Page 1


Birds:

Myth, lore & legend

LON DON • OX F O R D • N E W YO R K • N E W D E L H I • SY DN EY


Birds:

Myth, lore & legend

LON DON • OX F O R D • N E W YO R K • N E W D E L H I • SY DN EY


Bloomsbury Natural History An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK

1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA

www.bloomsbury.com BLOOMSBURY and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2016 © Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor, 2016 Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Authors of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication data has been applied for. ISBN:

HB: 978-1-4729-2286-1 ePDF: 978-1-4729-2288-5 ePub: 978-1-4729-2287-8

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 Edited & designed by 3REDCARS www.3redcars.co.uk Printed and bound in China

LON DON • OX F O R D • N E W YO R K • N E W D E L H I • SY DN EY

To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com. Here you will find extracts, author interviews, details of forthcoming events and the option to sign up for our newsletters.

One for sorrow, two for mirth; Three for a wedding, four for a birth, Five for silver, six for gold, Seven for a secret not to be told…


Bloomsbury Natural History An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK

1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA

www.bloomsbury.com BLOOMSBURY and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2016 © Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor, 2016 Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor have asserted their right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Authors of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication data has been applied for. ISBN:

HB: 978-1-4729-2286-1 ePDF: 978-1-4729-2288-5 ePub: 978-1-4729-2287-8

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 Edited & designed by 3REDCARS www.3redcars.co.uk Printed and bound in China

LON DON • OX F O R D • N E W YO R K • N E W D E L H I • SY DN EY

To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com. Here you will find extracts, author interviews, details of forthcoming events and the option to sign up for our newsletters.

One for sorrow, two for mirth; Three for a wedding, four for a birth, Five for silver, six for gold, Seven for a secret not to be told…


contents The Wonder of Birds 8

BIRDS AND US 10

SACRED TO THE GODS 86

MYTHS OF MANY NATIONS 164

FOR GOOD AND ILL 230

Anatidae Duck 12

Accipitridae Eagle 88

Alcedinidae Kookaburra 166

Accipitridae, Cathartidae Vulture 232

Ardeidae Bittern 16 Heron 18

Alcedinidae Kingfisher 94

Anhingidae Anhinga 168

Alaudidae Lark 236

Anatidae Goose 98

Apterygidae Kiwi 170

Alcidae Puffin 240

EGGS IN MYTHOLOGY and RELIGION 104

Callaeatidae Wattlebird 174

Apodidae Swift 242

Anatidae Swan 106

Caprimulgidae Whip-poor-will 176

Caprimulgidae Nightjar 244

Cathartidae Condor 110

Cardinalidae Cardinal 178

Charadriidae Plover 246

Columbidae Dove 114

Casuariidae Cassowary 180

POETIC IMAGES 248

Corvidae Jackdaw 120

WEARING FEATHERS 184

Ciconiidae Stork 22 wise and unwise BIRDS of FABLE 26 Corvidae Rook 28 Cuculidae Cuckoo 30 Gruidae Crane 34 Hirundinidae Swallow 40 Motacillidae Wagtail 44 Pandionidae Osprey 48

Falconidae Peregrine falcon 122 Fringillidae Crossbill 126 Goldfinch 128

Corvidae Jay 186

Corvidae Crow 250 Magpie 256 Raven 260

Cuculidae Roadrunner 188

Diomedeidae Albatross 264

Dromaiidae Emu 192

Hydrobatidae Storm-petrel 266

Phasianidae Cockerel 52 Grouse 56 Quail 58 Turkey 60

Gaviidae Diver 130

Fregatidae Frigatebird 196

Laridae Gull 268

Muscicapidae Nightingale 134 Robin 136

Indicatoridae Honeyguide 198

Oriolidae Oriole 272

Phoenicopteridae Flamingo 62

Pelicanidae Pelican 140

Menuridae Lyrebird 200

Passeridae Sparrow 274

Picidae Woodpecker 64

Mimidae Mockingbird 204

Phalacrocoracidae Cormorant 278

WEATHER prophets 68

Phasianidae Peacock 144 Pheasant 148

Monarchidae Monarch-flycatcher 208

Picidae Wryneck 282

Scolopacidae Snipe 70

Psittacidae, Psittaculidae Parrot 150

Paradisaeidae Bird-of-paradise 210

Scolopacidae Curlew 284

Sturnidae Starling 72

SYMBOLS IN ART 154

Paridae Chickadee 214

Strigidae, Tytonidae Owl 286

Ramphastidae Toucan 216

Troglodytidae Wren 292

Rhipiduridae Willie Wagtail 218

Turdidae Blackbird 296

Struthionidae Ostrich 220

quest for flight 298

Sulidae Gannet 76 Turdidae Thrush 78 Upupidae Hoopoe 82

Threskiornithidae Ibis 156 Trochilidae Hummingbird 158 Turdidae Bluebird 162

MYTHICAL BIRDS AND DEMI-BIRDS 224 Trogonidae Quetzal 226 6

Acknowledgements 300 Index 301 Bibliography 304 7


contents The Wonder of Birds 8

BIRDS AND US 10

SACRED TO THE GODS 86

MYTHS OF MANY NATIONS 164

FOR GOOD AND ILL 230

Anatidae Duck 12

Accipitridae Eagle 88

Alcedinidae Kookaburra 166

Accipitridae, Cathartidae Vulture 232

Ardeidae Bittern 16 Heron 18

Alcedinidae Kingfisher 94

Anhingidae Anhinga 168

Alaudidae Lark 236

Anatidae Goose 98

Apterygidae Kiwi 170

Alcidae Puffin 240

EGGS IN MYTHOLOGY and RELIGION 104

Callaeatidae Wattlebird 174

Apodidae Swift 242

Anatidae Swan 106

Caprimulgidae Whip-poor-will 176

Caprimulgidae Nightjar 244

Cathartidae Condor 110

Cardinalidae Cardinal 178

Charadriidae Plover 246

Columbidae Dove 114

Casuariidae Cassowary 180

POETIC IMAGES 248

Corvidae Jackdaw 120

WEARING FEATHERS 184

Ciconiidae Stork 22 wise and unwise BIRDS of FABLE 26 Corvidae Rook 28 Cuculidae Cuckoo 30 Gruidae Crane 34 Hirundinidae Swallow 40 Motacillidae Wagtail 44 Pandionidae Osprey 48

Falconidae Peregrine falcon 122 Fringillidae Crossbill 126 Goldfinch 128

Corvidae Jay 186

Corvidae Crow 250 Magpie 256 Raven 260

Cuculidae Roadrunner 188

Diomedeidae Albatross 264

Dromaiidae Emu 192

Hydrobatidae Storm-petrel 266

Phasianidae Cockerel 52 Grouse 56 Quail 58 Turkey 60

Gaviidae Diver 130

Fregatidae Frigatebird 196

Laridae Gull 268

Muscicapidae Nightingale 134 Robin 136

Indicatoridae Honeyguide 198

Oriolidae Oriole 272

Phoenicopteridae Flamingo 62

Pelicanidae Pelican 140

Menuridae Lyrebird 200

Passeridae Sparrow 274

Picidae Woodpecker 64

Mimidae Mockingbird 204

Phalacrocoracidae Cormorant 278

WEATHER prophets 68

Phasianidae Peacock 144 Pheasant 148

Monarchidae Monarch-flycatcher 208

Picidae Wryneck 282

Scolopacidae Snipe 70

Psittacidae, Psittaculidae Parrot 150

Paradisaeidae Bird-of-paradise 210

Scolopacidae Curlew 284

Sturnidae Starling 72

SYMBOLS IN ART 154

Paridae Chickadee 214

Strigidae, Tytonidae Owl 286

Ramphastidae Toucan 216

Troglodytidae Wren 292

Rhipiduridae Willie Wagtail 218

Turdidae Blackbird 296

Struthionidae Ostrich 220

quest for flight 298

Sulidae Gannet 76 Turdidae Thrush 78 Upupidae Hoopoe 82

Threskiornithidae Ibis 156 Trochilidae Hummingbird 158 Turdidae Bluebird 162

MYTHICAL BIRDS AND DEMI-BIRDS 224 Trogonidae Quetzal 226 6

Acknowledgements 300 Index 301 Bibliography 304 7


The Wonder of Birds

L

egend has it that storks bring babies, doves are holy, crows evil, vultures rapacious, while across the world, eagles are symbols of power. Why, since the birth of time, have birds been such a source of fascination that successive cultures have developed their own avian myths and legends, and conferred on their native species human and often superhuman traits? Through accounts of dozens of different bird species, this book explores what it is in their appearance, voice or behaviour that has given rise to so many stories and beliefs. Some are easily understood. On a basic level, colour helped decide if a bird was ‘good’ (white) or ‘evil’ (black) in much the same way that Christian symbolism paints angels and devils. Similarly, nocturnal birds with haunting calls, such as owls or nightjars, were widely associated with death. Sight and sounds The South American Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) got its nickname of ‘snakebird’ and a wholly undeserved malevolent reputation because of its serpentine neck, which, together with its broad wings and odd paddle of a tail, also give it a dragon-like appearance in flight. Similarly, the wrinkled, bald heads of many vulture species undoubtedly influenced human perception of these birds. Equally, the beauty of other species such as peacocks is indisputable and the human propensity for anthropomorphism often gave the birds an accompanying reputation for pride. Swan maidens feature in myth and folklore from Iceland to Indonesia, while the Ugly Duckling is a much-loved story of transformation. White cranes dancing, pink-crimson flamingos shimmering phoenix-like in the tropical heat – such sights understandably fired the human imagination. Bird cries also played their part – from the doleful, huffing boom of the Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), which the Old Testament associates with ‘desolation’, to the poetic ‘first fine careless rapture’ of Robert Browning’s Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), or the liquid tunefulness of the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). Their voices have a superficial similarity to the human voice, but birds vocalise differently, using a complex organ called a syrinx. Such is the efficiency of this system that tiny Eurasian Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) create an intense sound, quite contrary to their size, while Eurasian Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) sing continuously for minutes on end. Some songbirds produce two tunes at once; their music is often more intricate than anything humans can achieve.

8

Divine powers Such mysterious, varied and often beautiful outpourings were in many cultures interpreted as communications from the gods. Yet, it was – above all – their ability to fly that established birds as celestial and even godlike creatures. Earthbound species such as the Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), which have foreshortened wings and too small a keel on their sternum to anchor the muscles that power flight, were perceived as victims of some ancient trickery. Flying was a superhuman attribute that the ancient world could only dream of; the myth of Icarus typified the futility – an affront to the gods – of reaching for the skies. Birds, by contrast, were spiritual messengers, soaring heavenwards and also penetrating the caves, crannies and other places inaccessible to humans. In China, cranes carried souls to immortality, as did birds in other cultures. Whether as harbingers of death or returning spirits, these were roles that human fear of mortality had thrust upon them. When an emperor died, the Romans would release an eagle to carry his soul aloft, whereas vultures performed the same service in Native American beliefs. Christianity favoured the dove as its symbol of resurrection and populated its heaven with white, winged angels. British and other folklore often draws on biblical stories to explain bird traits. The red of the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and some other species is attributed to their charitable actions at the Crucifixion – stained with blood as they sought to pull the thorns from Christ’s crown. By contrast, the Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica), was ‘cursed’ for sitting on Noah’s ark and chattering while the world drowned, and then, with its dual-coloured plumage, for failing to go into full mourning at Christ’s death. words and poetry Bird traits are also firmly embedded in language. The zigzagging flight of the hunted snipe produced the word ‘sniper’. Guzzling young gannets that do little but eat to build the essential body fat required for future migration gave rise to a label indicating human greed. A flock of farmyard hens live in relative harmony thanks to each knowing her place in a ‘pecking order’. The list goes on. Perhaps, above all, birds are the stuff of poetry, embodying our every emotion, from grief to elation. While strictly unrelated to the birds’ own psyche, such cultural emphasis reflects the awe that birds have often inspired. Bird mythology and folklore, as this book explains, may be frequently based on misconceptions and coloured by all too human hopes and fears, but – as you will discover – the sheer wealth of stories and beliefs that exists throughout the world is a powerful tribute to creatures that have astonished mankind for millennia.

9


The Wonder of Birds

L

egend has it that storks bring babies, doves are holy, crows evil, vultures rapacious, while across the world, eagles are symbols of power. Why, since the birth of time, have birds been such a source of fascination that successive cultures have developed their own avian myths and legends, and conferred on their native species human and often superhuman traits? Through accounts of dozens of different bird species, this book explores what it is in their appearance, voice or behaviour that has given rise to so many stories and beliefs. Some are easily understood. On a basic level, colour helped decide if a bird was ‘good’ (white) or ‘evil’ (black) in much the same way that Christian symbolism paints angels and devils. Similarly, nocturnal birds with haunting calls, such as owls or nightjars, were widely associated with death. Sight and sounds The South American Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) got its nickname of ‘snakebird’ and a wholly undeserved malevolent reputation because of its serpentine neck, which, together with its broad wings and odd paddle of a tail, also give it a dragon-like appearance in flight. Similarly, the wrinkled, bald heads of many vulture species undoubtedly influenced human perception of these birds. Equally, the beauty of other species such as peacocks is indisputable and the human propensity for anthropomorphism often gave the birds an accompanying reputation for pride. Swan maidens feature in myth and folklore from Iceland to Indonesia, while the Ugly Duckling is a much-loved story of transformation. White cranes dancing, pink-crimson flamingos shimmering phoenix-like in the tropical heat – such sights understandably fired the human imagination. Bird cries also played their part – from the doleful, huffing boom of the Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), which the Old Testament associates with ‘desolation’, to the poetic ‘first fine careless rapture’ of Robert Browning’s Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), or the liquid tunefulness of the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). Their voices have a superficial similarity to the human voice, but birds vocalise differently, using a complex organ called a syrinx. Such is the efficiency of this system that tiny Eurasian Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) create an intense sound, quite contrary to their size, while Eurasian Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) sing continuously for minutes on end. Some songbirds produce two tunes at once; their music is often more intricate than anything humans can achieve.

8

Divine powers Such mysterious, varied and often beautiful outpourings were in many cultures interpreted as communications from the gods. Yet, it was – above all – their ability to fly that established birds as celestial and even godlike creatures. Earthbound species such as the Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), which have foreshortened wings and too small a keel on their sternum to anchor the muscles that power flight, were perceived as victims of some ancient trickery. Flying was a superhuman attribute that the ancient world could only dream of; the myth of Icarus typified the futility – an affront to the gods – of reaching for the skies. Birds, by contrast, were spiritual messengers, soaring heavenwards and also penetrating the caves, crannies and other places inaccessible to humans. In China, cranes carried souls to immortality, as did birds in other cultures. Whether as harbingers of death or returning spirits, these were roles that human fear of mortality had thrust upon them. When an emperor died, the Romans would release an eagle to carry his soul aloft, whereas vultures performed the same service in Native American beliefs. Christianity favoured the dove as its symbol of resurrection and populated its heaven with white, winged angels. British and other folklore often draws on biblical stories to explain bird traits. The red of the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and some other species is attributed to their charitable actions at the Crucifixion – stained with blood as they sought to pull the thorns from Christ’s crown. By contrast, the Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica), was ‘cursed’ for sitting on Noah’s ark and chattering while the world drowned, and then, with its dual-coloured plumage, for failing to go into full mourning at Christ’s death. words and poetry Bird traits are also firmly embedded in language. The zigzagging flight of the hunted snipe produced the word ‘sniper’. Guzzling young gannets that do little but eat to build the essential body fat required for future migration gave rise to a label indicating human greed. A flock of farmyard hens live in relative harmony thanks to each knowing her place in a ‘pecking order’. The list goes on. Perhaps, above all, birds are the stuff of poetry, embodying our every emotion, from grief to elation. While strictly unrelated to the birds’ own psyche, such cultural emphasis reflects the awe that birds have often inspired. Bird mythology and folklore, as this book explains, may be frequently based on misconceptions and coloured by all too human hopes and fears, but – as you will discover – the sheer wealth of stories and beliefs that exists throughout the world is a powerful tribute to creatures that have astonished mankind for millennia.

9


Birds and us Certain species – the tuneful thrush or raucous Rook – are garden companions, or glimpsed on trees and buildings, or heard in a moment of respite from manmade noise. Some, such as the swallow or elusive cuckoo, are harbingers of summer. The crane and stork among others are seasonal visitors from faraway places, famed for their long migrations. A few are now farmyard friends. All are the subject of colourful stories and beliefs, often influenced by their way of life, appearance or song.


Birds and us Certain species – the tuneful thrush or raucous Rook – are garden companions, or glimpsed on trees and buildings, or heard in a moment of respite from manmade noise. Some, such as the swallow or elusive cuckoo, are harbingers of summer. The crane and stork among others are seasonal visitors from faraway places, famed for their long migrations. A few are now farmyard friends. All are the subject of colourful stories and beliefs, often influenced by their way of life, appearance or song.


Duck Anatidae

D

onald Duck, Daffy Duck – ducks can be comical, as many people around the world agree. When a team of UK researchers scoured 70 countries earlier this millennium to discover what makes us laugh, ducks were pronounced the world’s funniest animal. ‘If you’re going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck,’ said psychologist Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire who led the year-long LaughLab experiment. Perhaps it is the way that many ducks move, particularly on land. The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and its domestic descendants have large, webbed paddlelike feet, set back on the body so that the bird waddles from side to side with every step. Female Mallards make the characteristic cartoon duck’s ‘quack’. Mallards, too, are typical ‘dabblers’, feeding on the surface of shallow water and performing further comic turns as they tip up their tails to scrounge for plants and insects in the mud below. People have lived with ducks for thousands of years. Several wild duck species were common in ancient Egypt. Tomb images dating from the First Dynasty around 5,000 years ago show wildfowl, including the Northern Pintail (A. acuta), above, a winter visitor, being trapped in nets. Pictures of banquets reveal that roast and stewed wild duck were popular dishes. Potent wildfowl Yet, the duck was more than food for the ancients. It figured in the language, too. A hieroglyph depicting the Northern Pintail was used both to represent the

12

Birds and us

bird and also two consonants. The duck form featured as well in a host of ancient artefacts – many linked to human beauty – revealing that the bird was a fertility symbol and a representation of sexuality. The link is often to feminine objects – elegant duck-shaped cosmetic spoons and vessels – but the potency of the male duck may also have been noted. Aristotle recognised that male wildfowl, unlike most other birds, have an external sex organ, as he mentions in relation to geese in his History of Animals. Indeed, one duck species, the South American Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata), below, has a place in Guinness World Records for its extraordinarily large penis, measuring 42.5cm (16¾in) everted and unwound – the biggest of any living bird. Ducks were domesticated in ancient Egypt but possibly even earlier in the Far East. Pottery artefacts discovered in Fujian Province in southern China appear to suggest that the birds were raised for food at least 4,000 years ago. They were originally bred from Mallards but, in captivity with plentiful grain supplies, slowly increased in size, shed their colours and grew the white feathers that characterise some domestic ducks today. A domestic Pekin duck can weigh as much as 3.2kg (7lb) at just seven weeks of age. A wild adult Mallard would seldom weigh more than 1.4kg (3lb). A symbol of fidelity Useful as the domestic Mallard has proved in China, where it has long featured on the menu, it was never a revered species. That honour goes to the wild Mandarin (Aix galericulata), a colourful perching duck and a traditional symbol of marital bliss because it is believed that the birds mate for life (in fact they only stay


Duck Anatidae

D

onald Duck, Daffy Duck – ducks can be comical, as many people around the world agree. When a team of UK researchers scoured 70 countries earlier this millennium to discover what makes us laugh, ducks were pronounced the world’s funniest animal. ‘If you’re going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck,’ said psychologist Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire who led the year-long LaughLab experiment. Perhaps it is the way that many ducks move, particularly on land. The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and its domestic descendants have large, webbed paddlelike feet, set back on the body so that the bird waddles from side to side with every step. Female Mallards make the characteristic cartoon duck’s ‘quack’. Mallards, too, are typical ‘dabblers’, feeding on the surface of shallow water and performing further comic turns as they tip up their tails to scrounge for plants and insects in the mud below. People have lived with ducks for thousands of years. Several wild duck species were common in ancient Egypt. Tomb images dating from the First Dynasty around 5,000 years ago show wildfowl, including the Northern Pintail (A. acuta), above, a winter visitor, being trapped in nets. Pictures of banquets reveal that roast and stewed wild duck were popular dishes. Potent wildfowl Yet, the duck was more than food for the ancients. It figured in the language, too. A hieroglyph depicting the Northern Pintail was used both to represent the

12

Birds and us

bird and also two consonants. The duck form featured as well in a host of ancient artefacts – many linked to human beauty – revealing that the bird was a fertility symbol and a representation of sexuality. The link is often to feminine objects – elegant duck-shaped cosmetic spoons and vessels – but the potency of the male duck may also have been noted. Aristotle recognised that male wildfowl, unlike most other birds, have an external sex organ, as he mentions in relation to geese in his History of Animals. Indeed, one duck species, the South American Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata), below, has a place in Guinness World Records for its extraordinarily large penis, measuring 42.5cm (16¾in) everted and unwound – the biggest of any living bird. Ducks were domesticated in ancient Egypt but possibly even earlier in the Far East. Pottery artefacts discovered in Fujian Province in southern China appear to suggest that the birds were raised for food at least 4,000 years ago. They were originally bred from Mallards but, in captivity with plentiful grain supplies, slowly increased in size, shed their colours and grew the white feathers that characterise some domestic ducks today. A domestic Pekin duck can weigh as much as 3.2kg (7lb) at just seven weeks of age. A wild adult Mallard would seldom weigh more than 1.4kg (3lb). A symbol of fidelity Useful as the domestic Mallard has proved in China, where it has long featured on the menu, it was never a revered species. That honour goes to the wild Mandarin (Aix galericulata), a colourful perching duck and a traditional symbol of marital bliss because it is believed that the birds mate for life (in fact they only stay


positive emblems For the Native American Ojibwe people, the Goosander or Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), below – a large, long-bodied bird with white body and shiny green head (male) or grey body and rust-coloured head (female) – was a symbol of resilience and fortitude. In legend, the bird used these qualities to withstand the harsh winter of the northern states. For the southern Zuñi people, ducks

faithful for the duration of the breeding season). In Tibet, India and Mongolia, the Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) also symbolises fidelity and is considered sacred by Buddhists, whose priests wear robes similar in colour to its orangebrown plumage. Elsewhere, duck mythology and lore are often linked to the bird’s aquatic skills. Success in an enterprise is taking to something ‘like a duck to water’. An insult or criticism is repelled ‘like water off a duck’s back’, reflecting the bird’s ability to waterproof its feathers. Ducks do this by preening their plumage with oil from a gland at the base of the tail and also with a dusty powder from special feathers called ‘pulviplumes’, which crumble at the tips to produce ‘powder down’.

were the form that spirits took when travelling home; the birds were also linked to fertility.

Native American beliefs The duck’s broad, flattened bill is adapted for filtering tiny plant and animal matter from the water, as Native Americans observed. In their creation mythology, the duck plunged to the depths of the primeval sea to bring up mud from which the earth was formed. In one legend of the Yokuts Indians, the duck also created California’s mountains. After a great flood in ancient times, when the land was covered with water, an eagle and crow were busy catching fish around a stump when one day, to their surprise, a duck swam along. The duck fished, too, but whenever he dived, he also brought up mud. Putting their heads together, the eagle and crow wondered if the duck might be able to bring up enough mud to build an island. They each plied him with fish to persuade him to create mud piles on their respective sides of the stump. For many moons (and many fish), the duck plunged daily until at last the waters subsided. The huge piles of mud beside the eagle on one side and the crow on the other were transformed into great mountain ranges. The eagle’s range to the east was the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains while the crow’s to the west was the California Coast Ranges. A force for good Throughout history, the image of ducks is almost universally benign – with one apparent exception. In the 13th century, when the Stedinger people of Friesland resisted the dominance of the German powers around them, Pope Gregory IX wrote letters denouncing the rebels as worshippers of the devil Asmodi, who appeared ‘sometimes in the shape of a goose or duck’. The Stedinger were massacred, yet the charge was clearly absurd. A duck demon never could ring true. left A colour etching of the Common Merganser by Lorenzo Lorenzi and Violante Vanni,

from Natural History of Birds by Saverio Manetti (1723–1784), Florence 1767–1776.

Birds and us

15


positive emblems For the Native American Ojibwe people, the Goosander or Common Merganser (Mergus merganser), below – a large, long-bodied bird with white body and shiny green head (male) or grey body and rust-coloured head (female) – was a symbol of resilience and fortitude. In legend, the bird used these qualities to withstand the harsh winter of the northern states. For the southern Zuñi people, ducks

faithful for the duration of the breeding season). In Tibet, India and Mongolia, the Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) also symbolises fidelity and is considered sacred by Buddhists, whose priests wear robes similar in colour to its orangebrown plumage. Elsewhere, duck mythology and lore are often linked to the bird’s aquatic skills. Success in an enterprise is taking to something ‘like a duck to water’. An insult or criticism is repelled ‘like water off a duck’s back’, reflecting the bird’s ability to waterproof its feathers. Ducks do this by preening their plumage with oil from a gland at the base of the tail and also with a dusty powder from special feathers called ‘pulviplumes’, which crumble at the tips to produce ‘powder down’.

were the form that spirits took when travelling home; the birds were also linked to fertility.

Native American beliefs The duck’s broad, flattened bill is adapted for filtering tiny plant and animal matter from the water, as Native Americans observed. In their creation mythology, the duck plunged to the depths of the primeval sea to bring up mud from which the earth was formed. In one legend of the Yokuts Indians, the duck also created California’s mountains. After a great flood in ancient times, when the land was covered with water, an eagle and crow were busy catching fish around a stump when one day, to their surprise, a duck swam along. The duck fished, too, but whenever he dived, he also brought up mud. Putting their heads together, the eagle and crow wondered if the duck might be able to bring up enough mud to build an island. They each plied him with fish to persuade him to create mud piles on their respective sides of the stump. For many moons (and many fish), the duck plunged daily until at last the waters subsided. The huge piles of mud beside the eagle on one side and the crow on the other were transformed into great mountain ranges. The eagle’s range to the east was the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains while the crow’s to the west was the California Coast Ranges. A force for good Throughout history, the image of ducks is almost universally benign – with one apparent exception. In the 13th century, when the Stedinger people of Friesland resisted the dominance of the German powers around them, Pope Gregory IX wrote letters denouncing the rebels as worshippers of the devil Asmodi, who appeared ‘sometimes in the shape of a goose or duck’. The Stedinger were massacred, yet the charge was clearly absurd. A duck demon never could ring true. left A colour etching of the Common Merganser by Lorenzo Lorenzi and Violante Vanni,

from Natural History of Birds by Saverio Manetti (1723–1784), Florence 1767–1776.

Birds and us

15


Bittern Ardeidae

E

asier to hear than to see, the bitterns are among the shyer, stockier and drabber birds of the heron family. Such traits are typical of the Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), right, a large, stout brown denizen of dense reedy marshland across Europe, renowned for its remarkable ‘song’ – usually described as a ‘boom’ – with which males announce their territory in spring. The deep, single note carries across several miles, and has the hollow, breathy quality of the noise made by blowing across the mouth of a large, half-filled bottle. Perhaps because of this doleful sound or the bird’s appearance, in the Old Testament the Great Bittern is associated with desolation. Its call has also been likened to the huffing of an angry bull, possibly giving rise to the bird’s genus name, Botaurus. Its French nickname is similarly Boeuf d’eau (water ox or bull). Many traditional English names for this bird refer to its voice – examples include ‘miredromble’, ‘bog bull’ and the colourful ‘thunder-pumper’. In the Middle Ages, the view was that bitterns made their far-carrying boom by inserting their bills into wet ground and then calling, allowing the sound to be carried through the water. Chaucer alludes to this in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’: And as a bitore bombleth in the myre, She leyde hir mouth unto the water doun. Stalking along shallow waters in search of fish, frogs and other prey, the Great Bittern relies on its cryptic, streaky plumage for camouflage. When startled, it adopts a striking, upright posture with its bill pointing skywards. This has the effect of bringing the stripes on its plumage into alignment with the surrounding reeds, making the bird difficult to spot. It is also partly nocturnal, though most active at dawn and dusk. Sky-gazer North America has its own native large bittern species, the American Bittern (B. lentiginosus). Similar to the Great Bittern, it shares its sky-pointing habit, giving rise to Native American names like sakuhkiriku (Pawnee), meaning ‘looks at the sun’. A curious legend associated with the bird’s nocturnal ways is the idea that it could radiate light from its breast, to illuminate the water by night. This is related, in slightly reserved tones, in a chapter on bird life in the 1829 publication The Young Lady’s Book: a manual of elegant recreations, exercises, and pursuits.

16

Birds and us


Bittern Ardeidae

E

asier to hear than to see, the bitterns are among the shyer, stockier and drabber birds of the heron family. Such traits are typical of the Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), right, a large, stout brown denizen of dense reedy marshland across Europe, renowned for its remarkable ‘song’ – usually described as a ‘boom’ – with which males announce their territory in spring. The deep, single note carries across several miles, and has the hollow, breathy quality of the noise made by blowing across the mouth of a large, half-filled bottle. Perhaps because of this doleful sound or the bird’s appearance, in the Old Testament the Great Bittern is associated with desolation. Its call has also been likened to the huffing of an angry bull, possibly giving rise to the bird’s genus name, Botaurus. Its French nickname is similarly Boeuf d’eau (water ox or bull). Many traditional English names for this bird refer to its voice – examples include ‘miredromble’, ‘bog bull’ and the colourful ‘thunder-pumper’. In the Middle Ages, the view was that bitterns made their far-carrying boom by inserting their bills into wet ground and then calling, allowing the sound to be carried through the water. Chaucer alludes to this in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’: And as a bitore bombleth in the myre, She leyde hir mouth unto the water doun. Stalking along shallow waters in search of fish, frogs and other prey, the Great Bittern relies on its cryptic, streaky plumage for camouflage. When startled, it adopts a striking, upright posture with its bill pointing skywards. This has the effect of bringing the stripes on its plumage into alignment with the surrounding reeds, making the bird difficult to spot. It is also partly nocturnal, though most active at dawn and dusk. Sky-gazer North America has its own native large bittern species, the American Bittern (B. lentiginosus). Similar to the Great Bittern, it shares its sky-pointing habit, giving rise to Native American names like sakuhkiriku (Pawnee), meaning ‘looks at the sun’. A curious legend associated with the bird’s nocturnal ways is the idea that it could radiate light from its breast, to illuminate the water by night. This is related, in slightly reserved tones, in a chapter on bird life in the 1829 publication The Young Lady’s Book: a manual of elegant recreations, exercises, and pursuits.

16

Birds and us


Heron Ardeidae

T

here is something magical about the elegant, stately heron – the patient fisherman, alert and motionless on the waterside, waiting for prey to come within reach of its long, pointed bill. For some, herons are legendary for their fishing prowess; for others, the birds – especially the Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta) – are symbols of purity. In ancient Egypt from the 16th century bc, the Bennu bird was widely depicted as a heron with a two-feathered crest. The Bennu was an Egyptian deity, linked to Atum, the primal Creator and Ra, the sun god. It was also the symbol of Osiris, a god who represented the underworld as well as resurrection and fertility. The deity may have been modelled on the Grey Heron (A. cinerea), left, a common year-round visitor to the lagoons and marshes of the Nile, or the tall Goliath Heron (A. goliath) – a striking bird with dark grey plumage and deep chestnut head, neck and crest, which stands 1.5m (5ft) high. It could also have been a rarer visitor to Egypt, the now extinct Bennu Heron (A. bennuides), identified from bird bones unearthed at the Umm al-Nar collective tombs on an island adjacent to Abu Dhabi in the 1990s. Creation birds In Egyptian creation mythology, the Bennu bird flew over Nun, the waters of chaos, alighted on a rock – the Benben mound – and uttered the first raucous cry to break the primeval silence as the world came into being. Its own spontaneous birth linked it to resurrection and the new life and fertility bestowed on the land by the annual flooding of the Nile. The Bennu was sometimes depicted under the rising sun on the branches of the small evergreen Persea, the Egyptian ‘tree of life’ at Heliopolis, city of the sun, and sometimes on the Benben mound or in a willow tree – the sacred tree of Osiris. Later, in the culture of the ancient Greeks, the Bennu was associated with the mythical Phoenix. right An illustration from around 1800 gives a good impression

of the stature of the Goliath Heron – the world’s tallest heron.

Birds and us

19


Heron Ardeidae

T

here is something magical about the elegant, stately heron – the patient fisherman, alert and motionless on the waterside, waiting for prey to come within reach of its long, pointed bill. For some, herons are legendary for their fishing prowess; for others, the birds – especially the Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta) – are symbols of purity. In ancient Egypt from the 16th century bc, the Bennu bird was widely depicted as a heron with a two-feathered crest. The Bennu was an Egyptian deity, linked to Atum, the primal Creator and Ra, the sun god. It was also the symbol of Osiris, a god who represented the underworld as well as resurrection and fertility. The deity may have been modelled on the Grey Heron (A. cinerea), left, a common year-round visitor to the lagoons and marshes of the Nile, or the tall Goliath Heron (A. goliath) – a striking bird with dark grey plumage and deep chestnut head, neck and crest, which stands 1.5m (5ft) high. It could also have been a rarer visitor to Egypt, the now extinct Bennu Heron (A. bennuides), identified from bird bones unearthed at the Umm al-Nar collective tombs on an island adjacent to Abu Dhabi in the 1990s. Creation birds In Egyptian creation mythology, the Bennu bird flew over Nun, the waters of chaos, alighted on a rock – the Benben mound – and uttered the first raucous cry to break the primeval silence as the world came into being. Its own spontaneous birth linked it to resurrection and the new life and fertility bestowed on the land by the annual flooding of the Nile. The Bennu was sometimes depicted under the rising sun on the branches of the small evergreen Persea, the Egyptian ‘tree of life’ at Heliopolis, city of the sun, and sometimes on the Benben mound or in a willow tree – the sacred tree of Osiris. Later, in the culture of the ancient Greeks, the Bennu was associated with the mythical Phoenix. right An illustration from around 1800 gives a good impression

of the stature of the Goliath Heron – the world’s tallest heron.

Birds and us

19


Across the globe, in the Caribbean, the Taíno people also linked herons and other water birds to the birth of the world. In one pre-Columbian rock carving, a bird thought to be the Great Blue Heron (A. herodias) is shown in a primordial sky domain. Such fish-eating birds were associated with both sky and earth and, according to Taíno beliefs, were created by the supreme being, Yaya, directly after the creation of oceans and fish.

Plumage to die for The trade in feathers from two lovely, white herons, the Eastern Great Egret and the Western Great Egret (A. alba), cost the birds dear. In the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of egrets, as well as many

Expert anglers In Florida, the Native American Hitchiti tribe tell a story about hummingbirds and herons. Millennia ago the kings of both bird families were concerned that there might not be enough fish to feed them. So the hummingbird king proposed a race to the top of an old tree to decide who should own the fish. The hummingbird king lost because, try as he might, he could not suppress his desire to stop and sip nectar from the lovely flowers along the way; together with insects, nectar is a staple of the hummingbird diet. The heron king, however, flew straight and true, alighting first on the tree that was their goal, and winning for his family all the river and lake fish they could eat from that day on. Herons can be extraordinarily clever anglers. In the US, Japan and Africa, the Striated Heron (Butorides striata) has been seen using bait to catch its prey. The birds will flick insects or colourful feathers, as well as human foods that they do not eat, such as popcorn or bread, into the water to attract fish. Native American tribes have long admired the birds’ skills. The Iroquois believed that just seeing a heron – especially the magnificent Great Blue Heron – presaged success in a hunt. The birds also symbolised wisdom and patience, reflecting their typical solitary vigil beside a river, lake or pond before they strike. Similarly in Ireland, too, the Grey Heron represented contemplation and inner tranquillity, and it was bad luck to kill the bird. However, herons were eaten when times were lean, and some believed that dipping fishing bait into the stock in which the bird had been cooked would make the bait more potent and increase an angler’s catch. pursued for food and feathers From medieval times until the 19th century, herons were hunted and eaten in Britain and were made royal game birds in the 16th century. They were also pitted in contests against hawks. The heron was known as ‘heronshaw’, and the saying ‘not to know a hawk from a handsaw’ stems from a contraction of this name. In Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragic hero declares in Act 2: ‘I am mad but north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw’.

20

other birds, were killed to satisfy the demand for fine plumes to adorn Western ladies’ hats. Such was the carnage – made all the worse because the feathers were at their finest in the breeding period – that the birds were hunted almost to extinction. Finally, a backlash against the slaughter gave birth to a new environmental movement and eventually legislation to prohibit the trade in plumes. The Western Great Egret became the symbol of the National Audubon Society, launched in the United States in 1905 and dedicated to the protection of birds.

In such falconry contests, wild herons would inevitably fly higher than their trained raptor pursuers as they tried to escape, earning themselves an unwarranted reputation for cowardice. By contrast, in the Far East, the beauty of another heron – the Eastern Great Egret (A. modesta) – is honoured. Standing about 1m (3¼ft) tall, the pure white bird has a wingspan of up to 1.65m (5½ft). In one Siberian myth, Eastern Great Egrets are transformed into beautiful maidens. In Korea, the birds symbolise graciousness, transcending the mundane world. In Japan, the ritual Shirasagino-mai or White Heron Dance, dating back more than 1,000 years, is performed every year at the Senso-ji Temple. Resembling the birds’ own glorious courtship display, the dance was originally performed to banish the plague and purify spirits as they passed from this world.

Birds and us

21


Across the globe, in the Caribbean, the Taíno people also linked herons and other water birds to the birth of the world. In one pre-Columbian rock carving, a bird thought to be the Great Blue Heron (A. herodias) is shown in a primordial sky domain. Such fish-eating birds were associated with both sky and earth and, according to Taíno beliefs, were created by the supreme being, Yaya, directly after the creation of oceans and fish.

Plumage to die for The trade in feathers from two lovely, white herons, the Eastern Great Egret and the Western Great Egret (A. alba), cost the birds dear. In the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of egrets, as well as many

Expert anglers In Florida, the Native American Hitchiti tribe tell a story about hummingbirds and herons. Millennia ago the kings of both bird families were concerned that there might not be enough fish to feed them. So the hummingbird king proposed a race to the top of an old tree to decide who should own the fish. The hummingbird king lost because, try as he might, he could not suppress his desire to stop and sip nectar from the lovely flowers along the way; together with insects, nectar is a staple of the hummingbird diet. The heron king, however, flew straight and true, alighting first on the tree that was their goal, and winning for his family all the river and lake fish they could eat from that day on. Herons can be extraordinarily clever anglers. In the US, Japan and Africa, the Striated Heron (Butorides striata) has been seen using bait to catch its prey. The birds will flick insects or colourful feathers, as well as human foods that they do not eat, such as popcorn or bread, into the water to attract fish. Native American tribes have long admired the birds’ skills. The Iroquois believed that just seeing a heron – especially the magnificent Great Blue Heron – presaged success in a hunt. The birds also symbolised wisdom and patience, reflecting their typical solitary vigil beside a river, lake or pond before they strike. Similarly in Ireland, too, the Grey Heron represented contemplation and inner tranquillity, and it was bad luck to kill the bird. However, herons were eaten when times were lean, and some believed that dipping fishing bait into the stock in which the bird had been cooked would make the bait more potent and increase an angler’s catch. pursued for food and feathers From medieval times until the 19th century, herons were hunted and eaten in Britain and were made royal game birds in the 16th century. They were also pitted in contests against hawks. The heron was known as ‘heronshaw’, and the saying ‘not to know a hawk from a handsaw’ stems from a contraction of this name. In Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragic hero declares in Act 2: ‘I am mad but north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw’.

20

other birds, were killed to satisfy the demand for fine plumes to adorn Western ladies’ hats. Such was the carnage – made all the worse because the feathers were at their finest in the breeding period – that the birds were hunted almost to extinction. Finally, a backlash against the slaughter gave birth to a new environmental movement and eventually legislation to prohibit the trade in plumes. The Western Great Egret became the symbol of the National Audubon Society, launched in the United States in 1905 and dedicated to the protection of birds.

In such falconry contests, wild herons would inevitably fly higher than their trained raptor pursuers as they tried to escape, earning themselves an unwarranted reputation for cowardice. By contrast, in the Far East, the beauty of another heron – the Eastern Great Egret (A. modesta) – is honoured. Standing about 1m (3¼ft) tall, the pure white bird has a wingspan of up to 1.65m (5½ft). In one Siberian myth, Eastern Great Egrets are transformed into beautiful maidens. In Korea, the birds symbolise graciousness, transcending the mundane world. In Japan, the ritual Shirasagino-mai or White Heron Dance, dating back more than 1,000 years, is performed every year at the Senso-ji Temple. Resembling the birds’ own glorious courtship display, the dance was originally performed to banish the plague and purify spirits as they passed from this world.

Birds and us

21


Stork Ciconiidae

I

n European folklore, the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), above – a large, mainly white bird with red legs and black-fringed wings – has long played a central role in attempts to disguise the facts of life. The legend that storks are the bringers of babies is ancient, but the image of the birds plucking them from marshes, ponds and springs, where the souls of unborn infants reside, gained new prominence after the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century story, The Storks. The bird’s size, meticulous parenting behaviour and habit of nesting on house roofs may have all contributed to its baby-bringing role. The idea has become so deeply rooted that tiny birthmarks on a baby’s nape or forehead are still known as ‘stork marks’. In Germany and other parts of Europe, a stork flying over a house was deemed a sure sign of an imminent birth in the family. Historically, the prediction might well have proved valid as storks return from their migration to nest in Europe in the spring, some nine months after the summer solstice, a traditional festival celebrating fertility and a magical time for young lovers. Good omens Throughout mainland Europe, storks have long been considered good omens and often protected. The White Stork is the national bird of Lithuania and a bringer of good luck in Spanish and Ukrainian proverbs. In ancient Greece, it was said that any woman who befriended the bird would one day receive a jewel as a reward. The bird was also thought to protect against snakes; killing it was punishable by death. In the Netherlands, Germany and Eastern European countries, storks were encouraged to nest on roofs to bring good fortune and harmony to the families living below. And such nests, too, reaching more than 2m (6½ft) in width and almost 3m (7ft) in depth as the birds return to chimney tops, towers, telephone poles, walls and steeples, as well as trees, and add to the structure each year.

22

Perhaps because these homes are so visible, humans have long observed the birds’ parenting skills. Both male and female storks incubate the eggs and both feed the young birds until they are eight or nine weeks of age, after which fledglings will still continue to return to the nest for food. Storks are traditionally (but erroneously) thought to care for other birds, too; it was believed that they generously carried smaller species such as the Corncrake (Crex crex) on their backs during migration. Tales of this phenomenon were once widespread from Siberia to Egypt, Crete and North America. For millennia people have watched the birds collecting in large numbers before taking flight on their long seasonal journeys. As an Old Testament verse from the Book of Jeremiah notes: ‘The stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times.’ While in reality the White Stork has no real call beyond the clacking of its bill, Scandinavian lore places the bird at the Crucifixion scene crying to Christ: ‘Styrket! Styrket!’, meaning ‘Strengthen ye!’. Bad omens Despite the saintlike qualities attributed to storks, the appearance and habits of many stork species – such as defecating on their scaly legs to cool themselves – are rather less attractive. The African Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer), sometimes dubbed the ‘undertaker bird’ for its bald head, black, cloak-like back and wings, and habit of eating corpses, is one of the least lovely of the world’s birds. A hideous ‘monster bird’ that terrorised the South Texas Rio Grande Valley in the 1970s was thought by some ornithologists to have been a straying Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), a tall, bald, red-necked stork native to Mexico, Central America and South America.

Birds and us

23


Stork Ciconiidae

I

n European folklore, the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), above – a large, mainly white bird with red legs and black-fringed wings – has long played a central role in attempts to disguise the facts of life. The legend that storks are the bringers of babies is ancient, but the image of the birds plucking them from marshes, ponds and springs, where the souls of unborn infants reside, gained new prominence after the publication of Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century story, The Storks. The bird’s size, meticulous parenting behaviour and habit of nesting on house roofs may have all contributed to its baby-bringing role. The idea has become so deeply rooted that tiny birthmarks on a baby’s nape or forehead are still known as ‘stork marks’. In Germany and other parts of Europe, a stork flying over a house was deemed a sure sign of an imminent birth in the family. Historically, the prediction might well have proved valid as storks return from their migration to nest in Europe in the spring, some nine months after the summer solstice, a traditional festival celebrating fertility and a magical time for young lovers. Good omens Throughout mainland Europe, storks have long been considered good omens and often protected. The White Stork is the national bird of Lithuania and a bringer of good luck in Spanish and Ukrainian proverbs. In ancient Greece, it was said that any woman who befriended the bird would one day receive a jewel as a reward. The bird was also thought to protect against snakes; killing it was punishable by death. In the Netherlands, Germany and Eastern European countries, storks were encouraged to nest on roofs to bring good fortune and harmony to the families living below. And such nests, too, reaching more than 2m (6½ft) in width and almost 3m (7ft) in depth as the birds return to chimney tops, towers, telephone poles, walls and steeples, as well as trees, and add to the structure each year.

22

Perhaps because these homes are so visible, humans have long observed the birds’ parenting skills. Both male and female storks incubate the eggs and both feed the young birds until they are eight or nine weeks of age, after which fledglings will still continue to return to the nest for food. Storks are traditionally (but erroneously) thought to care for other birds, too; it was believed that they generously carried smaller species such as the Corncrake (Crex crex) on their backs during migration. Tales of this phenomenon were once widespread from Siberia to Egypt, Crete and North America. For millennia people have watched the birds collecting in large numbers before taking flight on their long seasonal journeys. As an Old Testament verse from the Book of Jeremiah notes: ‘The stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times.’ While in reality the White Stork has no real call beyond the clacking of its bill, Scandinavian lore places the bird at the Crucifixion scene crying to Christ: ‘Styrket! Styrket!’, meaning ‘Strengthen ye!’. Bad omens Despite the saintlike qualities attributed to storks, the appearance and habits of many stork species – such as defecating on their scaly legs to cool themselves – are rather less attractive. The African Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer), sometimes dubbed the ‘undertaker bird’ for its bald head, black, cloak-like back and wings, and habit of eating corpses, is one of the least lovely of the world’s birds. A hideous ‘monster bird’ that terrorised the South Texas Rio Grande Valley in the 1970s was thought by some ornithologists to have been a straying Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), a tall, bald, red-necked stork native to Mexico, Central America and South America.

Birds and us

23


Healing powers In northern Australia, the Aboriginal The Greater Adjutant Stork was considered Hinbinga tribe forbad married men and ‘unclean’ and seldom hunted, though its flesh women from eating the Black-necked Stork was sometimes used in folk medicine to cure (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) – also called leprosy. Perhaps because it killed snakes, this ‘jabiru’ – for fear that an unborn child would bird was also thought to provide an antidote scratch the walls of the womb and cause its to snake bites. It was believed that the stork’s mother’s death. The White Stork was also low-hanging neck pouch might contain a snake among the birds declared ‘unclean’ in the fang, which, if rubbed above a snake bite, could Old Testament book of Leviticus. This was prevent the venom spreading around the body. because their diet includes reptiles such as In India it was also thought that the head of a snakes, lizards and toads, as well as rodents Greater Adjutant contained a celebrated ‘snake – all considered ‘unclean’, making the bird stone’, which when applied to snake bites that consumes them ‘unclean’ in its turn. would extract all the venom. Such stones were Other storks can be scavengers and rare because, to obtain one, the bird had to be carrion-eaters, too. In India, the large killed without its bill touching the ground; if this Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) – happened, the stone would dissolve. though now endangered – is a notorious omnivore, joining vultures and kites at animal carcasses and rubbish dumps, and also consuming anything from live chickens to, in one recorded instance, a shoe. saving the stork Better sanitation, new pest-control methods and loss of habitat are thought responsible for the Greater Adjutant’s decline in Asia, and that of other species in Africa. In Europe and the US, too, pesticides and the drainage of wetlands have affected the birds’ breeding habits. Yet, bolstered by storks’ highly positive image, conservation campaigns are bearing fruit. In Spain, White Stork populations have experienced a spectacular growth, thanks to new artificial nests replacing those destroyed during building work. The Swiss have nurtured a breeding programme for the same species over the past 40 years. In the US, the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) is now ‘threatened’ rather than ‘endangered’. In the Lebanon, an increasingly vociferous campaign has been mounted against poachers who shoot down migrating birds. Paul Abi Rached, president of Lebanon Eco Movement, believes that stork migration could instead be central to ‘the most beautiful ecotourism’ in his country. ‘Nobody else can see them like this: it is the miracle of migration.’ left A vintage colour illustration from the early 20th century reflects the popular and

ancient myth that the stork brought newborn babies.

Birds and us

25


Healing powers In northern Australia, the Aboriginal The Greater Adjutant Stork was considered Hinbinga tribe forbad married men and ‘unclean’ and seldom hunted, though its flesh women from eating the Black-necked Stork was sometimes used in folk medicine to cure (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) – also called leprosy. Perhaps because it killed snakes, this ‘jabiru’ – for fear that an unborn child would bird was also thought to provide an antidote scratch the walls of the womb and cause its to snake bites. It was believed that the stork’s mother’s death. The White Stork was also low-hanging neck pouch might contain a snake among the birds declared ‘unclean’ in the fang, which, if rubbed above a snake bite, could Old Testament book of Leviticus. This was prevent the venom spreading around the body. because their diet includes reptiles such as In India it was also thought that the head of a snakes, lizards and toads, as well as rodents Greater Adjutant contained a celebrated ‘snake – all considered ‘unclean’, making the bird stone’, which when applied to snake bites that consumes them ‘unclean’ in its turn. would extract all the venom. Such stones were Other storks can be scavengers and rare because, to obtain one, the bird had to be carrion-eaters, too. In India, the large killed without its bill touching the ground; if this Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) – happened, the stone would dissolve. though now endangered – is a notorious omnivore, joining vultures and kites at animal carcasses and rubbish dumps, and also consuming anything from live chickens to, in one recorded instance, a shoe. saving the stork Better sanitation, new pest-control methods and loss of habitat are thought responsible for the Greater Adjutant’s decline in Asia, and that of other species in Africa. In Europe and the US, too, pesticides and the drainage of wetlands have affected the birds’ breeding habits. Yet, bolstered by storks’ highly positive image, conservation campaigns are bearing fruit. In Spain, White Stork populations have experienced a spectacular growth, thanks to new artificial nests replacing those destroyed during building work. The Swiss have nurtured a breeding programme for the same species over the past 40 years. In the US, the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) is now ‘threatened’ rather than ‘endangered’. In the Lebanon, an increasingly vociferous campaign has been mounted against poachers who shoot down migrating birds. Paul Abi Rached, president of Lebanon Eco Movement, believes that stork migration could instead be central to ‘the most beautiful ecotourism’ in his country. ‘Nobody else can see them like this: it is the miracle of migration.’ left A vintage colour illustration from the early 20th century reflects the popular and

ancient myth that the stork brought newborn babies.

Birds and us

25


WISE AND UNWISE BIRDS OF FABLE

F

or as long as they have been observing the natural world people have been inventing fables – morality tales in which creatures are given voices and other human attributes – to instruct their compatriots how best to conduct their lives. Scholars such as the 19th-century orientalist Richard Burton even believed that fables directly reflect our instinctive knowledge of our place in the natural world, and that at heart we still possess the beaks and claws of our animal antecedents. Bird fables feature in the world’s major religions and belief systems, and in secular works right up to today. The most durable, which often take on several forms, have Semitic origins, but the largest surviving collections are those of the Greek slave Aesop, dating to around 600 bc, and The Fables of Bidpai, also known as the Panchatantra, a Sanskrit text of the 3rd century bc. Crows and other corvids such as Ravens (Corvus corax) and Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), which have little natural beauty but are renowned for their intelligence, are the most abundant birds of fables, in which they commonly feature as troublemakers. Like many other birds, Jackdaws will collect the fallen feathers of different birds to line their nests, and this behaviour doubtless led to Aesop’s ‘The Jackdaw and the Birds’. To make himself the most beautiful for Zeus, the Jackdaw adorns himself with borrowed feathers, which, after winning the god’s approval, are stripped from him by their original owners. Aesop’s moral was that stolen adornment leads to humiliation. Other tellings vary both the tale and the moral. The Roman fabulist Phaedrus has the Jackdaw using Peacock (Pavo cristatus) feathers; his message is that it is unwise to reach above one’s station. For the poet Horace the fable became a means of pillorying plagiarists, as it was also for the 17th-century French philosopher Jean de La Fontaine. In the early 19th century the Russian Ivan Krylov penned a version which concluded that even when adorned with Peacock’s feathers a crow can never be ‘one of them’.

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To make himself the most beautiful for Zeus, the Jackdaw adorns himself with borrowed feathers…

The predatory nature of the eagle and the cockerel’s strident voice combine in Aesop’s ‘The Two Cocks and the Eagle’. Following a fight over some hens, the defeated cock hides in the undergrowth while the victor flies on to a wall and crows in triumph – and is promptly taken and eaten by the eagle – the moral being that it is wise to be humble. That pride comes before a fall is the lesson to be learned from Aesop in ‘The Fox and the Crow’; the unwise crow loses his meal when flattered by the wily fox. The foolishness of trying to take on those bound to overpower you is the lesson of ‘The Hawk and the Nightingale’, as told by the Greek poet Hesiod. Despite its melodious song, and its plea that it is too small to make a decent meal, the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) is seized and devoured. In Aesop’s more complex version the Nightingale offers to sing to the hawk if he will spare her chicks – but to no avail, as the hawk declares that he is perfectly able to live without music but not food. The owl’s nocturnal habits, but not its reputation for wisdom, feature in the Indian tale ‘The Owl and the Echo’. As it boasts about its voice, and regrets being usurped by the Nightingale, an owl hears an echo of its own voice. The unwise and flattered owl stays awake all day, only to be spurned by the other birds. In James Thurber’s ‘The Owl Who Was God’, the bird, because he can see at night, is chosen to be leader of the animals. Unfortunately, his daytime vision was so poor that he led himself – and many of them – to their deaths. ‘You can fool too many of the people too much of the time’ the American humourist concludes. Human associations with birds are honoured in Bidpai’s ‘The Sparrows and the Snake’. When the nest the birds are building in the eaves is threatened by a snake, they comfort each other. When they see their master lighting a lamp with a taper, the wise male sparrow swoops down, takes it and sets fire to the roof, whereupon the snake emerges and is killed by the good homeowner.

Birds and us

27


WISE AND UNWISE BIRDS OF FABLE

F

or as long as they have been observing the natural world people have been inventing fables – morality tales in which creatures are given voices and other human attributes – to instruct their compatriots how best to conduct their lives. Scholars such as the 19th-century orientalist Richard Burton even believed that fables directly reflect our instinctive knowledge of our place in the natural world, and that at heart we still possess the beaks and claws of our animal antecedents. Bird fables feature in the world’s major religions and belief systems, and in secular works right up to today. The most durable, which often take on several forms, have Semitic origins, but the largest surviving collections are those of the Greek slave Aesop, dating to around 600 bc, and The Fables of Bidpai, also known as the Panchatantra, a Sanskrit text of the 3rd century bc. Crows and other corvids such as Ravens (Corvus corax) and Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), which have little natural beauty but are renowned for their intelligence, are the most abundant birds of fables, in which they commonly feature as troublemakers. Like many other birds, Jackdaws will collect the fallen feathers of different birds to line their nests, and this behaviour doubtless led to Aesop’s ‘The Jackdaw and the Birds’. To make himself the most beautiful for Zeus, the Jackdaw adorns himself with borrowed feathers, which, after winning the god’s approval, are stripped from him by their original owners. Aesop’s moral was that stolen adornment leads to humiliation. Other tellings vary both the tale and the moral. The Roman fabulist Phaedrus has the Jackdaw using Peacock (Pavo cristatus) feathers; his message is that it is unwise to reach above one’s station. For the poet Horace the fable became a means of pillorying plagiarists, as it was also for the 17th-century French philosopher Jean de La Fontaine. In the early 19th century the Russian Ivan Krylov penned a version which concluded that even when adorned with Peacock’s feathers a crow can never be ‘one of them’.

26

To make himself the most beautiful for Zeus, the Jackdaw adorns himself with borrowed feathers…

The predatory nature of the eagle and the cockerel’s strident voice combine in Aesop’s ‘The Two Cocks and the Eagle’. Following a fight over some hens, the defeated cock hides in the undergrowth while the victor flies on to a wall and crows in triumph – and is promptly taken and eaten by the eagle – the moral being that it is wise to be humble. That pride comes before a fall is the lesson to be learned from Aesop in ‘The Fox and the Crow’; the unwise crow loses his meal when flattered by the wily fox. The foolishness of trying to take on those bound to overpower you is the lesson of ‘The Hawk and the Nightingale’, as told by the Greek poet Hesiod. Despite its melodious song, and its plea that it is too small to make a decent meal, the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) is seized and devoured. In Aesop’s more complex version the Nightingale offers to sing to the hawk if he will spare her chicks – but to no avail, as the hawk declares that he is perfectly able to live without music but not food. The owl’s nocturnal habits, but not its reputation for wisdom, feature in the Indian tale ‘The Owl and the Echo’. As it boasts about its voice, and regrets being usurped by the Nightingale, an owl hears an echo of its own voice. The unwise and flattered owl stays awake all day, only to be spurned by the other birds. In James Thurber’s ‘The Owl Who Was God’, the bird, because he can see at night, is chosen to be leader of the animals. Unfortunately, his daytime vision was so poor that he led himself – and many of them – to their deaths. ‘You can fool too many of the people too much of the time’ the American humourist concludes. Human associations with birds are honoured in Bidpai’s ‘The Sparrows and the Snake’. When the nest the birds are building in the eaves is threatened by a snake, they comfort each other. When they see their master lighting a lamp with a taper, the wise male sparrow swoops down, takes it and sets fire to the roof, whereupon the snake emerges and is killed by the good homeowner.

Birds and us

27


Rook Corvidae

A

largish black crow with a bare white face, shaggy-feathered ‘trousers’ and an agricultural flavour to its cawing voice, the Rook (Corvus frugilegus), right, is found across temperate Eurasia. It is exceptionally social, nesting in large noisy treetop colonies, and the gang stays together while out scouring the fields for food. In this respect it differs from the similar but less gregarious Carrion Crow (Corvus corone), as referenced in the British saying: ‘A flock of crows are rooks, a rook on its own is a crow’. Most of the folklore surrounding Rooks is British in origin. Luck of the land Rookeries are prominent features of the landscape, especially in late winter when breeding activity is already in full swing and the nests are clearly visible in the leafless trees. Those with rookeries on their land are well advised to keep an eye on proceedings, as bad luck will result if the birds desert their nests. Should a landowner die or move away, the new landowner has a duty to tell the Rooks, to introduce himself or herself as the new landowner, and to promise the birds that no one but the landowners would be allowed to shoot them. The Rooks would desert the rookery if the ritual were not completed – and the presaged misfortune would ensue. In his book Flights of Fancy, Peter Tate also recounts incidents of Rooks leaving en masse after a death or departure of local landowners. The pious crow Tate also mentions the belief that Rooks take a day off from their nest-building duties on Ascension Day and instead observe the day quietly, perched in their trees. In another example of piety, if people fail to show appropriate respect by wearing brand new clothes on Easter Sunday, the Rooks would punish them by defecating on them. Rooks are credited with wisdom and insight into the future, with vagaries of behaviour predicting changes in the weather. The term ‘parliament’ is the collective name for a gathering of Rooks – country beliefs hold that the birds assemble in order to discuss issues of the day and dispense justice when necessary. The Ainu people of Japan tell a folk tale in which a Rook sacrificed to the gods brought exceptional good fortune.

right The Rook’s distinctive bare white face is clearly seen in this hand-coloured lithograph

from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 3 (1873).

28

Birds and us


Rook Corvidae

A

largish black crow with a bare white face, shaggy-feathered ‘trousers’ and an agricultural flavour to its cawing voice, the Rook (Corvus frugilegus), right, is found across temperate Eurasia. It is exceptionally social, nesting in large noisy treetop colonies, and the gang stays together while out scouring the fields for food. In this respect it differs from the similar but less gregarious Carrion Crow (Corvus corone), as referenced in the British saying: ‘A flock of crows are rooks, a rook on its own is a crow’. Most of the folklore surrounding Rooks is British in origin. Luck of the land Rookeries are prominent features of the landscape, especially in late winter when breeding activity is already in full swing and the nests are clearly visible in the leafless trees. Those with rookeries on their land are well advised to keep an eye on proceedings, as bad luck will result if the birds desert their nests. Should a landowner die or move away, the new landowner has a duty to tell the Rooks, to introduce himself or herself as the new landowner, and to promise the birds that no one but the landowners would be allowed to shoot them. The Rooks would desert the rookery if the ritual were not completed – and the presaged misfortune would ensue. In his book Flights of Fancy, Peter Tate also recounts incidents of Rooks leaving en masse after a death or departure of local landowners. The pious crow Tate also mentions the belief that Rooks take a day off from their nest-building duties on Ascension Day and instead observe the day quietly, perched in their trees. In another example of piety, if people fail to show appropriate respect by wearing brand new clothes on Easter Sunday, the Rooks would punish them by defecating on them. Rooks are credited with wisdom and insight into the future, with vagaries of behaviour predicting changes in the weather. The term ‘parliament’ is the collective name for a gathering of Rooks – country beliefs hold that the birds assemble in order to discuss issues of the day and dispense justice when necessary. The Ainu people of Japan tell a folk tale in which a Rook sacrificed to the gods brought exceptional good fortune.

right The Rook’s distinctive bare white face is clearly seen in this hand-coloured lithograph

from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 3 (1873).

28

Birds and us


Cuckoo Cuculidae

H

earing the first Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), left, of the year is a significant event in many European countries, giving rise to a wealth of sayings and proverbs. The male bird, newly arrived from his winter in Africa, announces his presence with a fluty two-note call that remains one of the most recognisable bird calls in Britain, although cuckoo numbers have declined there by an alarming 62 per cent since 1970. This cuckoo occurs across much of Europe and Asia. It is a dapper silver-grey bird (occasionally rusty red in females), with a rather hawkish look, but has an array of colourful, exotic cousins from the tropical forests or savannah – some 150 species in all, occupying all continents except Antarctica. The call of fate In Wales, it is best to avoid hearing the Common Cuckoo before 5 April as this brings bad luck, although if you hear one on 28 April then prosperity will be your reward. You can also win good fortune by having a pocketful of coins when you first hear the bird, but if your pockets are empty, you will remain penniless all year. Along similar lines, it is bad luck (in Scotland, France and Germany) to hear your first cuckoo when you are hungry, and in Norway it is an evil omen for a maid to hear a cuckoo before breakfast. In a complex and baffling piece of advice, Pliny the Elder passed on the recommendation that you should immediately stop what you are doing when you first hear a cuckoo in spring, and dig up the soil on which your right foot is resting at that moment. This soil should then be scattered on any area that you wish to be free of fleas. Many cultures hold cuckoos in high esteem. Zeus kept a cuckoo in his Olympian aviary, and took the form of one to seduce Hera. The Swedish festival for the goddess of love, Freya, was held in spring and linked with the return of the cuckoo. Hindus consider cuckoos to be the wisest of all birds, with extraordinary fortune telling abilities. In India the cuckoo is associated with rain, as its arrival in spring coincides with the start of the rainy season. Irresponsible parenting Yet, from our human perspective, more morally reprehensible behaviour is behind other folklore surrounding the Common Cuckoo. A number of cuckoo species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and relying on those unwitting host parents to rear their young. Evolution has shaped the cuckoo egg into a form that resembles the hosts’ own, so the deception is rarely noticed. On arrival from Africa, female Common Cuckoos seek out areas that hold several nests of their preferred host species, and such areas also attract males

Birds and us

31


Cuckoo Cuculidae

H

earing the first Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), left, of the year is a significant event in many European countries, giving rise to a wealth of sayings and proverbs. The male bird, newly arrived from his winter in Africa, announces his presence with a fluty two-note call that remains one of the most recognisable bird calls in Britain, although cuckoo numbers have declined there by an alarming 62 per cent since 1970. This cuckoo occurs across much of Europe and Asia. It is a dapper silver-grey bird (occasionally rusty red in females), with a rather hawkish look, but has an array of colourful, exotic cousins from the tropical forests or savannah – some 150 species in all, occupying all continents except Antarctica. The call of fate In Wales, it is best to avoid hearing the Common Cuckoo before 5 April as this brings bad luck, although if you hear one on 28 April then prosperity will be your reward. You can also win good fortune by having a pocketful of coins when you first hear the bird, but if your pockets are empty, you will remain penniless all year. Along similar lines, it is bad luck (in Scotland, France and Germany) to hear your first cuckoo when you are hungry, and in Norway it is an evil omen for a maid to hear a cuckoo before breakfast. In a complex and baffling piece of advice, Pliny the Elder passed on the recommendation that you should immediately stop what you are doing when you first hear a cuckoo in spring, and dig up the soil on which your right foot is resting at that moment. This soil should then be scattered on any area that you wish to be free of fleas. Many cultures hold cuckoos in high esteem. Zeus kept a cuckoo in his Olympian aviary, and took the form of one to seduce Hera. The Swedish festival for the goddess of love, Freya, was held in spring and linked with the return of the cuckoo. Hindus consider cuckoos to be the wisest of all birds, with extraordinary fortune telling abilities. In India the cuckoo is associated with rain, as its arrival in spring coincides with the start of the rainy season. Irresponsible parenting Yet, from our human perspective, more morally reprehensible behaviour is behind other folklore surrounding the Common Cuckoo. A number of cuckoo species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests and relying on those unwitting host parents to rear their young. Evolution has shaped the cuckoo egg into a form that resembles the hosts’ own, so the deception is rarely noticed. On arrival from Africa, female Common Cuckoos seek out areas that hold several nests of their preferred host species, and such areas also attract males

Birds and us

31


‘cuckold’. Nowadays this word describes an unwitting husband rather than his wife’s lover in marital adultery, but the original Latin cuculus was a word for an adulterer as well as a cuckoo, and the link between the two was referenced in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (Act 5, Scene 2): The cuckoo then, on every tree, Mocks married men; for thus sings he, Cuckoo! Cuckoo, Cuckoo! —O word of fear Unpleasing to a married ear! However, a general fondness for the cuckoo has led to a number of sympathetic interpretations for its parasitic behaviour. Bohemian peasants considered that the cuckoo was forced into homelessness as punishment by the Holy Mother for working on her sacred day. Aristotle considered that other birds raised the cuckoo’s young as an act of charity, because the female cuckoo was too heavy to safely incubate her own eggs. It is certainly true that Common Cuckoos have an ungainly look about them in flight, and also when perched, when they tend to droop their wings as if they cannot summon the strength to hold them up.

fools and fairies Perhaps it is the impression of awkwardness that accounts for some of the less flattering folklore surrounding the Common Cuckoo. In Scotland it is sometimes above A female Common Cuckoo has chosen the nest of a Reed Warbler in which to lay a

known as ‘gowk’. This comes from the Old Norse word for cuckoo – ‘gaukr’ – but

single egg next to three smaller eggs that will be dispatched once the young interloper hatches.

in Scotland the word ‘gowk’ also means ‘fool’, and Scotland’s April Fool’s Day (traditionally 13 April) was formerly known as ‘Gowk’s Day’. On Gowk’s Day,

in search of females. Once she has mated, a female takes an egg from a host’s unattended nest and lays one of her own in its place, often while a male distracts the nest’s owners. She repeats the process ten or more times. Both sexes’ business is concluded within just a couple of months, and some males are already migrating back south by mid-June. The adults leave behind their genetic legacy in the nests of Eurasian Reed-Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis) and dozens of other less frequently used hosts. Each Common Cuckoo chick hefts its foster siblings from the nest within hours of hatching and grows up an indulged only child, soon vastly outweighing its unwitting host parents, before beginning its own migration in autumn. This ability to cheat the system led to the phrase ‘cuckoo in the nest’ to describe an interloper who has evaded detection, and is related to the word

32

adults got their revenge on mischievous children by sending them on pointless errands. Various standing stones around Scotland (as well as a handful elsewhere in Britain) are known locally as the ‘Gowk stane’ and were traditionally involved in the community’s springtime rituals and celebrations. Foolishness may not be regarded as much of a virtue today but it does carry the additional meaning of ‘one that is touched by fairies or magical spirits’ – the fool’s lack of attention to reality is explained by his belonging to a more esoteric plane. This is why the imaginary sky-world in Aristophanes’ play The Birds was named ‘Cloudcuckoo Land’ by Henry Cary when he produced an English translation of the drama. Other writings that reference the bird include the popular English folk song ‘The

Cuckoo’, with its simple but uplifting message: ‘The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies; she brings us glad tidings, and she tells us no lies.’

Birds and us

33


‘cuckold’. Nowadays this word describes an unwitting husband rather than his wife’s lover in marital adultery, but the original Latin cuculus was a word for an adulterer as well as a cuckoo, and the link between the two was referenced in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (Act 5, Scene 2): The cuckoo then, on every tree, Mocks married men; for thus sings he, Cuckoo! Cuckoo, Cuckoo! —O word of fear Unpleasing to a married ear! However, a general fondness for the cuckoo has led to a number of sympathetic interpretations for its parasitic behaviour. Bohemian peasants considered that the cuckoo was forced into homelessness as punishment by the Holy Mother for working on her sacred day. Aristotle considered that other birds raised the cuckoo’s young as an act of charity, because the female cuckoo was too heavy to safely incubate her own eggs. It is certainly true that Common Cuckoos have an ungainly look about them in flight, and also when perched, when they tend to droop their wings as if they cannot summon the strength to hold them up.

fools and fairies Perhaps it is the impression of awkwardness that accounts for some of the less flattering folklore surrounding the Common Cuckoo. In Scotland it is sometimes above A female Common Cuckoo has chosen the nest of a Reed Warbler in which to lay a

known as ‘gowk’. This comes from the Old Norse word for cuckoo – ‘gaukr’ – but

single egg next to three smaller eggs that will be dispatched once the young interloper hatches.

in Scotland the word ‘gowk’ also means ‘fool’, and Scotland’s April Fool’s Day (traditionally 13 April) was formerly known as ‘Gowk’s Day’. On Gowk’s Day,

in search of females. Once she has mated, a female takes an egg from a host’s unattended nest and lays one of her own in its place, often while a male distracts the nest’s owners. She repeats the process ten or more times. Both sexes’ business is concluded within just a couple of months, and some males are already migrating back south by mid-June. The adults leave behind their genetic legacy in the nests of Eurasian Reed-Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis) and dozens of other less frequently used hosts. Each Common Cuckoo chick hefts its foster siblings from the nest within hours of hatching and grows up an indulged only child, soon vastly outweighing its unwitting host parents, before beginning its own migration in autumn. This ability to cheat the system led to the phrase ‘cuckoo in the nest’ to describe an interloper who has evaded detection, and is related to the word

32

adults got their revenge on mischievous children by sending them on pointless errands. Various standing stones around Scotland (as well as a handful elsewhere in Britain) are known locally as the ‘Gowk stane’ and were traditionally involved in the community’s springtime rituals and celebrations. Foolishness may not be regarded as much of a virtue today but it does carry the additional meaning of ‘one that is touched by fairies or magical spirits’ – the fool’s lack of attention to reality is explained by his belonging to a more esoteric plane. This is why the imaginary sky-world in Aristophanes’ play The Birds was named ‘Cloudcuckoo Land’ by Henry Cary when he produced an English translation of the drama. Other writings that reference the bird include the popular English folk song ‘The

Cuckoo’, with its simple but uplifting message: ‘The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies; she brings us glad tidings, and she tells us no lies.’

Birds and us

33


CRANE Gruidae

A miracle of migration It is little wonder that people feel an affinity with this sociable, exuberant, longlived bird and have an interest in its lifestyle. The birds’ long seasonal migrations in V-shaped formations, necks and legs outstretched to streamline their bodies, have been a source of fascination since ancient times. Aristotle took careful note of them

S

ome birds seem designed to attract attention. The Common Crane (Grus grus) and its relatives around the world may not be the most colourful birds, but everything else about them – their size, grace, exhilarating cries, long migrations and glorious dances – have fascinated humans since civilisation began. Crane mythology spans the world’s cultures from the Aegean to the Far East, Australia and the Americas. In a painting discovered during excavations of a Neolithic site dating back more than 8,000 years at Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, a pair of cranes are standing facing each other with their heads raised. On the same site, ancient bird bones suggest that crane wings were used by early settlers in ritual dances, mimicking the birds’ displays as other humans have done across history and still do today. Dances all over the world According to the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, Theseus performed a triumphant crane dance – Geranos – at Delos after killing the Minotaur. The crane was the sacred bird of the gods’ messenger Hermes (Mercury), and rock carvings dating from the 2nd century bc of a crane beside a Cretan-style labyrinth appear to confirm the link between the dance and the mythology. Elsewhere, crane dances have been recorded among the former Ostyak indigenous people of Siberia, the African Batwa people, at ancient Chinese funerals, in Aboriginal ‘corroboree’ events conjuring up Dreamtime legends, and at harvest festival celebrations on the Japanese island of Okinawa. In Korea, age-old ritual dances based on displays by the Red-Crowned Crane (G. japonensis), below, are still performed.

in his 10-volume History of Animals. He wrote, ‘The crane migrates from one extremity of the earth to the other… Many prudent actions appear to be performed by cranes for they travel great distances, and fly at a great elevation in order that they may see farther; and if they see clouds and wintry weather, they descend and rest themselves. They have also a leader in front; and in the rear are those that give a signal by whistling, so that their voice may be heard. When they settle on the ground, the rest sleep with their head under the wing, first on one foot, then on the other; but the leader watches with his neck stretched out, and when he sees anything he gives a signal by his cry.’

For the birds themselves, the spectacular dance is not just for courtship but perhaps also for play. From an early age, cranes gather to leap elegantly on their slender legs, bow, flap their outstretched wings and make sudden spurts, emitting strident, echoing cries through their long coiling windpipes and occasionally tossing twigs or feathers into the air. In autumn in Mongolia, thousands of one species – the Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo) – have been seen dancing together, apparently for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Vigilant birds Other observers in the past have testified that the wise birds routinely posted sentinels at night, who had to stand on one leg (as cranes often do), holding a stone in the other. This was to ensure that if the bird inadvertently dozed off,

Birds and us

35


CRANE Gruidae

A miracle of migration It is little wonder that people feel an affinity with this sociable, exuberant, longlived bird and have an interest in its lifestyle. The birds’ long seasonal migrations in V-shaped formations, necks and legs outstretched to streamline their bodies, have been a source of fascination since ancient times. Aristotle took careful note of them

S

ome birds seem designed to attract attention. The Common Crane (Grus grus) and its relatives around the world may not be the most colourful birds, but everything else about them – their size, grace, exhilarating cries, long migrations and glorious dances – have fascinated humans since civilisation began. Crane mythology spans the world’s cultures from the Aegean to the Far East, Australia and the Americas. In a painting discovered during excavations of a Neolithic site dating back more than 8,000 years at Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, a pair of cranes are standing facing each other with their heads raised. On the same site, ancient bird bones suggest that crane wings were used by early settlers in ritual dances, mimicking the birds’ displays as other humans have done across history and still do today. Dances all over the world According to the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, Theseus performed a triumphant crane dance – Geranos – at Delos after killing the Minotaur. The crane was the sacred bird of the gods’ messenger Hermes (Mercury), and rock carvings dating from the 2nd century bc of a crane beside a Cretan-style labyrinth appear to confirm the link between the dance and the mythology. Elsewhere, crane dances have been recorded among the former Ostyak indigenous people of Siberia, the African Batwa people, at ancient Chinese funerals, in Aboriginal ‘corroboree’ events conjuring up Dreamtime legends, and at harvest festival celebrations on the Japanese island of Okinawa. In Korea, age-old ritual dances based on displays by the Red-Crowned Crane (G. japonensis), below, are still performed.

in his 10-volume History of Animals. He wrote, ‘The crane migrates from one extremity of the earth to the other… Many prudent actions appear to be performed by cranes for they travel great distances, and fly at a great elevation in order that they may see farther; and if they see clouds and wintry weather, they descend and rest themselves. They have also a leader in front; and in the rear are those that give a signal by whistling, so that their voice may be heard. When they settle on the ground, the rest sleep with their head under the wing, first on one foot, then on the other; but the leader watches with his neck stretched out, and when he sees anything he gives a signal by his cry.’

For the birds themselves, the spectacular dance is not just for courtship but perhaps also for play. From an early age, cranes gather to leap elegantly on their slender legs, bow, flap their outstretched wings and make sudden spurts, emitting strident, echoing cries through their long coiling windpipes and occasionally tossing twigs or feathers into the air. In autumn in Mongolia, thousands of one species – the Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo) – have been seen dancing together, apparently for the sheer pleasure of doing so. Vigilant birds Other observers in the past have testified that the wise birds routinely posted sentinels at night, who had to stand on one leg (as cranes often do), holding a stone in the other. This was to ensure that if the bird inadvertently dozed off,

Birds and us

35


the stone would drop and wake it. In heraldry, the fanciful idea lives on as the crane is usually represented holding a rock, known in French as a ‘vigilance’, to symbolise this quality. Another belief was that cranes swallowed pebbles to act as ballast, keeping them on course in strong winds. While this might be a reference to the small stones some birds consume that act as ‘teeth’ in the gizzard, crushing and breaking up food, an associated myth that when vomited up such stones could be used to test for gold was, of course, as Aristotle noted, ‘a fiction’. Pygmy wars There were wilder migration tales in ancient times, too. In the Iliad, Homer writes that migrating cranes waged a constant battle with the Pygmies, a diminutive tribe inhabiting the shores of the great earth-circling River Oceanos and variously located in India and Africa. The cause of the strife was allegedly the death of Gerana, a beautiful Pygmy princess, turned into a crane for disrespecting two goddesses – Artemis and Hera – but then killed in error by her own people. The notion of large cranes fighting tiny human beings was also recorded in a Native American legend. In this story, barely knee-high people called ‘Tsvdigewi’ were shown by the Cherokee how to defend themselves against big birds. The Tsvdigewi then successfully pillaged nests for eggs until a flock of tall Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) arrived, attacked the little men and killed them all. Cranes can indeed be aggressive birds. They will jealously protect their territory against other cranes, and their nests and young against predators, leaping into the air to attack with their sharp claws or stab with their long bills. However, such behaviour is most frequently a warning, with various signs, such as crouching, to encourage rivals to withdraw rather than engage in a fight that could injure both birds. Unless provoked, cranes rarely attack humans. Celestial creatures Almost universally, cranes are, in fact, considered virtuous. Myth and legend have often linked them to the heavens because they fly so high; Common Cranes have been recorded soaring over the Himalayas at altitudes of up to 10,000 m (33,000 ft). Native American Pueblo tribes believed that Sandhill Cranes built their nests on the clouds and drank water from the same source before they came down to the wetlands of earth. For Australian Aboriginal people, cranes played a part in Creation, sparking the light of the sun. In the legend, Crane and Emu were quarrelling in the mystical realms of Dreamtime. Crane picked up one of Emu’s huge eggs and flung

36

Birds and us

it into the sky. The yolk burst into flames, which lit up the universe and brought the first light to the world below. For the indigenous people of Siberia, the snowy white Siberian Crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus) is associated with the sun, the coming of spring and celestial spirits. In Celtic legend, the Common Crane was a bird of the moon, linked with shamanic travel and deep mysteries. In Oriental art and literature, immortal figures are frequently depicted on the back of Red-crowned Cranes. In both China and Japan, the bird – which can live up to 40 or more years in the wild – symbolises longevity and good fortune. Marital fidelity As in the case of the White Stork, the crane’s monogamy and careful parenting have also made it a symbol of fidelity and successful marriage in the Far East and in India, where the Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone), below, is widely believed to not only mate for life but also pine to death if its partner dies. In Gujarat, newly-weds are sometimes taken to visit the exemplary birds, while at Japanese weddings it is traditional to have a thousand paper cranes to bring good fortune to the recently married couple. Dancing partners Crane numbers have diminished worldwide in recent years. Wetland habitats have been drained for agriculture and construction projects, and pesticides have


the stone would drop and wake it. In heraldry, the fanciful idea lives on as the crane is usually represented holding a rock, known in French as a ‘vigilance’, to symbolise this quality. Another belief was that cranes swallowed pebbles to act as ballast, keeping them on course in strong winds. While this might be a reference to the small stones some birds consume that act as ‘teeth’ in the gizzard, crushing and breaking up food, an associated myth that when vomited up such stones could be used to test for gold was, of course, as Aristotle noted, ‘a fiction’. Pygmy wars There were wilder migration tales in ancient times, too. In the Iliad, Homer writes that migrating cranes waged a constant battle with the Pygmies, a diminutive tribe inhabiting the shores of the great earth-circling River Oceanos and variously located in India and Africa. The cause of the strife was allegedly the death of Gerana, a beautiful Pygmy princess, turned into a crane for disrespecting two goddesses – Artemis and Hera – but then killed in error by her own people. The notion of large cranes fighting tiny human beings was also recorded in a Native American legend. In this story, barely knee-high people called ‘Tsvdigewi’ were shown by the Cherokee how to defend themselves against big birds. The Tsvdigewi then successfully pillaged nests for eggs until a flock of tall Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) arrived, attacked the little men and killed them all. Cranes can indeed be aggressive birds. They will jealously protect their territory against other cranes, and their nests and young against predators, leaping into the air to attack with their sharp claws or stab with their long bills. However, such behaviour is most frequently a warning, with various signs, such as crouching, to encourage rivals to withdraw rather than engage in a fight that could injure both birds. Unless provoked, cranes rarely attack humans. Celestial creatures Almost universally, cranes are, in fact, considered virtuous. Myth and legend have often linked them to the heavens because they fly so high; Common Cranes have been recorded soaring over the Himalayas at altitudes of up to 10,000 m (33,000 ft). Native American Pueblo tribes believed that Sandhill Cranes built their nests on the clouds and drank water from the same source before they came down to the wetlands of earth. For Australian Aboriginal people, cranes played a part in Creation, sparking the light of the sun. In the legend, Crane and Emu were quarrelling in the mystical realms of Dreamtime. Crane picked up one of Emu’s huge eggs and flung

36

Birds and us

it into the sky. The yolk burst into flames, which lit up the universe and brought the first light to the world below. For the indigenous people of Siberia, the snowy white Siberian Crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus) is associated with the sun, the coming of spring and celestial spirits. In Celtic legend, the Common Crane was a bird of the moon, linked with shamanic travel and deep mysteries. In Oriental art and literature, immortal figures are frequently depicted on the back of Red-crowned Cranes. In both China and Japan, the bird – which can live up to 40 or more years in the wild – symbolises longevity and good fortune. Marital fidelity As in the case of the White Stork, the crane’s monogamy and careful parenting have also made it a symbol of fidelity and successful marriage in the Far East and in India, where the Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone), below, is widely believed to not only mate for life but also pine to death if its partner dies. In Gujarat, newly-weds are sometimes taken to visit the exemplary birds, while at Japanese weddings it is traditional to have a thousand paper cranes to bring good fortune to the recently married couple. Dancing partners Crane numbers have diminished worldwide in recent years. Wetland habitats have been drained for agriculture and construction projects, and pesticides have


Peace symbols also poisoned birds. However, possibly because crane mythology is so strong and the birds’ survival so dear to many people, Japanese survivor of the atom bomb dropped conservation efforts are succeeding in many on Hiroshima in 1945. In the 1950s, when parts of the world. Sadako Sasaki was 11 years old, she was In the US, one crane saviour has himself diagnosed with leukaemia. Knowing the paper become a modern legend. In the 1970s, crane legend, she set to work, wishing for her when the tall and graceful Whooping Crane own recovery and also for world peace: ‘I will (Grus americana) was not just endangered write peace on your wings, and you will fly all but facing extinction, ornithologist George over the world.’ Archibald learned of one captive bird, Tex, Before she died in 1955, Sadako had made born at San Antonio Zoo. Brought up by more than 1,000 origami cranes. Her plight humans, Tex thought she was human, too, moved her classmates to start a campaign and showed no interest in reproduction. to commemorate all children affected by the Archibald began a remarkable experiment atomic blast. Sadako’s image and her quest – wooing Tex in the hope that his courtship live on in a statue depicting the girl holding a might persuade her to ovulate so that she golden crane, unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace could be artificially inseminated. Memorial Park in 1958. Her touching story Archibald put his bed in her house, slept also helped to promote efforts to save the there, talked to her and danced with her Red-crowned Crane, a threatened species. as spring approached. His novel initia–tive worked. She soon laid an egg, and though that was infertile, Archibald persisted year after year. Finally, in 1982, Tex produced a chick called Gee Whiz. The story – rendered all the more poignant when Tex was later killed by a pack of raccoons – captured a nation’s imagination and led to a major turnaround in the status of Whooping Cranes. Though still endangered, there are now several hundred wild birds and many breeding in captivity. By 2013, when George Archibald received the Dan W Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership from the National Audubon Society for his work with the International Crane Foundation, Gee Whiz had fathered many chicks, including one that had just bred in the wild. ‘I call her my great grand-chick,’ joked Archibald, justly proud of the new chick’s pedigree – a word which itself stems from our historically close association with the bird. ‘Pied de grue’ – crane’s foot – was a term first used in Norman times to denote the branching form of a family tree. Origami cranes have come to symbolise

world peace thanks to a remarkable young

Right A hand-tinted photograph of around 1900 depicts a Japanese girl making

an origami peace crane.

38

Birds and us


Peace symbols also poisoned birds. However, possibly because crane mythology is so strong and the birds’ survival so dear to many people, Japanese survivor of the atom bomb dropped conservation efforts are succeeding in many on Hiroshima in 1945. In the 1950s, when parts of the world. Sadako Sasaki was 11 years old, she was In the US, one crane saviour has himself diagnosed with leukaemia. Knowing the paper become a modern legend. In the 1970s, crane legend, she set to work, wishing for her when the tall and graceful Whooping Crane own recovery and also for world peace: ‘I will (Grus americana) was not just endangered write peace on your wings, and you will fly all but facing extinction, ornithologist George over the world.’ Archibald learned of one captive bird, Tex, Before she died in 1955, Sadako had made born at San Antonio Zoo. Brought up by more than 1,000 origami cranes. Her plight humans, Tex thought she was human, too, moved her classmates to start a campaign and showed no interest in reproduction. to commemorate all children affected by the Archibald began a remarkable experiment atomic blast. Sadako’s image and her quest – wooing Tex in the hope that his courtship live on in a statue depicting the girl holding a might persuade her to ovulate so that she golden crane, unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace could be artificially inseminated. Memorial Park in 1958. Her touching story Archibald put his bed in her house, slept also helped to promote efforts to save the there, talked to her and danced with her Red-crowned Crane, a threatened species. as spring approached. His novel initia–tive worked. She soon laid an egg, and though that was infertile, Archibald persisted year after year. Finally, in 1982, Tex produced a chick called Gee Whiz. The story – rendered all the more poignant when Tex was later killed by a pack of raccoons – captured a nation’s imagination and led to a major turnaround in the status of Whooping Cranes. Though still endangered, there are now several hundred wild birds and many breeding in captivity. By 2013, when George Archibald received the Dan W Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership from the National Audubon Society for his work with the International Crane Foundation, Gee Whiz had fathered many chicks, including one that had just bred in the wild. ‘I call her my great grand-chick,’ joked Archibald, justly proud of the new chick’s pedigree – a word which itself stems from our historically close association with the bird. ‘Pied de grue’ – crane’s foot – was a term first used in Norman times to denote the branching form of a family tree. Origami cranes have come to symbolise

world peace thanks to a remarkable young

Right A hand-tinted photograph of around 1900 depicts a Japanese girl making

an origami peace crane.

38

Birds and us


SWALLOW Hirundinidae

Swallows are easy birds to love, with their graceful, exuberant flight, their pleasant and cheerful voices, and their helpful habit of ridding the air of mosquitoes and other biting flies. There are about 80 species in the family Hirundinidae. The smaller, shorter-tailed species are mostly known as martins, but all are rather similar in appearance, with long pointed wings, short legs and bills, forked tails, and often with crisp white bellies and a lovely violet or green iridescent lustre to the darker upper parts of their plumage. Hairy hazards As its name implies, the familiar Barn Swallow likes to nest in buildings, especially open and easily accessible ones like barns, but will also build nests in people’s homes if it can get inside, manoeuvring through small gaps such as a half-open window. In Greece, a swallow found inside the house must be caught, smeared with oil and then released, to ward off bad luck, but having the birds nesting in outbuildings is generally held to be lucky and protective against disaster. One necessary precaution when you had nesting swallows was not to leave hair clippings lying around, because if the birds took them away to line their nests, the owner of the hair would suffer headaches all through the summer. Another odd hair-related belief, from Ireland, is that every person has on their head a particular single hair, which, if plucked by a swallow, would bring a lifetime of terrible fortune. This might be related to the swallows’ tendency to swoop at people that venture too close to their nests.

A

s with cuckoos, there is much superstition attached to the first arrival date of the migrant swallow, though this bird is usually seen before it is heard. Some species are renowned for their long-distance migrations, especially the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), above, a spry little bird found across almost the entire northern hemisphere in summer, and most of the southern hemisphere in winter. While, as the proverb runs, ‘One swallow does not make a summer’, in many parts of the world swallows herald warmer weather and better times. One species is actually named the Welcome Swallow (H. neoxena). In Hesse, Germany, it was traditional for a watchman in a tower to keep an eye out for the first returning bird and then for the town magistrates to formally announce the arrival. In Cornwall, the done thing was to leap in the air, but in Scotland you needed to be sitting down if you wanted your first sighting to bring you good luck. In Rhodes, the bird’s arrival was marked with a special festival.

40

Stones and stonings Swallows feature quite prominently in religious stories. In Spain, it is said that it was swallows rather than robins that pulled the thorns from Jesus’s forehead when he was on the cross, and this is how they got their red (bloodstained) chin and forehead. A Russian story tells that during the Crucifixion, the sparrows chirped that Jesus was still alive (and so should be tortured some more), while the swallows sang that he was dead – consequently swallows are blessed and sparrows cursed. An Islamic legend explains how the swallow got its deeply forked tail shape. In the Garden of Eden it offended the serpent Eblis, which retaliated by snapping a chunk out of the middle of the bird’s tail. The Quran relates that a flock of swallows drove a Christian army away from Mecca by dropping stones on them. The association of swallows with stones is a peculiar one. They use mud in the construction of their nests, and so may unwittingly transport small stones into them, and these stones are said to be lucky and to have healing powers. The tragic

Birds and us

41


SWALLOW Hirundinidae

Swallows are easy birds to love, with their graceful, exuberant flight, their pleasant and cheerful voices, and their helpful habit of ridding the air of mosquitoes and other biting flies. There are about 80 species in the family Hirundinidae. The smaller, shorter-tailed species are mostly known as martins, but all are rather similar in appearance, with long pointed wings, short legs and bills, forked tails, and often with crisp white bellies and a lovely violet or green iridescent lustre to the darker upper parts of their plumage. Hairy hazards As its name implies, the familiar Barn Swallow likes to nest in buildings, especially open and easily accessible ones like barns, but will also build nests in people’s homes if it can get inside, manoeuvring through small gaps such as a half-open window. In Greece, a swallow found inside the house must be caught, smeared with oil and then released, to ward off bad luck, but having the birds nesting in outbuildings is generally held to be lucky and protective against disaster. One necessary precaution when you had nesting swallows was not to leave hair clippings lying around, because if the birds took them away to line their nests, the owner of the hair would suffer headaches all through the summer. Another odd hair-related belief, from Ireland, is that every person has on their head a particular single hair, which, if plucked by a swallow, would bring a lifetime of terrible fortune. This might be related to the swallows’ tendency to swoop at people that venture too close to their nests.

A

s with cuckoos, there is much superstition attached to the first arrival date of the migrant swallow, though this bird is usually seen before it is heard. Some species are renowned for their long-distance migrations, especially the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), above, a spry little bird found across almost the entire northern hemisphere in summer, and most of the southern hemisphere in winter. While, as the proverb runs, ‘One swallow does not make a summer’, in many parts of the world swallows herald warmer weather and better times. One species is actually named the Welcome Swallow (H. neoxena). In Hesse, Germany, it was traditional for a watchman in a tower to keep an eye out for the first returning bird and then for the town magistrates to formally announce the arrival. In Cornwall, the done thing was to leap in the air, but in Scotland you needed to be sitting down if you wanted your first sighting to bring you good luck. In Rhodes, the bird’s arrival was marked with a special festival.

40

Stones and stonings Swallows feature quite prominently in religious stories. In Spain, it is said that it was swallows rather than robins that pulled the thorns from Jesus’s forehead when he was on the cross, and this is how they got their red (bloodstained) chin and forehead. A Russian story tells that during the Crucifixion, the sparrows chirped that Jesus was still alive (and so should be tortured some more), while the swallows sang that he was dead – consequently swallows are blessed and sparrows cursed. An Islamic legend explains how the swallow got its deeply forked tail shape. In the Garden of Eden it offended the serpent Eblis, which retaliated by snapping a chunk out of the middle of the bird’s tail. The Quran relates that a flock of swallows drove a Christian army away from Mecca by dropping stones on them. The association of swallows with stones is a peculiar one. They use mud in the construction of their nests, and so may unwittingly transport small stones into them, and these stones are said to be lucky and to have healing powers. The tragic

Birds and us

41


Silence and sourness Swallows are sometimes linked to speechlessness or an inability to speak clearly. They are in reality anything but silent, but their voices are not loud or distinct. In one version of a violent Greek tale, when Tereus, a warlike Thracian king, cut out the tongue of his wife Procne, she was later turned into a swallow by the gods. In Isleta, New Mexico, there is a Native American tale of a child born unable to make a sound, because the mother had mocked a swallow during her pregnancy. Barn Swallows often frequent fields full of cows and fly very low among them, to catch insects disturbed from the grass as the cattle move around. There was a belief in France that, should a swallow fly under a cow’s udder, that cow would yield blood rather than milk, and in England it was said that if a swallow nested in a byre and its eggs were destroyed, then any cows in the byre would also produce bloody milk, until the necessary curative action (of sprinkling the milk at a crossroads) was carried out.

(and very long) poem Evangeline, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847, contains a few lines about ‘swallow stones’: Oft in the barns they climbed to the populous nests in the rafters, Seeking with eager eyes that wondrous stone which the swallow Brings from the shore of the sea to restore the sight of its fledglings; Lucky was he who found that stone in the nest of the swallow! In Brittany, it was believed that lucky stones could actually be found inside swallows, and, when extracted (by cutting open the less lucky bird), they had various powers depending on the colour – white brought luck in love, green promised safety from danger, red cured insanity and black provided good fortune. Migratory mysteries The migration of swallows was badly misunderstood in Aristotle’s time, when the general belief was that they buried themselves in riverbank mud or even underwater, and spent the winter thus, hibernating. This idea could have come from their habit of gathering to roost in waterside reed beds – people would have seen the birds plunging into the reeds at dusk, then realised within days that there were no longer any swallows around in the daytime. In Norfolk, a gathering of swallows on a roof foretold death for someone in that house, and a gathering on a church meant that the birds were discussing who would die in the coming winter. right A Barn Swallow swoops to catch its flying insect prey in a 19th-century

handcoloured engraving by George Graves.

42

Birds and us


Silence and sourness Swallows are sometimes linked to speechlessness or an inability to speak clearly. They are in reality anything but silent, but their voices are not loud or distinct. In one version of a violent Greek tale, when Tereus, a warlike Thracian king, cut out the tongue of his wife Procne, she was later turned into a swallow by the gods. In Isleta, New Mexico, there is a Native American tale of a child born unable to make a sound, because the mother had mocked a swallow during her pregnancy. Barn Swallows often frequent fields full of cows and fly very low among them, to catch insects disturbed from the grass as the cattle move around. There was a belief in France that, should a swallow fly under a cow’s udder, that cow would yield blood rather than milk, and in England it was said that if a swallow nested in a byre and its eggs were destroyed, then any cows in the byre would also produce bloody milk, until the necessary curative action (of sprinkling the milk at a crossroads) was carried out.

(and very long) poem Evangeline, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847, contains a few lines about ‘swallow stones’: Oft in the barns they climbed to the populous nests in the rafters, Seeking with eager eyes that wondrous stone which the swallow Brings from the shore of the sea to restore the sight of its fledglings; Lucky was he who found that stone in the nest of the swallow! In Brittany, it was believed that lucky stones could actually be found inside swallows, and, when extracted (by cutting open the less lucky bird), they had various powers depending on the colour – white brought luck in love, green promised safety from danger, red cured insanity and black provided good fortune. Migratory mysteries The migration of swallows was badly misunderstood in Aristotle’s time, when the general belief was that they buried themselves in riverbank mud or even underwater, and spent the winter thus, hibernating. This idea could have come from their habit of gathering to roost in waterside reed beds – people would have seen the birds plunging into the reeds at dusk, then realised within days that there were no longer any swallows around in the daytime. In Norfolk, a gathering of swallows on a roof foretold death for someone in that house, and a gathering on a church meant that the birds were discussing who would die in the coming winter. right A Barn Swallow swoops to catch its flying insect prey in a 19th-century

handcoloured engraving by George Graves.

42

Birds and us


WAGTAIL Motacillidae

T

he form, behaviour and habitat of natty, lively little wagtails has given rise to a wealth of local folkloric beliefs and sayings. Wherever members of this small family of birds are found – throughout Eurasia and Africa in town and country, field, riverside, beach and lake shore – they run and strut around, constantly bobbing their very long tails. Some species are black and white, others more colourful with bright yellows, greens and blue-greys, and all have sparky personalities and bright, cheerful voices.

Sneaky devils In Ireland, Pied Wagtails are mistrusted because of the unnaturally constant movement of their tails and are considered to be minions of the devil, with their tail action caused by carrying drops of the devil’s blood on their tail tip. It was believed that the only way to catch one was to sprinkle salt on its tail. This sinister aspect did mean the bird was somewhat respected, and only the very foolhardy would risk

Doing the dishes The Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii), below, is the British subspecies of the widespread White Wagtail (M. alba), and is a very familiar bird that occurs almost everywhere in Britain, all year round. It rejoices in a great many local names, several of which have a dishwashing theme – for example, ‘Molly washdish’, ‘Peggy dishwasher’ and ‘dishlick’. These come from the bird’s fondness for waterside habitats, where it walks along at the water’s edge or bounces from rock to rock in the shallows, ready to pounce on newly emerged insects, and bobbing and dipping constantly like someone washing their dishes in the water. Today, many birdwatchers (especially those who like to observe visible migration or ‘vis mig’) call the Pied Wagtail the ‘Chiswick flyover’, because of the loud ‘chissick’ call it gives when on the move.

damaging its nest or stealing its eggs. A more light-hearted view of the bird is found in an Irish children’s rhyme, which includes the line ‘your pretty tail is like a goblin’s clock’ and then ‘your pretty tail is like a goblin’s wand’.

The Romany people know the Pied Wagtail as the ‘Gypsy bird’ and have the saying ‘Behold a wagtail and you shall see the gypsies’. Pied Wagtails have a strong association with people and like to nest in farm buildings. They can often be found in car parks, checking the ground and car grilles for squashed insects. They also form communal winter roosts in town centres, clustering together in small ornamental trees that are kept warm under artificial lighting, and looking for all the world like fluffy Christmas decorations. The tale of the tail The scientific name of the wagtail genus, Motacilla, references the bird’s constant activity – it translates as ‘little mover’. However, some ornithologists made the error (understandably) of thinking that the name meant ‘moving tail’, and so you will find the suffix ‘cilla’, which is just a way of making a diminutive form, incorrectly used to mean ‘tail’ in a whole raft of other avian scientific names. For example, the White-tailed Eagle’s specific name is albicilla, intended to mean ‘white tail’ but actually meaning ‘little white’. Worldly wise wagtails The Japanese Wagtail (M. grandis) is as familiar a bird in Japan as the Pied Wagtail is in Britain, and it plays a key role in the classic Japanese creation story.

44

Birds and us

45


WAGTAIL Motacillidae

T

he form, behaviour and habitat of natty, lively little wagtails has given rise to a wealth of local folkloric beliefs and sayings. Wherever members of this small family of birds are found – throughout Eurasia and Africa in town and country, field, riverside, beach and lake shore – they run and strut around, constantly bobbing their very long tails. Some species are black and white, others more colourful with bright yellows, greens and blue-greys, and all have sparky personalities and bright, cheerful voices.

Sneaky devils In Ireland, Pied Wagtails are mistrusted because of the unnaturally constant movement of their tails and are considered to be minions of the devil, with their tail action caused by carrying drops of the devil’s blood on their tail tip. It was believed that the only way to catch one was to sprinkle salt on its tail. This sinister aspect did mean the bird was somewhat respected, and only the very foolhardy would risk

Doing the dishes The Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii), below, is the British subspecies of the widespread White Wagtail (M. alba), and is a very familiar bird that occurs almost everywhere in Britain, all year round. It rejoices in a great many local names, several of which have a dishwashing theme – for example, ‘Molly washdish’, ‘Peggy dishwasher’ and ‘dishlick’. These come from the bird’s fondness for waterside habitats, where it walks along at the water’s edge or bounces from rock to rock in the shallows, ready to pounce on newly emerged insects, and bobbing and dipping constantly like someone washing their dishes in the water. Today, many birdwatchers (especially those who like to observe visible migration or ‘vis mig’) call the Pied Wagtail the ‘Chiswick flyover’, because of the loud ‘chissick’ call it gives when on the move.

damaging its nest or stealing its eggs. A more light-hearted view of the bird is found in an Irish children’s rhyme, which includes the line ‘your pretty tail is like a goblin’s clock’ and then ‘your pretty tail is like a goblin’s wand’.

The Romany people know the Pied Wagtail as the ‘Gypsy bird’ and have the saying ‘Behold a wagtail and you shall see the gypsies’. Pied Wagtails have a strong association with people and like to nest in farm buildings. They can often be found in car parks, checking the ground and car grilles for squashed insects. They also form communal winter roosts in town centres, clustering together in small ornamental trees that are kept warm under artificial lighting, and looking for all the world like fluffy Christmas decorations. The tale of the tail The scientific name of the wagtail genus, Motacilla, references the bird’s constant activity – it translates as ‘little mover’. However, some ornithologists made the error (understandably) of thinking that the name meant ‘moving tail’, and so you will find the suffix ‘cilla’, which is just a way of making a diminutive form, incorrectly used to mean ‘tail’ in a whole raft of other avian scientific names. For example, the White-tailed Eagle’s specific name is albicilla, intended to mean ‘white tail’ but actually meaning ‘little white’. Worldly wise wagtails The Japanese Wagtail (M. grandis) is as familiar a bird in Japan as the Pied Wagtail is in Britain, and it plays a key role in the classic Japanese creation story.

44

Birds and us

45


The Creator, Izanagi, along with his mate, Izanami, were ready to create the land and knew they needed to do this via the usual method that male and female beings use to give birth to offspring. However, as they had done nothing similar before, they were a bit unclear about the mechanics. Luckily, a pair of wagtails came along at that moment and provided a practical demonstration. After observing this, the two deities were able to proceed. The Ainu people of Japan also cast wagtails in a prominent role in the telling of their creation myth. For them, earth began as an uninhabitable boggy place with no dry ground suitable for humans to dwell. So the Creator sent down a wagtail, which busied itself trampling around on the mud, creating dips into which the water could collect, and leaving raised areas of dry ground. Because of this, the wagtail is a blessed bird for the Ainu. Followers and passengers The Western Yellow Wagtail (M. flava), right, is noted for having a vast number of very distinct subspecies across its range in western Eurasia. The variety is mainly in the head colour of the males, which ranges from whitish through yellow, blue, grey and charcoal to jet black. This wagtail is more of a countryside bird than the Pied and is particularly at home in fields full of grazing cows. It follows the cattle to catch the flies they disturb – and those that are attracted by its manure. At some nature reserves, the wardens scatter extra cow manure around to encourage this declining species to breed. It has the old name ‘cowbird’ in Britain, with the equivalent vachette in France and Kuhstelze in Germany. Yellow Wagtails are migrants to northern Europe and winter in Africa. The German writer Adolf Ebeling, visiting Egypt in 1878, was surprised to find a wagtail there, and remarked to an old Arab that it was amazing that such a small bird, and one that is more often seen flitting than flying, was capable of making the long flight across the Mediterranean. The Arab’s reply revealed a most charming folk belief. ‘The Bedouin turned to me with a mixture of French and Arabic as follows. “Do you not know, noble sir, that these small birds are borne over the sea by the larger ones?” I laughed, but the old man continued quite naturally: “Every child among us knows that. Those little birds are much too weak to make the long sea-journey with their own strength. This they know very well, and therefore wait for the storks and cranes and other large birds, and settle themselves upon their backs. In this way they allow themselves to be borne over the sea. The large birds submit to it willingly, for they like their little guests who by their merry twitterings help to kill the time on the long voyage.’’

46

Birds and us


The Creator, Izanagi, along with his mate, Izanami, were ready to create the land and knew they needed to do this via the usual method that male and female beings use to give birth to offspring. However, as they had done nothing similar before, they were a bit unclear about the mechanics. Luckily, a pair of wagtails came along at that moment and provided a practical demonstration. After observing this, the two deities were able to proceed. The Ainu people of Japan also cast wagtails in a prominent role in the telling of their creation myth. For them, earth began as an uninhabitable boggy place with no dry ground suitable for humans to dwell. So the Creator sent down a wagtail, which busied itself trampling around on the mud, creating dips into which the water could collect, and leaving raised areas of dry ground. Because of this, the wagtail is a blessed bird for the Ainu. Followers and passengers The Western Yellow Wagtail (M. flava), right, is noted for having a vast number of very distinct subspecies across its range in western Eurasia. The variety is mainly in the head colour of the males, which ranges from whitish through yellow, blue, grey and charcoal to jet black. This wagtail is more of a countryside bird than the Pied and is particularly at home in fields full of grazing cows. It follows the cattle to catch the flies they disturb – and those that are attracted by its manure. At some nature reserves, the wardens scatter extra cow manure around to encourage this declining species to breed. It has the old name ‘cowbird’ in Britain, with the equivalent vachette in France and Kuhstelze in Germany. Yellow Wagtails are migrants to northern Europe and winter in Africa. The German writer Adolf Ebeling, visiting Egypt in 1878, was surprised to find a wagtail there, and remarked to an old Arab that it was amazing that such a small bird, and one that is more often seen flitting than flying, was capable of making the long flight across the Mediterranean. The Arab’s reply revealed a most charming folk belief. ‘The Bedouin turned to me with a mixture of French and Arabic as follows. “Do you not know, noble sir, that these small birds are borne over the sea by the larger ones?” I laughed, but the old man continued quite naturally: “Every child among us knows that. Those little birds are much too weak to make the long sea-journey with their own strength. This they know very well, and therefore wait for the storks and cranes and other large birds, and settle themselves upon their backs. In this way they allow themselves to be borne over the sea. The large birds submit to it willingly, for they like their little guests who by their merry twitterings help to kill the time on the long voyage.’’

46

Birds and us


Birds: Myth, Lore & Legend  

'Birds: Myth, Lore & Legend' re-tells the many legends, beliefs, proverbs and predictions associated with more than 80 birds from across th...

Birds: Myth, Lore & Legend  

'Birds: Myth, Lore & Legend' re-tells the many legends, beliefs, proverbs and predictions associated with more than 80 birds from across th...