdshot – shotgun slugs shaped like the angry birds, so you can be meta when bird-hunting.
WARD: Wow. I’m going to go with C.
SAGAL: You’re going to go with C, that they actually made shotgun slugs that look like the angry birds so you could fire the angry birds at actual birds.
WARD: Going with C, yes.
SAGAL: I like your confidence. But no, it was B – the Rage Rider.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAWING CROW SOUND EFFECT)
SAGAL: Because they’re celebrating anger…
SAGAL: …So you scream into the thing, and it goes. All right, you have two more chances. This is not a problem.
SAGAL: Here’s your next question. Like any successful mobile game, Angry Birds has inspired its share of knockoffs, like which of these? A, Angry Words, in which you type as many curse words as you can in 60 seconds; B, Angry Curds, in which Little Miss Muffet hurls pepper jack cheese curds at a spider; or C, Angry Turds where, you are a monkey throwing poop at the explorers that kidnapped your babies.
WARD: Wow. All right. I’m going to go with C.
SAGAL: You’re right…
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: …Angry Turds.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE SOUND EFFECT)
SAGAL: At this point, I think that’s predictable, particularly if you heard the last segment, that that would be the true one. Yes, Angry Turds.
Here’s your last question. If you get this right, you win. The developers of Angry Birds were inspired to create the game by a surprising incident. What was it? A, while he was playing Tetris while on ayahuasca, the lead designer said, the shapes are birds – all shapes are birds – and the idea was born; B, the swine flu epidemic of 2009 because it showed the developers that pigs really are our enemy; or C, one designer traveling in Norway observed McDonald’s spicy chicken sandwich was called Angry Bird on Bread there.
WARD: All right. I’m going with B.
SAGAL: You’re right…
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: …The swine flu epidemic – which, of course, is back in the news because apparently it was much worse than the one we’re going through, I think…
SAGAL: …Yes, somehow – was, in fact, the inspiration. They were looking around for villains in their game, and they said, swine flu – pigs. Yes, let’s do it. Bill, how did Jason Ward do on our quiz?
KURTIS: He did great – 2 out of 3.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWING ROOSTER SOUND EFFECT)
KURTIS: Keep looking for birds, Jason.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE SOUND EFFECT)
KURTIS: You’re a winner.
SAGAL: You did well. Congratulations…
SAGAL: Jason Ward is a naturalist and birder. You can check out his “Birds Of North America” series on YouTube and sign up for his virtual birding classes at atlasobscura.com.
Jason, thank you so much. And, by the way, happy birthday.
WARD: Thank you so much. I appreciate you all for having me.
SAGAL: Take care.
KURTIS: Thanks, Jason.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARI PULKKINEN’S “ANGRY BIRDS THEME”)
SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill meets the scallion stallion in the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We’ll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT… DON’T TELL ME from NPR.
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