The Great Race and Beyond

winnerpigeon

One of the most prestigious international sporting events was held a few weeks ago: the 21st annual South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR).

More than two thousand pigeons competed in the February 8th final, with three hundred of them completing the approximately 306-mile flight from liberation point to loft in under twenty-four hours.1 This year’s winner, Little Miss Nikki, was one of two top-ten finishers from the United States. Other countries well represented near the top were Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Pigeon Fandom

The SAMDPR has been compared to the Super Bowl and the World Series.2 While pigeon racing, of course, attracts only a fraction of the attention given other sports, it has big-name supporters and big money behind that support. Famous enthusiasts include Queen Elizabeth II and former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, whose relationship to pigeons goes back to his adolescent days in Brooklyn, NY.3

Like other sports, pigeon racing has unfortunately also experienced its share of ethical issues. In recent years, allegations of doping4 and cheating5 have emerged, which are not surprising considering the large prize amounts and six-figure pigeon auction prices.6 Problems have been reported as well regarding the treatment of bred pigeons in a few incidents7 and the risks racing conditions can pose for the birds,8 among other issues.9

Aside from these concerns, the sport continues to fascinate—as does avian racing in general.10 Pigeon racing has even inspired paintings by Andrew Beer and influenced the poetry of Geoffrey Hill (“Scenes from Comus”) and Rebecca Goss (“Pigeon Love”). In addition to the world of racing, pigeons have a long and significant history as messengers.

Sources:

  1. “Race Directors Report,” 2/16/2017. South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race: https://www.samdpr.com/news/gn20170216.
  2. Ganus Family Loft: http://www.ganusfamilyloft.com/.
  3. Blechman, AD. Pigeons: The Fascinating Sago of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 5–6, 163–165.
  4. Macur, J. “Pigeon Racing: Faster and Farther, but Fair?” 10/25/2013. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/sports/pigeon-racing-doping.html.
  5. Criddle, C. “Pigeon Cheating Scandal: Champion Bird in Race from South of France Never Left Its Oxfordshire Loft,” 7/29/2016. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/29/champion-pigeon-racer-in-scandal-after-winning-bird-from-south-o/.
  6. “World Record Price Paid for Belgian Racing Pigeon Bolt,” 5/21/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22613247.
  7. Harrabin, R. “Is Pigeon Racing Cruel?” 3/27/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-21938429.
  8. Breen, J. “Racing Pigeons among Birds that Meet Their Doom against City’s Skyscrapers,” 9/13/2016 DNAinfo | Chicago: https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160908/downtown/racing-pigeons-among-birds-that-meet-their-doom-against-our-skyscrapers.
  9. Opar, A. “Mike Tyson to Star in Reality Show on Pigeon-Racing, A Sport Linked to Raptor Deaths,” 3/17/2010. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/news/mike-tyson-star-reality-show-pigeon-racing-sport-linked-raptor-deaths.
  10. Arizona’s Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival, for example, entertains its gatherers with races involving ostriches and emus, respectively. See that event’s official website for more information: https://ostrichfestival.com/2017-attractions/.

 

Staying Warm!

snowygoose

A winter storm struck our area recently, bringing a bit of snow and ice but not nearly as much as expected. The worst part was that for several days temperatures stayed below freezing. What fell stuck around, keeping most people inside. Yet the neighborhood squirrels and birds were undeterred from going about their usual business.

Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, northern cardinals, blue jays, and several species of sparrows were frequent guests at our backyard feeders. There were a few dark-eyed juncos, brown-headed nuthatches, and brown thrashers, too. During an outing, my wife spotted the usual Canada geese at a nearby pond. They all managed just fine, thanks in part to their feathers.

Cuddy’s Duck

Feathers serve many functions, one of the most important in cold environments is helping keep birds warm. And of the types of feathers on birds, the innermost layer (down) is critical for insulation. Much shorter than contour and flight feathers, down has flexibly stubby structures that stick together to trap air and shut in body heat.1, 2 People ages ago, in their struggles to adapt to extreme cold, figured out waterfowl are equipped with down that’s well suited for human use. Today, manufacturers of winter jackets and bedding products rely on down feathers primarily from ducks and geese.

Of all avifauna cherished for their down, the common eider duck remains the gold standard.3 In the United Kingdom, the species is sometimes referred to as “Cuddy’s duck,” in reference to St. Cuthbert, perhaps the first person to decree protections for birds.4 Legend holds that the seventh-century cleric of Great Britain’s Inner Farne Island developed a special bond with the eiders, forbidding the other monks to harm the nesting birds. While killing or eating Cuddy’s ducks would have been off limits, eiderdown “harvesting” could have been acceptable.5 Harvesting often involves collecting feathers from the nests while the birds are there, but the intent is to disturb the ducks as little as possible. In Scandinavian island communities, such practices had been going on for centuries prior to Cuthbert.6 They still continue today, with Iceland being the largest producer.7, 8

The Downside

Unlike harvesting, other methods are far from innocuous. China is the world’s largest provider of down, mostly from ducks and geese, which are raised then slaughtered for food.9 Though feathers are considered a by-product of poultry production, disturbing accounts of live-plucking have been reported.10 The negative publicity has forced the fashion industry to reevaluate its suppliers and offer synthetic options.11, 12

So what can we do to help out? Before purchasing a down jacket or bedding, investigate the manufacturers. As part of your Internet search, check whether they comply with the voluntary Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Note that the nonprofit Textile Exchange offers an online list of certified compliers and extensive information about the down industry.

The other choice, of course, is to just look for down alternatives.

Sources:

  1. Thompson, M. “Everything You Need to Know About Feathers – Feather Anatomy: How Do Feathers Work?” Bird Academy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/2/.
  2. Brakhage, D, St. James, E. “Waterfowl Feathers.” Ducks Unlimited: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/understanding-waterfowl-waterfowl-feathers.
  3. “Down and Feather Quality.” Downmark, Canada: http://downmark.com/consumer_information/down_feather_quality.htm.
  4. “St Cuthbert Provided Blueprint for Nature Conservation,” 6/30/2012. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-23048394.
  5. Jenkins, J. “St. Cuthbert’s Ducks,” 10/29/2015. Pilgrimage & England’s Cathedrals project: http://www.pilgrimageandcathedrals.ac.uk/blog/st-cuthbert%E2%80%99s-ducks-1446120484.
  6. “World Heritage and the Arctic,” United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO): http://whc.unesco.org/archive/websites/arctic2008/annex.html.
  7. Morris, J. “Iceland: Grail Trail,” 4/20/2002. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/iceland/724009/Iceland-Grail-trail.html.
  8. “Ask IR,” 1/30/2014. Iceland Review On Line: http://icelandreview.com/stuff/ask-ir/2011/11/10/can-you-tell-me-about-eiderdown-production-iceland?language=en.
  9. Schmitz, H. The Sustainable and Humane Practices of the Down and Feather Industry. International Down and Feather Bureau: http://www.idfb.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/IDFB_White_Paper_6.07.16.pdf.
  10. Gibson, K. “A Foul Truth behind the Down in Pillows and Comforters,” 5/26/2016. MoneyWatch, CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-foul-truth-behind-the-down-in-pillows-and-comforters/.
  11. Milman, O. “‘Ethical down’: Is the Lining of Your Winter Coat Nothing but Fluff?” 1/14/2016. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/14/winter-coat-ethically-produced-down-goose-feathers.
  12. Dobson, J. “The Growing Fashion Trend for Winter Travelers, Cruelty-Free, Vegan and Sustainable,” 12/19/2016. Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimdobson/2016/12/19/the-growing-fashion-trend-for-winter-travelers-cruelty-free-vegan-and-fabulous/#6e9420a467cb.

 

The Ancient Art of Augury

auguryPatterns exist throughout nature. For people ages ago, such things were considered messages from the gods. Decoding these encrypted communications was at the heart of ancient divination, a common practice of early civilizations.

Divination methods in antiquity varied in scope. Nearly anything could be viewed as an expression of divine will and available for interpretation, including dreams (oneiromancy), heavenly bodies (astrology), and entrails of sacrificed animals (haruspicy). Ornithomancy or augury, as it’s more commonly known, covered the domain of avian activity.

Primarily associated today with the Roman Empire, ancient augural forms concentrated on certain types of birds, using their appearance, flight, calls, and feeding to anticipate the likelihood of favorable or unfavorable occurrences.1 An owl perching near a public square signaled ominous potential;2 chickens gobbling grain before a possible battle suggested divine support for a military incursion.3 (More about the chickens shortly.) Most signs were sought (impetrative), but some were not (oblative/prodigal). In the case of the latter, the gods were interpreted as making statements through extraordinary incidents, usually as a harbinger to some punitive calamity.4

Popularity and Possible Origins

Much of what is known about augury in the classical world comes from the writings of the ancient Romans. The subject played a critical role in that culture’s politics and religion. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was said to have selected the site of his city based on a sighting of twelve large raptors, either vultures or eagles. The story is recounted by Cicero, the first-century BCE Roman orator, in his On Divination (Book 1). Cicero’s contemporary Virgil relates several instances of augury in his Aeneid, the principal politico-literary work of the Roman Empire.

“Sacred chickens” were integral to the augural activities of the empire. Senior officials consulted their feeding habits (to eat = positive; to not eat = negative) for decisions involving military and administrative action. The birds even traveled in cages with armies, requiring a chicken-keeper (pullarius) to maintain and care for the fowl. The Roman historian Livy (64/59 BCE–17 CE) details aspects of this augural practice in Book 10 of his History of Rome. There he also provides an account of the capital punishment inflicted on an augor/auspex for relaying a false reading.5 The Romans took their augury and chickens seriously!

The use of birds for divining purposes however predates the rise of Rome. Thousands of years old, the practice appears to have developed earlier in Asia Minor (Turkey). The first-century Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder attributes augury’s origins to a single person, an ancient king of this region. While all-too convenient and simple, this dubious reference in his Natural History (Book 7) may hint at the practice’s long-venerated status in that area.6

Application and Eventual Demise

Reported instances of augury occurred throughout the Anatolian peninsula and in other places along or near the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the earliest writings on this form of divination come from this region’s ancient Hittites,7 more than a couple millennia prior to Pliny. Homer’s Iliad describes the practice among both the Greeks and Trojans. For example, an eagle sighted clutching a small fawn, released for sacrifice to Zeus, inspires valor in the Greek warriors (Iliad, Book 8). One of the oddest accounts from ancient sources regarding birds and divination is by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, a first-century BCE Greek historian. He writes of a temple where a woodpecker and doves serve as oracles.8

For the ancient Romans, though, conducting auspices was not about predicting the future. It was a formal system, more ceremonial than prognostic, developed for gauging whether the gods felt positively or negatively about a proposed action. 9, 10 In essence, think Magic 8 Ball rather than crystal ball. Before matters such as calling forth a public gathering or advancing troops in combat, consultations were routinely made.11, 12 The official then could either heed or ignore the assessment.13, 14 On the whole, since augury was sanctioned by the government, checking again later was advisable to simply disregarding the reading. After all, the gods could change their minds and circumstances turn favorable.

In time, major societal shifts and upheavals led the Romans to abandon their gods and ritualized augury practice. Only a few everyday reminders of that ancient pastime remain. One is through language, with words such as auspicious and inauguration.15 Another, though not directly related to Roman augury, exists in similar but less complicated avian divination forms in folklore (e.g., weather forecasting).

Sources:

  1. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1996. p. 23.
  2. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. Religions of Rome (Volume 2). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. p. 174.
  3. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. p. 116.
  4. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113, 114, 117.
  5. Jaucourt, L. (Translator: Goodman, D.) “Poulets Sacrés (Sacred Chickens).” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert. Vol. 13 (1765), p. 203. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Publishing (University of Michigan Library): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/did2222.0000.865/–sacred-chickens?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
  6. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. “Luwian Religion, A Research Project: The Case of ‘Hittite’ Augury.” Luwian Identities: Culture, Language and Religion Between Anatolia and the Aegean. (Editors: Mouton, A, Rutherford, I, Yakubovich, I.) Boston, MA: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013. pp. 338–339.
  7. Mouton, A, Rutherford I. pp. 329–330.
  8. British archeologist Sir William Halliday proposes that clerics in avian costume , rather than actual birds, at the Matiene temple as the “most plausible explanation” of these oracles in Dionysios’s report (from Book 1 of Roman Antiquities). For more information, please see Halliday, WR. Greek Divination: A Study of Its Methods and Principles. Chicago, IL: Argonaut, Inc., 1967. pp. 265–266, 268.
  9. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. pp. 23–24.
  10. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 112–114.
  11. Beard, M, North, J, Price, S. p. 166.
  12. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) pp. 113–116.
  13. Adkins, L, Adkins, RA. p. 24.
  14. Scheid, J. (Translator: Lloyd, J.) p. 113.
  15. Oxford Dictionaries. “Under the Auspices of White Elephants?!” OxfordWords blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/01/phrase-and-punctuation-origins.

Birds “in a Galaxy Far, Far Away”

farfaraway

The worlds of Star Wars parallel our own in many ways. One finds there the social constructs of politics, religion, and technology, even fashion and music, playing out in climates and among creatures comparable to those on Earth. Major characters such as Princess Leia, Obi-wan, Finn, and Rey, of course, possess the physical and psychological qualities of humans. Varieties of nonhuman life remain familiar enough, too, as we find birds living “long, long ago” on some “far, far away” planets.

Avian-like Symbols and Wildlife

Granted, where creatures of Star Wars are often in appearance mammalian (e.g., Ewoks, Wookiees, Wampas) or amphibian/reptilian (e.g., Rodians, Dewbacks, Krayt Dragons), birds can be easily overlooked. Though not well represented, they do have a symbolic presence within the space opera, starting back with the first film released in 1977. During subsequent movies, avian life-forms materialize in other ways.

Birds are used for metaphorical purposes, as part of a moniker and a logo, in the original Star Wars (now known as Star Wars IV: A New Hope). The first instance occurs in the cantina scene when Han Solo speaks of the Millennium Falcon. The avian aspect of the name is apt for the carrier’s high-speed reputation since the peregrine falcon, with diving speeds exceeding 200 mph, is the fastest bird on Earth.1 That spacecraft plays a crucial role throughout the rest of the film, including in a pivotal scene not long after the introduction of another avian metaphor: the phoenix-like “starbird” logo of the Rebel Alliance.2 (By the way, this is the symbol that appears on X-wing Starfighter pilots’ helmets, such as the one worn by Luke Skywalker.)

While avian life-forms are not present as physical entities in the 1977 film, subsequent movies do confirm their existence. For example, in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, Padmé Amidala reminisces to Anakin Skywalker of her youth on Naboo listening to birdsong. Birds that resemble owls appear in the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars.3 Finally, 2015’s Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens gives audiences their first close-up view of a non-animated avian creature, the so-called steelpecker,4 a vulture-like bird that scavenges metal scraps from the desert terrain of planet Jakku. In addition, actual birds—those from Earth, such as the northern gannet—and the call of a bald eagle have been identified in sequences of this movie.5, 6

Looking for More Feathered Species

In a few days, a new live-action installment in the Star Wars film franchise will hit theaters. Reports indicate that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will pick up at a point prior to the original trilogy. Also, the movie will launch a new set of characters. Perhaps in a scene or two, if we’re lucky, some additional avian-like species will appear gliding overhead or perched on a parked spacecraft.

Sources:

  1. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Peregrine Falcon.” AllAboutBirds.com: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Peregrine_Falcon/lifehistory#fig1.
  2. Ratcliffe, A. “5 Symbols in the Star Wars Universe,” 2/2/2016. StarWars.com: http://www.starwars.com/news/5-symbols-in-the-star-wars-universe.
  3. O’Keefe, M. “6 of the Cutest Star Wars Aliens and Creatures,” 11/17/2016. StarWars.com: http://www.starwars.com/news/6-of-the-cutest-star-wars-aliens-and-creatures.
  4. Ratcliffe, A. “8 Things You Might Not Know About the Creatures of The Force Awakens,” 8/29/2016. StarWars.com: http://www.starwars.com/news/8-things-you-might-not-know-about-the-creatures-of-the-force-awakens.
  5. Lund, N. “A Field Guide to the Birds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” 12/21/2015. Audubon.com: http://www.audubon.org/news/a-field-guide-birds-star-wars-force-awakens.
  6. As Lund notes in the above Audubon.com article, filming at Skellig Michael, a popular site for nesting seabirds, posed concerns for conservationists. (For more information, please see Hatch, N. “The dark side of ‘Star Wars’,” 10/12/2015. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/news/dark-side-star-wars.)

Turkey Day: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition

turkey

The American Thanksgiving feast is almost unimaginable today without the turkey. The bird’s name, image, and flesh have become synonymous with the annual holiday, as evident from young children’s grade-school artwork, grocery store advertisements, political ceremonies, and professional football game trophies.1 Since the turkey’s modest inception at the seventeenth-century harvest celebration of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people, the creature’s stature has greatly ascended.

Humble Origins

For starters, whether turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) was consumed at that famous gathering of 1621 is dubious. The few records available indicate that an extensive amount of game was prepared for the three-day autumnal feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the event often considered the precursor of and model for our Thanksgiving holiday. First-person accounts from participants Edward Winslow and William Bradford reveal that, along with venison and fish, “fowle” / “foule” was served.2 However, experts have expressed skepticism about whether this reference meant turkeys, noting that ducks and geese were more likely due to their prevalence in that area.3, 4

Meanwhile, during the time of the harvest event at the Plymouth colony, turkeys from North America were already being consumed in England.5 Approximately a century prior to this historic celebration, European explorers had discovered the domesticated turkey in what is today Mexico.  When conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards brought these birds back along with them. Oddly enough, the fowl’s similarity to another established galliform led to its eventual namesake. “Guinea fowl, a native of Africa, was known as a turkey in some areas because some of the domesticated stock had been imported from Turkey,” explains zoologist Osmond Breland in his book Animal Life and Lore. “Out of this confusion, the American fowls were also called turkeys.”6 So this, in short, is how a New World bird acquired the name of a Middle Eastern country.

The American turkey quickly assumed its spot among prominent feast birds, eventually eclipsing them.  For centuries throughout Europe, other large and more abundant fowl had adorned tables during celebratory meals and festive occasions. In England, roasted swan had been popular in such circumstances.7 Domesticated geese had been commonly used as well, especially during autumn.8 The custom of two children pulling opposite ends of the wishbone or furcula to obtain a granted wish or to determine who would be the first to marry may have even begun with the greylag goose.9 When the turkey grew in popularity, so did the transfer of this ritual. The turkey was a poultry favorite among the American colonists, though Benjamin Franklin’s letter expressing admiration for the bird as a symbol for the new country has been overstated and misunderstood.

The Dinner Table Centerpiece of a Holiday

By the nineteenth century, the turkey gained a prominent position within the Thanksgiving meal, thanks primarily to novelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Her efforts persuaded President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to declare Thanksgiving a nationally recognized annual holiday; she also popularized the turkey’s culinary importance in her writings.10 Besides establishing this distinctly American celebration, President Lincoln became the first U.S. commander-in-chief to “pardon” the bird. The presidential practice of granting selected turkeys clemency from the dinner table, however, did not catch on until a century later, starting with President John F. Kennedy.11

Without the vision of Hale and the influence of Lincoln, Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today perhaps would not exist. Of course, the colloquial moniker “Turkey Day” may be an unfortunate indictment that this special occasion, established for expressing gratitude, has turned into our nation’s most gluttonous pastime.

Sources:

  1. “NFL Thanksgiving Day Football History, Trivia, and Fun Facts,” 11/24/10, 1/3/2015. Sports Geekery: http://www.sportsgeekery.com/3815/nfl-thanksgiving-day-football-history-and-fun-facts/.
  2. “Primary Sources for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth.” Pilgrim Hall Museum: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.
  3. Armstrong, E. “The First Thanksgiving,” 11/27/2002. The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1127/p13s02-lign.html.
  4. Krulwich, R. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies,” 11/23/2011. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2010/11/22/131516586/who-brought-the-turkey-the-truth-about-the-first-thanksgiving.
  5. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 44.
  6. Breland, OP. Animal Life and Lore: Revised Edition.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972. p. 148.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  8. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds.  New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 93.
  9. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 104.
  10. Krulwich, R.
  11. Montanaro, D. “The Strange Truth Behind Presidential Turkey Pardons,” 11/25/2015. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/25/457253194/the-strange-truth-behind-presidential-turkey-pardons.

 

If Looks Could Kill

cockatrice_jlweb

Monsters have been known to take many forms, from seductive succubi and skulking bogeymen to blood-slurping chupacabras and giant krakens. Among the most unusual and horrific of such creatures has to be the cockatrice. Associated with demonic forces and deadly powers, this small, peculiar beast stirred panic in the hearts of late-medieval Europeans.

Part-bird and part-snake, with bat-like wings, the cockatrice was believed to be the offspring of a farmyard oddity—an egg-laying cockerel.1 If anyone discovered such a rooster, prompt and severe actions were required. First, retrieving the egg before it was incubated by a toad2 or snake3 was necessary, so as to prevent the cockatrice from developing and ultimately hatching. If the rooster was really thought to have laid an egg, then the fowl had to be destroyed so that no other eggs were produced. Again, such matters were taken very seriously, as demonstrated in 1474 by the people of Basel, Switzerland, who put their alleged avian culprit on trial before burning it at the stake.4

A Scary Notion

The possible existence of creatures in conflict with the natural order of things was a terrifying prospect to people centuries ago. What the cockatrice and its supposed egg-laying cockerel parent represented were affronts to a fixed delineation between the sexes and between species. Aberrations could be seen as crimes against nature, involving witchcraft or the meddling of a sinister supernatural realm. Danger was apparent in the cockatrice’s form, of course, in other ways. The creature supposedly had scales and a snake-like tail, key physical characteristics shared with the devil. (Passages in the book of Revelation (12:9 and 20:2) describe Satan as a serpentine entity, an idea John Milton used with memorable effect in his Paradise Lost.)

Not surprisingly, the cockatrice became synonymous in medieval bestiaries with another ancient and menacing snake, the basilisk. Perhaps most familiar today from JK Rowling’s 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk has a long history. Belief in such a beast extends at least as far back as the first century, described in the writings of both Pliny (Natural History) and Lucan (Pharsalia)5 and later misattributed to venomous creatures of the Old Testament.6 Similarities were said to exist in the lethal prowess of both the basilisk and cockatrice, as they were reportedly capable of delivering venomous bites and emitting a poisonous odor.7 Their usual mode of killing, however, consisted of simply staring into a victim’s eyes, a notion popularized in Shakespeare’s plays.8

Science to the Rescue                                                                            

As serious inquiry replaced superstition, monsters from the Dark Ages came to slowly be dismissed. Scientists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment rejected the flimsy evidence—mostly hoaxes9—of a half-bird, half-snake cockatrice. Unraveling the mystery behind the egg-laying cockerels, however, took a bit more effort. The eighteenth-century French scientist François Gigot de Lapeyronie was the first to conduct rigorous investigations into the subject; his studies concluded that the roosters in question were actually hens.10 Subsequent research has since demonstrated that female fowl with certain ovarian diseases can develop some of the physical characteristics of their male counterparts.11

So unbeknownst to the residents of fifteenth-century Basel, Switzerland, the egg-laying rooster they prosecuted was probably a hen with some hormonal ailment. The cockatrice that haunted medieval Europe never materialized, for the beast with deadly eyes was only a freakish fiend hatched from unfounded fears, another testament to the irrationality of human nature.

Sources:

  1. Bondeson, J. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. p. 167.
  2. Bondeson, J. p. 167.
  3. Stephens, TD. “A Basilisk by Any Other Name … (A Short History of the Cockatrice): A Commentary on Dr. Hook’s Article on Shakespeare, Genetic Malformations, and the Wars of the Roses.” Teratology 35: 2 (April 1987). AR Liss, Inc. p. 278.
  4. Stephens, TD. p. 277.
  5. Badke, D. The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages: Basilisk (1/15/2011): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast265.htm.
  6. In several Old Testament texts (e.g., Isaiah 14:29, Jeremiah 8:17, Proverbs 23:32, Psalms 91:13), the terms for certain venomous animals were erroneously translated as “basilisks” and “cockatrices.” For more information, see J Bondeson (p. 167) and TD Stephens (p. 277).
  7. Hulme, FE. Natural History, Lore and Legend: Being Some Few Examples of Quaint and By-Gone Beliefs Gathered in from Divers Authorities, Ancient and Medieval, of Varying Degrees of Reliability. London, UK: Bernard Quaritch, Norman and Son, 1895. p. 237.
  8. Hulme (p. 237) notes three Shakespearean plays that refer to the cockatrice’s deadly glance: Romeo and Juliet (3.2.47), The Tragedy of King Richard III (4.1.54–55), and Twelfth Night (3.4.197–198). A greater number of the bard’s works cite the basilisk in this role, including Cymbeline (2.4.109–110), The Life of King Henry V (5.2.17–18), The Second Part of King Henry VI (3.2.52–53), The Tragedy of King Richard III (1.2.153), and The Winter’s Tale (1.2.386–389), among others.
  9. One of the most common hoaxes consisted of dried rays or skates, sometimes referred to as “Jenny Hanivers.” TD Stephens (p. 279) notes the use of these preserved remains centuries ago by conmen. Famed Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi supposedly possessed such a specimen but did not think it was a basilisk or cockatrice (J Bondeson, p. 178).
  10. Bondeson, J. p. 188.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 282.

 

Grave Matters: Avian Cemetery Art

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Many people tend to be creeped out by graveyards and memorial gardens, especially around Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Yet these places can have the opposite effect, awakening in visitors a newfound sense of the sacred and beautiful, offering an intimate perspective on history, and stoking spiritual contemplation.

Inside such sanctuaries, past the wrought iron fences, stand rows of headstones and tomb monuments (including mausoleums). On them are dates, epitaphs, and symbols, altogether the final expressions of the dead. By way of these chiseled features on marker stones, the deceased communicate with the living. Ornamentation, of which carvings and sculptures of birds are especially noteworthy, accentuates this connection.

Spiritual Symbols and Signposts

Avian iconography, among the most pervasive of contemporary animal-based cemetery themes, is widespread, having been linked to burial and entombment for millennia. The ancient Egyptians were particularly fascinated with birds in this regard. Besides mummifying ibises1 and falcons,2 they placed wooden human-headed bird figurines with their dead.3 Similarly, American Indians thousands of years ago included so-called birdstones in graves.4 In China, images of cranes were painted to decorate the tomb of a fourteenth-century Taoist priest,5 while ancient sculptures of birds atop cedar trees remain throughout Iran’s ancient Dar al-Salam cemetery.6

Winged creatures of many kinds hold spiritual significance to the deceased. Here in the United States, where the predominant religion is Christianity, the dove is the primary bird of choice.7 This is understandable considering the animal’s historical connections to ritualized purity (e.g., Leviticus 1:14–17) and symbolic importance to the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). But it’s not the only feathered beauty to be depicted on Christian burial monuments. For example, statues and carvings of peacocks can also be seen, principally in Europe.8 Such imagery calls to mind the birds’ centuries-old association with immortality, as cited in medieval bestiaries and taught much earlier by St. Augustine, who claimed from his own personal observations that peafowl flesh would not rot.9

Special Circumstances          

While religion is a central component of most cemetery art, symbols found in graveyards are sometimes dedicated to a loved one’s heritage and occupation. Therefore, swans, hawks, and other avian iconography appear in heraldic designs on headstones, as American families have wished to accentuate their ties to European ancestry through such features.10 Also, a person’s fame and accomplishments, especially if exemplary, occasionally take symbolic form in granite and marble. Consider the carved raven on Edgar Allan Poe’s old grave marker or the avifauna depicted on John James Audubon’s memorial tomb.

On a sidenote, some cemetery pieces have been known to develop a life of their own. One of these is the Bird Girl sculpture.11 Featured on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this bronze statue from the Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah, GA, emerged as a popular tourist attraction. Concerns however eventually led to the Bird Girl’s relocation; it now safely resides in the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center, not far from Bonaventure.12

Final Respects

Though the Bird Girl no longer dwells among obelisks, crosses, tablets, and other grave art, lots of avian imagery and bird-related figures can be seen on longstanding monuments to the deceased. For people intrigued by symbology, the presence of such visuals makes for interesting sightseeing. Actual birds—not those crafted from stone—are likely to be spotted and heard, too, as memorial gardens are the unofficial bird sanctuaries of urban areas. So very little in cemeteries is creepy. On the other hand, much exists to appreciate and ponder.

Sources:

  1. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  2. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34–35.
  3. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. p. 201.
  4. Lenik, EJ. Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009. p. 217.
  5. Hung, W. Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2010. p. 61.
  6. Parsayi, M, Rad, FS, Mazloomi, SM. “Study of Graphical Features on Gravestones of an Ancient Iranian Cemetery.” Material Religion. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (March 2014). pp. 124–127.
  7. Keister, D. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2004. pp. 79–80.
  8. Keister, D. pp. 83–84.
  9. Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, Books XVII–XXII (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 24). Walsh, GG, Honan, DJ (translators). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008 (first printed: 1954). Book XXI, chapter 4. p. 345.
  10. Clark, EW. “The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont: Stone Images of an Emerging Sense of American Identity.” Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Meyer, RE (editor). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992. p. 41.
  11. This sculpture, one of several made by artist Sylvia Shaw Judson, consists of a young female who holds two pan-like bowls. Since no birds are depicted, the origin of the statue’s Bird Girl nickname is not apparent. The prevailing idea is that the bowls may have served as feeders. However, another possibility is that, when rainwater filled the bowls, they functioned as birdbaths.
  12. Stollznow, K. “The Haunted (Pseudo) History of Bonaventure Cemetery,” 8/3/2009. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/the_haunted_pseudo_history_of_bonaventure_cemetery.