In the opening shots of Alien, as the camera tours the scene of all the action that is to come, on the dining table sit a pair of drinking birds, happily sipping away from a mug of water. This in itself brings up an interesting issue: These little birds require the mug of water to keep their heads wet in order to keep drinking, therefore the crew cannot have been in hypersleep for too long, otherwise the water in the mug would have evaporated, the little birdie heads would dry off, and they would stop dipping. According to the timeline given at the Alien Anthology Wiki, the USCSS Nostromo has been en route for about a year when the crew is awakened, revealing some remarkably evaporation resistant water. Well, it’s a movie, so let’s suspend disbelief for a bit…
These little toys have been around for a while. Patented in the United States by one Miles V. Sullivan in 1946, it would seem from a little research that these existed as toys in China, where they were known as the “Insatiable Birdie,” at least as early as the 1930’s. Apparently they remain popular curiosities for quite a while longer to show up on the mess hall table of the Nostromo in 2122 A.D.
You can still get these little guys. I ordered a Three-Pack of Magic Drinking Birds through Amazon. When they arrived it became apparent that I was going to have to make some changes to get them looking like their 22nd century brethren.
A lot of the investigative work had already been done on these props by other fans of the movie. I gathered a lot of information for my build from the forums at Propsummit.com. Thanks go out to everyone who contributed to that thread, which made researching this project so much easier.
The first thing to correct was the hat. I tried painting one of the little hats with some white Testors model paint. That turned out to be a big mistake. I’m sure it is just my technique, but brushing on the Testors enamel paint just looked like poo to me. The paint gobbed up, the brush strokes were obvious and it just plain looked awful. Luckily I had two more chances, and discovered that the little hats are just held on with a dab of hot melt glue. A little careful twisting and wiggling popped them right off their heads. Now they were ready for a proper painting with some spray paint.
My wife, while proofreading this post for me, pointed out that removing the hats was her idea, so thanks go out to her for this critical bit of assistance.
I then tried a base coat of flat white, followed by masking off the wall of the crown with painter’s tape, and finally spraying a coat of yellow. This started out looking very promising, but removing the masking tape pulled off the underlying paint as well, sending me right back to square one.
So, with two hat painting failures under my belt, I think I finally hit upon the best solution. Starting again with a fresh hat, the whole thing got a coat of yellow. Since it is just the walls of the crown that are white, the new plan was to print out the little Japanese characters on strips of white label tape and simply wrap them around the crown. Voilà! A yellow hat with white walled crown and the Japanese writing all with one application of paint and one simple sticker. I wish I had thought of that in the first place.
Just so no one is worried that I destroyed a pair of perfectly good dipping birds with a botched hat paint job, a little mineral spirits scrubbed the white paint right off, and they are back to drinking away in their original condition. No harm, no fowl. Pun intended.
Next up was replacing the little green feathers on the tail with some really impressive blue plumage. The tail feathers on the movie props were quite large, extending almost above the birdie’s head in height. I picked up a pair of nice fuzzy looking blue feathers at the local Hobby Lobby to update my little birdies and make them more attractive to potential mates. For drinking birds this is as easy as gluing a new feather on its bum.
The birds in the film are filled with red fluid, while mine have blue fluid. There is really nothing that can be done about that other than start over with birdies that have red fluid, but I’m going to overlook this little discrepancy. Overall, I think I ended up with a pretty good approximation of the drinking birds from the film. Interestingly, Google gives the translation of the writing on the hats (幸運) as “lucky” or “good fortune.” Hopefully these little guys will bring better luck than they did for the crew of the USCSS Nostromo!