Big Bird is an 8-foot, 2-inch yellow bird who lives on Sesame Street. Since Sesame Street premiered in 1969, Big Bird has entertained millions of pre-school children & their parents with his wide-eyed wondering at the world. Big Bird is also a bird who makes friends easily.
The world-famous bird has been a central character on Sesame Street for the program's run, premiering in the first episode. The big yellow bird can roller skate, ice skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw, & even ride a unicycle — pretty talented for a character described in the TV show's writer's guide as a 6-year-old. But despite this wide array of talents, he's prone to frequent misunderstandings, like thinking that the alphabet is 1 long word.
Big Bird helps children feel all right about not knowing everything cause he himself does not know everything, & encourages them to inquire: a common Big Bird phrase in recent years has been "Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!" He also teaches other life, alphabet, & numerical lessons: "I guess it's better to be who you are. Turns out people like you best that way, anyway."
For many years his best friend Mr. Snuffleupagus (who Big Bird calls Snuffy) was deemed as imaginary by the adults on Sesame Street. Every time Snuffy would visit, he would coincidentally leave just before the adults arrived. Despite not being believed by the adults, Big Bird continued to assert that Snuffy was real. In the early 1980s, a string of high-profile child sexual abuse cases caused Sesame Workshop (then Children's Television Workshop) to eliminate this running gag, fearing that children would take to heart the message that, if adults don't believe something out of the ordinary even when they are telling the truth, they'd be just as well off to remain silent.
Big Bird took center stage on Sesame Street in the early 1980s, when the show dealt with the death of storekeeper Mr. Hooper (necessitated by the death of Will Lee, the actor who played the role). Big Bird got confused when he tried to go into Hooper's Store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing Big Bird made of & for him. The adults, including Maria, David, Bob, Susan, Gordon & Luis tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper isn't coming back cause he's dead & when people die, they don't come back. ("Ever?" "No, never") Big Bird's realization that Mr. Hooper wasn't just gone temporarily, & Big Bird's acceptance of Mr. Hooper's death, have been hailed as a milestone in children's programming.
Big Bird starred on the big screen in the 1985 film Follow That Bird, in which he is sent by Miss Finch, a bird social worker, to live with a foster family of Dodos. He soon runs away from his new home to get back to Sesame Street & he is kidnapped & dyed baby blue by 2 ratty circus-owners. He also had a role in the feature film The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland & starred in the feature-length specials Big Bird in China & Big Bird in Japan.
Big Bird also appeared in cameo roles in the films The Muppet Movie & The Muppets Take Manhattan & the TV special Muppet Family Christmas, & as a guest on The Muppet Show episode 318, & a variety of outside TV appearances.
Big Bird's species
Big Bird's precise species is unknown, & over the years, there have been varying explanations for his unusual size & appearance:
- During a 1976 appearance on Hollywood Squares, host Peter Marshall asked, "What kind of a bird are you, by the way?" Big Bird responds: "I'm a lark."
- When Big Bird is missing in the 1978 special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch reassures Maria, jokingly reminding her that Big Bird is "part homing pigeon"
- In a 1981 episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, King Friday XIII asked Big Bird if he's related to the cassowary. Big Bird replied "actually, I'm a golden condor."
- In the 1987 special A Muppet Family Christmas, Emily Bear refers to Big Bird as "the huge canary"; the Swedish Chef, seeing him as an upgrade from The Christmas Turkey, calls him "gobbla gobbla humungo."
- The 1998 book Sesame Street Unpaved says that Big Bird's scientific name is "Bigus canarius".
- In the 2004 direct-to-video special A Celebration of Me, Grover, Big Bird says, "I wish I could fly like Super Grover. But my Grandpa was an emu bird. They can't fly. But they can run! Every fall, Grandpa ran south for the winter." Also Big Bird always says he can't fly, but cause he's only 6 could be a reason why he can't fly.
- Oscar the Grouch sometimes refers to Big Bird as a "turkey" -- an insult rather than a reflection of Big Bird's species. However, this does help Big Bird hitch a ride on a turkey truck in the 1985 film Follow That Bird; he talks his way onto the truck by claiming that "my friend Oscar always says that I'm a big turkey!" In a 2009 interview with TV Guide, Big Bird said that Oscar is "a little grouchy. He calls me a turkey. I'm not a turkey; I'm a lark."
- In the Sesame Street Live production Everyone Makes Music, after Big Bird sings Rockin' Robin, Baby Bear remarks that Big Bird is 1 rockin' robin, & Big Bird remarks, "Actually I'm a canary."
- In a 2009 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live when host Jimmy Kimmel asks him if he has ever "googled" Big Bird replies: "Uh, no but I have an Uncle turkey who gobbles".
Big Bird's family
Big Bird lives alone on Sesame Street, essentially adopted by the general neighborhood, with Susan & Gordon often acting as stand-in parents. In Sesame Street Visits the Hospital, when the hospital receptionist asks if Maria is Big Bird's mother, she replied, ""Not exactly...Kind of... Yes." As a baby, Big Bird was raised by his Granny Bird & his aunt, Nani Bird. As he became more self-reliant, Big Bird moved out on his own, to his nest on Sesame Street.
Granny Bird remains a part of his life; he's visited her in various books. Big Bird visits her house in I Want to Go Home! (1985), Nothing to Do (1988), I Can't Wait Until Christmas (1989), Big Bird Visits Granny Bird (1991) & Fly Away with Big Bird (2006).
There is also scattered evidence of other relations. In a 1971 episode, Big Bird receives a coat from his mommy in the mail, & he babysits for his sister's egg in a 1972 episode. He also mentions a mother, father, & sister in the song "Tall Enough". It's unclear why Big Bird was raised apart from his nuclear family.
Big Bird's age
The character was originally conceived as a kind of a yokel, it took most of the show's 1st season, but the writers & performers soon came to see Big Bird not as the "village idiot," but as a curious child. Spinney described him as "He was the too-big kid, much as I had been the too-little kid when I was his age. I suggested that we think of him as a child 1st learning to read & learning the alphabet, like our audience. That made him about 4½."
As Sesame Street's core audience has gotten younger, Big Bird has aged. "He's about 6," Spinney says, "arrested at 6."
For years Big Bird's age has been frozen at a particular point -- he's 6 years old in the 1985 film Follow That Bird, & still 6 in the 1989 special Sesame Street: 20 & Still Counting. Big Bird celebrated his 6th birthday (again) in the 1991 PBS pledge drive special Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake.
Performing Big Bird
As Caroll Spinney has aged, the show has gradually started to train new performers to play Big Bird. These apprentices include both Rick Lyon in the opening theme song of the show's 20th, 25th, & 33rd seasons & Matt Vogel in the show's Journey to Ernie segment. Sometimes, Vogel performs in the Big Bird puppet, with Caroll Spinney dubbing all his lines in later, though Vogel has also performed the voice on occasion. Vogel will also become Big Bird's performer if Caroll Spinney dies or retires.
Caroll Spinney was sick during the taping of a few 1st season episodes, so Daniel Seagren performed Big Bird in those episodes. He also performed Big Bird when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, & in a number of Sesame Street Cast Tours in 1970. Jim Henson, who designed Big Bird, proved to be a possible candidate to perform the bird, as he was slender & over 6 foot. But Kermit Love, who built the costume, didn't think he walked like a bird is supposed to walk. Henson then offered the part to Frank Oz, his best friend, but Oz turned the job down since he hated performing full-body characters.
The Big Bird performer is completely enclosed in the costume & extends his right hand over his head to operate the head & neck of the puppet. The puppeteer's left hand serves as the Bird's left hand, while the right hand is stuffed & hangs loosely from a fishing line that runs through a loop under the neck & attaches to the wrist of the left hand. For some of the "Journey to Ernie" segments, a 2nd puppeteer (usually Jim Martin) controls Big Bird's right hand.
- Big Bird's feathers are silver turkey feathers, dyed yellow. There are approximately 4,000 feathers on the puppet. (According to Count von Count, he has over 5,961 feathers--he counted them himself.)
- Jim Henson had originally planned on having the performer inside Big Bird perform the character by wearing the suit backwards, so that Big Bird can bend his knees backwards like a real bird.
- Big Bird sang Bein' Green in honor of Jim Henson (& Kermit the Frog) at Jim Henson's Memorial Service. During the song he was close to tears. At the song's end, he looked up to the heavens & said, voice breaking, "Thank you, Kermit."
- Big Bird made a special guest appearance on an episode of Deal or No Deal, to help contestant Lamar Wilson overcome his childhood fear of the bird.
- Sesame Workshop included a "Muppetbook" section of Muppet bios in the digital press kit for 40th season of Sesame Street (posted on Sesameworkshop.org. On his profile, Big Bird listed chicken soup as 1 of his pet peeves.
- According to Muppet wrangler Michelle Hickey, Big Bird's feathers are "hand-glued and backed with a ribbon that is hand-stitched on." His feathers are also rated from A to D, with only A & B rated feathers making up the puppet. Occasionally C rated feathers are used towards the bottom of the puppet. Hickey also states that the feathers are replaced every 2 weeks, or after the Muppet has been to an event.
Awards & Honors
- Big Bird received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
- Big Bird was featured on a US postage stamp in 1999 & on postage stamps in Fiji, Kiribati, the Cayman Islands, & Samoa in 2000.