Ask any kid in almost any country, and they’ll tell you who Big Bird is. But how well do we really know our feathered friend? On the surface, he’s a lovable character from Sesame Street who stands 249 centimeters tall (8’2″) and sports orange feet the size of snowshoes. But there are many sides to this famous fowl. In fact, hidden behind all those feathers is a bird brain full of remarkable notions like how to say the alphabet as one big word or how to bid farewell to a special friend.
After 50 years of appearing on the most popular children’s show ever, you’d think we’d know Big Bird inside out, but he still has a few surprises up his sleeve. For instance, Big Bird hobnobs with Darth Vader and the Queen of England. He wields major political clout and once took out a presidential candidate without even lifting a feather. On top of that, he has survived multiple attempts on his life! Not to count our chicks before they’re hatched, but we think you’ll like these fun facts about the flightiest member of the Sesame Street gang.
Yes, it’s true, there’s a person inside that yellow suit. The man who brought Big Bird to life is Caroll Spinney, a puppeteer who met Jim Henson in 1962.
Although Spinney’s childhood years were rocky (a loving mother was overruled by an abusive father), he was still able to convey the wonder and delight of childhood through Big Bird. In an odd-couple pairing, Spinney also voiced Oscar the Grouch.
Maneuvering the bird costume is no easy task. The puppeteer stands upright and raises his right arm to elevate big bird’s head. He moves the mouth with his hand while controlling the eyes with his little finger. The right arm is hooked to the left by a string, and when the left is moved, the right moves in tandem. Big bird’s suit weighs 4.5 kilograms (10 lb), his head is 1.8 kilograms (4 lb), and according to writer Louise Gikow, the heat inside the suit can be “unbearable.”
As the puppeteer is completely enclosed in the costume and cannot see, he must wear a TV monitor strapped to his chest. Spinney called this his electronic bra. He also taped his script to the monitor, which means he was reading, watching the monitor, and operating all parts of the costume while trying to walk and not trip over carpets, TV cables, and so on. If all of this sounds like a lot to do at one time, you’re right.
In October 2018, Caroll Spinney, age 84, retired from Sesame Street. He turned the character of Big Bird over to his understudy, Matt Vogel.
It only makes sense that Big Bird should be part of a big family. He was raised by his Granny Bird, but there’s an occasional reference to a Mommy and Daddy, along with a sister named Esmeralda. Big Bird flew Granny’s coop when he was still a chick, and the next time anyone saw him was on Sesame Street. Apparently, he prefers the seamy side of the ‘hood, since he built his nest next to the trash of Oscar the Grouch.
Some of Big Bird’s relatives include Uncle Slim, a cowbird from Wyoming, and a grandfather who reportedly is an emu. Big Bird has approximately 15 different cousins who are mentioned in various story lines. There’s an identical twin cousin named Herman, Cousin Bubba from the North Pole, and a surfer cousin, Floyd, who lives in Los Angeles. There’s also a baker cousin, a policeman, and a fireman, to name a few.
Big Bird’s human family includes Gordon, Luis, Maria, Bob, and Mr. Hooper. As for Muppet neighbors, over 1,000 have come and gone since the show first aired in 1969. While no one ever says why Big Bird left home in the first place, it’s clear to his millions of fans—who wouldn’t want to live on Sesame Street?
Since Big Bird is a stand-alone character able to interact with his environment, the producers of Sesame Street have involved him in all kinds of antics. Big Bird can roller-skate, ice-skate, dance, sing, write poetry, draw, ride horseback, and even ride a unicycle.
Given the complexity of walking in the suit, one wonders how it’s possible for Big Bird to roller-skate or ride a unicycle. These are skills some people can’t master at all, much less while wearing a giant costume with enormous feet (and don’t forget that the puppeteer is holding his hand up over his head while basically blindfolded).
The Sesame Street staff is actually rather close-mouthed about how it’s all done, and Spinney is modest about his acrobatic skills. When asked about the unicycle stunt, he said, “As for the unicycle, I don’t know how to ride one. It’s the suit, it’s all the suit.” If the test of a great performer is one who can make the impossible look easy, then Spinney fits the bill.
Stabbed? Or so it seemed. Sesame Street was doing a live show for a large audience of children. Producers had begun to experiment with the new technology of wireless microphones, and Big Bird had one in his suit. Staffers were unaware they had to clear a channel, and to everyone’s surprise, the mic picked up the voice of a trucker on his CB radio making evening plans with his girlfriend. Before it got too R-rated, the feed was killed, and someone stuck a regular mike through Big Bird’s costume. Problem solved? Not really. To the children’s horror, it looked like Big Bird had been stabbed in the heart.
Spinney recalled another upsetting incident in the 1970s where Big Bird was attacked. Slated to perform a live show for 6,000 people at Georgia Tech University, Spinney left the suit in an empty storeroom while he went for lunch. Later, as he lounged in the grass outside, Spinney noticed several ROTC members walking away with large yellow feathers tucked in their hats. Alarmed, he raced back to the storeroom and discovered that Big Bird had been accosted. Not only were there several bald spots in the suit, but one eye had been wrenched out in an unsuccessful attempt to take it as a souvenir.
Spinney was heartbroken, feeling like he’d left his child in harm’s way. He vowed to be more careful in the future.
It was the 1980s, and the US space program was in full swing. Hoping to interest the general public (and distract from the huge cost of the shuttle program) NASA proposed a new marketing idea where an ordinary citizen would be launched into space. Then someone thought of inviting Big Bird!
When the civilian astronaut program was announced, NASA received 11,000 applicants, including Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw, but the happy idea of the goofy yellow bird floating in zero gravity would not go away. While Caroll Spinney never applied for the job, he was contacted by NASA and asked to orbit the Earth as Big Bird.
After some hesitation, Spinney finally agreed, but as it turned out, Big Bird was just too big to fit in the confined space, and the plan was scrapped. Schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was ultimately chosen to be on Space Shuttle Challenger.
Fast-forward to January 28, 1986. It seemed the entire US, including millions of schoolchildren, were glued to their TV sets. Spinney and his wife were among the audience and held hands as Challenger lifted into the air. The excitement turned to horror as Challenger exploded, killing all seven people inside.
As a PR plan, this was the worst possible outcome, or was it? Having a beloved teacher involved in this tragedy was bad enough, but what if it had been Big Bird?
Big Bird is the ultimate jet-setter and has traveled the world doing concerts, live shows, and book tours. He’s been to Australia, Japan, all over Europe, and even spent three weeks on location in China while filming his special, Big Bird in China.
According to Caroll Spinney, during the filming, their translators were convinced that the Sesame Street crew were spies and submitted reports on everything they did.
Another of Big Bird’s favorite gigs is making guest appearances with various orchestras. Most memorable was Big Bird’s evening with the Boston Pops, where maestro Arthur Fiedler stepped aside and let the big yellow bird conduct.
A celebrity in his own right, Big Bird has hobnobbed with A-listers from all walks of life. He has visited the White House multiple times and appeared with at least six president’s wives, most famously waltzing with Michelle Obama in the produce section of a supermarket. He has appeared on countless TV shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Squares, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Extreme Makeover, and Saturday Night Live.
Other celebrities who’ve swooned over this fine-feathered fowl, include the Queen of England, Darth Vader, NSYNC, Lin-Manual Miranda of Hamilton fame, the Dixie Chicks, and the Rockettes. Big Bird takes it all in stride and is just as happy to hang out with the kids who come to play on Sesame Street.
For a fluffy yellow bird who’s eternally six years old, Big Bird has a lot of political clout. It was 2012, and then-governor Mitt Romney was running for president of the United States. He was doing quite well until he ran afoul of Big Bird.
During a debate with Barack Obama, Romney detailed his plan to reduce government spending. One idea was to cut funding to PBS, on which Sesame Street airs.
Romney said to moderator Jim Lehrer, who also worked for PBS: “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. [ . . . ] I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things we have to borrow money from China to pay for.”
While cutting spending is always a great platform, the reference to Big Bird was a mistake. People who grew up on a steady diet of Sesame Street felt an immediate stab of anguish. Social media blew up with memes and snarky comments about the coldhearted politician who wanted to kill Big Bird. The focus of the debate shifted from a serious and somewhat wonky discussion of political issues to a media frenzy featuring pictures of a forlorn Big Bird holding a “Will Work for Food” sign.
Of course, comedians and late-night hosts had a field day, and while Romney tried to be a good sport, the damage was done. In the end, Romney lost the election to Barack Obama. Was it Big Bird’s fault? We’ll never know, but it’s a good guess that Romney would like a do-over day.
Mr. Hooper was one of Big Bird’s favorite people. While somewhat curmudgeonly, the storekeeper loved his fluffy yellow friend and was always good for a birdseed milkshake.
When Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, died of a heart attack in December 1982, the shocked staff of Sesame Street were not sure how to handle it. Did Mr. Hooper move away or have a sudden change of appearance? The final decision was to make this a teaching moment and address the fact that death is part of life.
The “Farewell Mr. Hooper” episode was one of the most heartfelt of the Sesame Street shows, winning universal praise as well as daytime TV awards. According to Spinney, “It was one of the best things we ever did.”
In May 1990, Jim Henson died unexpectedly from pneumonia. His memorial service in New York City featured Big Bird singing Henson’s signature song, “Bein’ Green.” In a touching tribute to his beloved boss, Spinney managed to get through the song, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Life magazine later described the moment as epic and almost unbearably moving.
What kind of bird is he, anyway? That’s hard to say, as even Big Bird seems confused. Despite the efforts of expert researchers, his exact species remains a mystery, and answers to the question have been contradictory.
During a 1976 appearance on Hollywood Squares, host Peter Marshall asked Big Bird what kind of bird he was. “I’m a Lark,” Big Bird replied. In 1981, while appearing on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Big Bird said he was a “golden condor.” During 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas special, Ma Bear refers to him as a huge canary, while the Swedish Chef declares Big Bird is a type of turkey, named “Gobbla Gobbla Humungo.” According to the 1998 book Sesame Street Unpaved, Big Bird’s scientific name is Biggius canarius (presumably again implying him to be a form of canary).
Big Bird has also been called a homing pigeon and a Rockin’ Robin after his performance of the eponymous song. He has additionally been pegged as a cassowary, an ibis, and a crane by various people. Finally, the fact that Big Bird can’t fly is attributed to his Grandpa, who is an emu. Said Big Bird, “Emus can’t fly, but they can run. Every fall, he ran south for the winter.”
In the end, specifics don’t matter. Big Bird makes people happy. He loves everyone, and everyone (well, maybe not Oscar the Grouch) loves him. The Bird has been around for almost 50 years and has no plans to retire. As you read this, Big Bird and his writers are no doubt hatching new and even more exciting adventures to captivate the next generation of kids.
Geanie is a writer by trade and a wanderer by nature, and she loves to combine the two activities whenever possible. You can follow her adventures at Library Lady Travels.