Twitter is a real mixed bag these days, but one remaining highlight is its abundance of humor accounts, which can provide some much-needed levity amidst the daily deluge of takes and terrible news. One such recent account has carved out a particularly distinct niche for itself: tweets featuring sketches of birds that like to cuss. The account is called Effin’ Birds, and it pairs vintage black-and-white bird illustrations with sayings that, more often than not, rely heavily on the F-bomb and other curse words. The juxtaposition of the unassuming images next to vulgarities written in a whimsical, flowing font, is the key to the gag—a wide-eyed merganser saying “Oh fuck not this again,” for example. The account has proven popular in its six-month existence, quickly earning more than 24,000 followers with no sign of slowing down.
Effin’ Birds is the most recent work of Aaron Reynolds, a 42-year-old software instructor who also happens to be a serial creator behind a handful of other humorous Twitter accounts. Curious to find out more about all of the foul-mouthed birds that had suddenly taken over my Twitter feed, I got in touch with Reynolds to see if he could give me the backstory of the account. As it turns out, how it came to be and what it has become is pretty interesting.
“Effin’ Birds was born as an experiment,” Reynolds tells me. In fact, Effin’ Birds was such an experiment that the only thing Reynolds knew when he set out to make a new account earlier this year was that he wanted to use cursing. At the beginning, he had no idea that birds would ultimately be his muse. The first step to creating a new concept was to find artwork or some other content that would pair well with the salty and sarcastic quips he had in mind. After much Googling, the solution found him in the form of an advertisement. “It was a targeted ad about 12 gigabytes of vintage woodcut [bird] stock art,” he says. “And I saw this owl, and this owl was looking at me like he just couldn’t believe what I was saying to him. You know, it’s the one that I am using for the account picture. And I love that owl so much. And I immediately was like okay, here’s the credit card. I’m buying the rights to all of these images.”
All together he bought roughly 200 images from an artist named Tom Chalky, who digitizes old found artwork. Once Reynolds knew what the main subject of his new creation would be, he then began looking for the right typeface. He wanted “something that looked handwritten or calligraphic, but a little bit silly, a little bit fanciful.” As everything came together, he tried to think of the best name for the project. “The first idea [for a name] was Swear Birds, but I was like, well this is a really stupid name,” he says. “And as I started doing it, Effin’ Birds just became obvious as the right name—something that I could use in a Twitter handle, something that wouldn’t be taken as a domain name, and something that would also be kind of funny on its own.”
With the conceit decided and the name set, Reynolds launched the account in May. It immediately took off. “It’s been the fastest growing thing that I’ve ever built,” he says. “Getting to 20,000 followers took a year and a half, I think, for Bat Labels. And for Effin’ Birds it was like four months.” Bat 66 Labels is the first humor account Reynolds saw any real success with; it provides screenshots of the overly explanatory signs littering the original Batman television show (e.g. Criminal Sensor Batindicator). Swear Trek, another popular account of his, features GIFs from Star Trek episodes accompanied by made-up captions that have the characters cussing (notice a theme?).
Whereas these two older accounts have actors and other famous followers to help gain reach, Reynolds says the growth of Effin’ Birds has been more organic. “It doesn’t have celebrity fans the way that Bat Labels does. It’s popular a lot among media people, especially new media people. Outlets like Buzzfeed or [people who] do online stuff for The Guardian.” And, of course, Bird Twitter has helped. The account has been a hit with the cadre of birders and, to a larger extent, science writers and academics who post and interact on Twitter. (While Twitter is where Effin' Birds has been the most succesful by far, Reynolds also operates accounts on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.)
As for his creation process for Effin’ Birds, Reynolds says his inspiration for the quotes comes from everywhere, but the workplace is often the best source. “There’s a note in my notes app called Effin’ Birds, and when things happen to me or things strike me—mostly when I’m frustrated—I’m just writing down all of my feelings in that note,” he says. Later he’ll either go through the images to see which bird matches how he felt, or he’ll look for birds that haven’t been used recently and pair it with a complementary thought. Either way, it’s not hard to find a match. “Birds have this advantage of always looking angry,” he says.
While the birds remain foul-mouthed as ever, Reynolds uses a much wider array of vulgarities than just the F-word, and he has even started using captions with no cursing at all. “It’s one of those things where you can’t make the same joke every single time,” he says. Another advantage to having the occasional clean post is that they have a tendency to be shared more widely.
The “Nope” illustration, which appears to feature a curlew or whimbrel, is a good example of this. It’s one of the more recognizable images Reynolds has created, and it’s also one of his most popular. The fact that the word itself has become popular internet shorthand also surely has something to do with it. “When I saw this bird, with this head flipped turn the other way, like he’s just sort of looking at you, I was like, welp, there’s nothing else this bird can be saying,” he says. While Reynolds enjoys nature and birds, he readily admits he doesn’t know which birds are which beyond the ones with obvious shapes such as owls and flamingos. “I actually get those questions a whole bunch. People ask what kind of bird is that, and I say I don’t know. It’s called bird34.png in this file of birds I bought.”
Because the Effin’ Birds posts mix and mingle with whatever other tweets appear in an individual’s Twitter stream, fortuitous tweet pairings have become one of the most surprising and fun results of the account. Users regularly share screenshots with Reynolds of an Effin’ Birds tweet that almost seems to provide commentary for whatever other tweet it’s next to in a timeline. “Oh, it is my very favorite part of Effin’ Birds,” he says. “I was not aware that it was a thing that would start to happen, but once it did start happening, I started writing the captions to more easily fit into that scenario. Because when it happens it’s just magical.”
Soon, though, Reynolds will have to find some new art. He’s already been reusing images from the original collection of 200 with different sayings, which hasn’t seemed to bother his followers too much yet, but eventually it will get repetitive. “My two thoughts are that I enlist an artist to make more, which is the expensive but excellent option,“ he says. “The other is keeping my eyes peeled for more stuff.” He recently bought another set of images from Chalky, but they are of crustaceans that are in the same style of the birds. Reynolds plans to occasionally use some of them in the Effin’ Birds account, and has already tried out a crab with quite possibly the perfect caption: “Look asshole I don’t have time to explain.”
New art isn’t just important for keeping the account fresh. For Reynolds, Effin’ Birds marks the beginning of a new chapter in his creative life—one where he can actually profit from his work. Bat Labels and Swear Trek, though popular, haven’t provided much on this front. “One of the challenges of . . . having successful projects on social media that are built off of properties you don’t own is that they are next to impossible to monetize,” he says. “I’ve put in a lot of time and a certain amount of resources into doing these things, and yeah, I’m doing them for fun—I’m not doing them as my day job—but it is nice when you are able to get income out of them.”
Reynolds has largely depended on Patreon, a website that allows people to support individual creators by making small donations, for funding his various projects so far. But the other week he held a soft launch of an online store that will sell his Effin’ Birds creations on clothing, mugs, and other merchandise. Since, the Effin’ Birds Twitter feed has been flooded with people showing off their newly purchased wares. This week the store officially went live, and sales have already been stellar. “Between that beta test and the first twelve hours, we’ve sold $11,000 worth of Effin’ Birds merchandise,” Reynolds said in an email. The most popular item has been a mug bearing the image of an upright duck with another popular phrase. “I bet this problem will go away if we have more fucking meetings,” it reads.
With these kinds of early results, Reynolds’ ultimate goal of being able to concentrate solely on his creative projects might be closer in sight than he thought even a few weeks ago when we first talked. “The tipping point will come when I can’t focus on more projects because I have a day job,” he told me, “but at some point these will become lucrative enough that the day job is the thing that has to go.”