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Can the Science of Cute Help Shorebirds?

Disney/ Pixar's "Piper"

If you’re one of many people that went to the theaters recently to see Disney Pixar’s new movie Finding Dory, then hopefully you arrived early enough to catch one of the cutest shorts to date. Before we dive into the ocean to help find Dory the Blue Tang, animator Alan Barillaro takes us onto a beach with a population of Shorebirds in Piper. The short’s star bird, Piper, a relatively new hatchling, goes out to retrieve food from her mother but is pushed along a string of bubbles in the wet sand to the water in search for her own food. Not realizing why all the adult birds quickly rush by her farther onto the shore, Piper is blindsided by a big wave. She is traumatized for quite some time and becomes fearful of the water. But as her hunger grows once more, she hesitantly goes back towards the water’s edge. Just as she is about to be thrown around by the water for a second time, she notices the small hermit crabs bury themselves into the sand. Thinking quickly, Piper burrows down herself into the sand to brace for impact. As she is under the surface of water, she sees the beauty of undersea life, and as it draws itself back, she can now see where all the prey hid and begins finding enough food for more than just herself. The short film teaches the younger audience to face their fears and never give up. Without any dialogue and only six minutes, everyone has fallen in love with Piper.

Piper as a hatchling

The science of cute is quite simple, and the Disney/Pixar team knows how to pack all of it into one character. As humans, we seem to be hardwired to want to protect and sympathize with human babies that have particular traits which other species, and sometimes even objects, can express as well. Features like a round face with big eyes can always capture our attention. Animators especially know this to be true and have been perfecting it over years. A great example given while researching this phenomenon is the evolution of Disney’s very own beloved Mickey Mouse. From his origins up to today, Mickey has gotten shorter, pudgier, a larger head, and lower-lying eyes.

For Piper, she has a notably round body, large head, little to no neck, small beak, round tummy, low eyes, and tiny feet that are very clumsy. But rather than using all the ‘cute characteristics’, the animators of Piper had the perfect blend of cute and realistic. The short is realistic enough to submerge yourself into its reality, but still cartoony enough to express these exaggerated features to sympathize with the small shorebird.

The only information given for the short film recognizes the birds as sandpipers. But the term sandpiper is pretty broad terminology for a bird species. Based on the adult plumage coloration, the distinctive behavior of the birds as well as the fact that they are present at times along the coast of California, where the Pixar studio is located, I would conclude the birds as based most on Sanderlings, rather than other sandpipers. Sanderlings feed by running down the beach after a receding wave to probe for prey hidden in the wet sand, very much like our sandpipers in the short. Their diet consists mainly of small invertebrates like crustaceans, worms and mollusks. The hatchlings are described as downy with dark legs and black eyes, like the film shows Piper at the beginning.

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

After the success of Pixar’s movie Finding Nemo and subsequently with Finding Dory, children and parents across the globe have come to know and learn a lot about different fish species. While the movies aren’t 100% scientifically accurate, they are enough to learn about the real-life species while being practical for the sake of the plot. The second installment of the franchise puts humans in a better light in terms of impact to the ocean than the first. In Nemo, humans are more selfish and uncaring of the ocean and its creatures, but in Dory, humans are more helpful to the species by only capturing the sick creatures, rehabilitating them and then releasing them back to the ocean. Hopefully this puts a better impression on the audience that humans can be helpful to species in need, whether it be in the oceans with Dory and her family, or just up on the shorelines with Piper and hers.

For Piper, other more serious treats to these types of birds are not addressed. Other factors of survival success like human disturbance or predators were not present but are justifiably left out because it is only a six minute short and for a majorly young audience. Piper herself does seem to be the only chick present from her brood, perhaps signifying that her other siblings didn’t hatch or were recently predated because Sanderlings on average lay 3-4 eggs each season. The absence of a second parent may also indicate predation or disturbance of some kind as well. To many this darker thought may not come to mind when watching the more uplifting short, but are real issues all shorebird face. Sanderlings in particular are one of the most common shorebirds, with about 700,000 individuals (300,000 occurring in the Americas), but are listed as a species of high concern by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network due to declining populations. Being very susceptible to impacts, shorebirds around the world are on the decline, with many species being listed as threatened or endangered. After generations of shoreline habitat disturbance by humans and declining shorebird populations, these species truly do need our support. Knowledge is the easiest way for people to help any species and with a lovable character like Piper representing shorebirds, I hope many come to realize that we can have a positive impact on for these birds and their critical habitats.


Dell'Amour, Christine. "Baby Giant Panda Debuts in D.C.: Why Do We Find It So Cute?" National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 18 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 July 2016.

Josh. "Why Babies and Other Things Are Cute, Explained." Stuff You Should Know. howstuffworks, a division of infopspace LLC, 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 July 2016.

Robinson, Joanna. "Behind the Scenes of Piper, Pixar's Beset Short Film in Years: How Alan Barillaro Meticulously Crafted the Baby Bird Your Kids Won't Stop Chirping About." Vanity Fair Hollywood. Condé Nast, 16 June 2016. Web. 11 July 2016.

"A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse." The Science of Cute. N.p., 27 Oct. 2008. Web. 11 July 2016.

"Sanderling." All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015. Web. 11 July 2016.


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