William & Mary

Why turkeys taste best: Dan Cristol's "For the Birds"

  • "For the Birds"
    "For the Birds"  W&M biologist Dan Cristol created a series of audio stories entitled "For the Birds."  
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Editor's note: This content was first published in 2006.

During a sabbatical in 2004, Dan Cristol found himself “trapped in his car” at a stoplight when he inexplicably became fascinated with Herbert Hoover’s wife. Cristol, associate professor of biology at the College, was, in fact, listening to a National Public Radio broadcast of “A Moment in Time,” a two-minute radio show about history produced by Dan Roberts at the University of Richmond. As he waited for the signal to change, it occured to him: Why not do for ornithology what Roberts had done for history? In the process, he reasoned, he potentially could save millions of birds while making lives happier for hundreds of thousands of people.

It almost happened. Cristol produced a series of fully developed radio demos that he titled “For the Birds.” In each episode, he engaged with a fresh wit and an obvious passion bird-related topics of general interest. Topics included why people resent non-migrating geese—“goose poop,” what people should do with their cats—“keep the killers indoors,” and what types of fowl he personally eats—“ugly birds taste better than pretty ones.”

Success for the project seemed guaranteed. Judging from the enthusiasm generated by the bird-related column he had been producing for the Virginia Gazette, Cristol was convinced a much broader audience existed for similar discussion. “People stop me in the street and call me and e-mail me all the time with questions about birds,” he said. “They want to know what makes that little ‘dinky-dinky-dee’ sound outside their window or why woodpeckers tear up insulation.” Those interested in such discussion, he also noticed, seemed to be more in touch with themselves. “People who are connected to nature, even if just through seeing a bird at a feeder and knowing what it’s doing, are better off and, I bet, happier,” he said. “These are the kind of people I want to be around.”

Certainly an additional benefit—perhaps the major benefit—would accrue if a program such as “For the Birds” could help protect some of the world’s feathered species. As human beings continually expand their developmental footprint, numerous bird populations become endangered. Despite productive interventions on behalf of some, such as ospreys and eagles, Cristol maintained that “for every high-profile success there are 50 species that are on a fast track to extinction.”

“And no-one cares,” he said. “If I told the stories of these creatures, people might do something.”

At present, Cristol does not have the resources necessary to pursue the series. After talking with Dan Roberts, he realized that the time commitment involved in producing a daily radio show that could be marketed to the national media would be overwhelming. That not only is sad, in a sense, for Cristol, it is sad, too, for the College. “There are 65 million bird enthusiasts in this country, and if William and Mary could be firmly implanted in the minds of all of them for two minutes every day after they had learned something interesting about birds, there would be 65 million more William and Mary enthusiasts,” he speculated.

Obviously it is sad for the birds.