Themes of Swan Maiden Lore

swanmaiden2

Birds are symbols of freedom and elusiveness, sensuality and romance, even tragic love. All these characteristics and more are prevalent in one of the most widespread of fictional narratives, the so-called swan maiden tales.

Though variations exist, these stories frequently feature beautiful women who present as swans or other avifauna1 until they disrobe to bathe or swim. Conflict ensues when a male interloper sweeps away one of the maidens to be his bride. Voyeurism, coercion, deceit, sacrifice, betrayal, and third-party meddling are common plot elements, so tales like these tend to explore a range of power dynamics. Storylines often address whether true love can develop between the maiden and her captor/rescuer.

Trials of Love

For the protagonists’ relationship to survive—and it doesn’t always—the two usually must transform psychologically (especially to nurture or rebuild trust), and in some cases, physically (so that either are both human or both avian). As an example of the latter, in an ancient Irish text, the Celtic deity Óengus turns himself into a swan so he can join his swan princess Caer Ibormeith.2, 3 In a Swedish story with a different scenario and outcome, a hunter years later returns his wife’s confiscated feathered cloak. By doing so, however, he unwittingly reveals his culpability in the garment’s theft, destroying the relationship. The wife instantly morphs back into a swan and flies away, never to return.4, 5 “Happily ever after” is not a given, but in those tales where the woman resumes form as a bird and departs, reunion is possible if the husband can prove his love by completing a difficult trek to successfully locate her.6

Different versions of swan maiden tales exist throughout the world, with the Asian continent an important source of several. A couple (“The Story of Janshah” and “Hassan of Bassora and the King’s Daughter of Jinn”) are included in the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).7 Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, however, is probably the most well-known example. In the nineteenth-century Russian composer’s ballet masterpiece, Odette and Prince Siegfried are tested by a scheming sorcerer and his daughter. The two lovers die tragically but are reunited happily together as spirits.8 Though Swan Lake is arguably the most famous of such tales, the oldest likely originates from ancient India in the account of King Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī, two lovers tricked into violating a vow that results in their separation.9, 10

Narratives like these clearly transcend time and cultures, probably because romantic relationships and their dynamics are of universal interest. Part of such lore’s appeal may also lie with birds in general, a subject that has long fascinated the imaginations of poets, storytellers, and artists. Swans are significant due to their associations with grace, beauty, and the otherworldly, all aspects desirable to humans. The swan maiden stories acknowledge both the affinities and differences between our world and those represented by birds. Many of these tales offer us hope that humans are capable of great change and love.

Sources:

  1. For one of the earliest studies of this subject, please refer to the two chapters devoted to swan maidens in ES Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. London, UK: Walter Scott, 1891. pp. 255–332. Hartland notes that swans are not the only birds found in such stories, citing instances including doves, vultures, and other waterfowl. In some cases, the maidens do not appear as birds at all. As for men, they—rather than women—appear occasionally in avian form (e.g., the Brothers Grimm’s “Six Swans” and Wagner’s opera Lohengrin). On a related note, in the myth-inspired poems and paintings depicting the rape of Leda by the Greek god Zeus, a masculine deity is the one who morphs into a swan. This myth, however, is not considered part of swan maiden lore.
  2. Sax, B. The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward, 1998. p.64.
  3. Gantz, J. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1982. pp. 108–112.
  4. Yolen, J. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986, pp. 303–304.
  5. Booss, C. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland & Iceland. New York: Crown, 1984. pp. 248–250.
  6. DL Ashliman, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Pittsburgh, includes several of these stories among his online collection of featured swan maiden tales: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/swan.html.
  7. Campbell, JJ. The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of World Mythology (Volume 1). London, UK: Alfred van der Marck, Summerfield Press, 1983. p. 186.
  8. Sax, B. pp. 161–162.
  9. Sax, B. p. 63.
  10. Leavy, BF. In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender. New York: New York University Press, 1993. pp. 33–63.

The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

bluejays

In To Kill a Mockingbird, siblings Jem and Scout are excited about receiving air rifles as gifts. Atticus, their father, however is less than enthusiastic, having little to say except for one bit of brief but important advice.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard,” he counsels, “but I know you’ll go after birds.” While notably declaring off limits the namesake of the novel, Atticus permits his children to take aim at other birds, naming one species in particular. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em.”1 His remark suggests these birds were held in the lowest regard.

Negative sentiment toward blue jays indeed was common in the South. Their occasional consumption of other birds’ eggs and nestlings probably did not help their standing. A bigger problem seems to have been the creatures’ loud and boisterous activity, as stressed in another literary classic of the American South. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a group of noisy jays congregating on a mulberry tree annoy one character so much that he hurls a stone at them. His admonition, “Git on back to hell, whar you belong at,”2 is quite telling. It hints at the bird’s dark status in the folklore of the South, where at best the blue jay was thought a hapless trickster figure and at worst, a servant to Satan.

The Devil’s Little Helper                                                                                               

Sporting bright plumage and vocalizing lively raptor-like shrieks and a distinctive pump-handle call, the blue jay is among the most common of avifauna in the continental United States. The bird impressed both Emily Dickinson (poem 51) and Mark Twain (the second and third chapters of A Tramp Abroad)—though the latter did address in humorous fashion the blue jay’s poor moral character. Yet the bird never became as popular or respected as other colorful and widespread species, such as the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, and American goldfinch. This is evident by the fact that not a single American state has chosen the blue jay as its avian representative.3

In southern states, the bird was scorned, as apparent from that region’s literature and folklore. African-American stories from the South provide some particularly keen insights into the creature’s reputation. These tales generally agreed that this bird made weekly visits to hell.4 In most cases, Br’er Jay or Mister Jay was said to go there to bring either twigs (to fuel the infernal fires) or sand (to gradually extinguish the blazes or fill in the abyss to the underworld). Such trips, often considered punishment or the result of some unwise arrangement with the devil, were believed to occur every Friday afternoon.5, 6

The bird’s plight in these stories is presented with some variety. In one tale, for instance, the blue jay attempts to bring fire to a shivering black man in need of warmth, but the bird’s theft of a flaming rock from hell does not go as planned. When confronted by the devil, the jay ends up agreeing to pay him and his wife back regularly with kindling.7 Other accounts portray the corvid as greedy and unscrupulous, as when the bird makes a bad deal with Satan for some corn.8 Taken as a whole, these tales offer greater perspective on feelings toward the bird, adding to possibly why Atticus Finch singles it out.

An Undeserved Reputation

While in Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece no blue jay is shot and none visits the devil, the bird’s call is heard during the pivotal Halloween night scene, just prior to the novel’s climax. A blue jay, though, is not actually the one making the sounds. Instead, a mockingbird, perched in a tree on Boo Radley’s front lawn, mimics the calls of several birds, including those of the “irascible” blue jay and ominous whippoorwill.9 The songster’s selection foreshadows both the impending volatility and surprise ahead.

As readers soon learn in this coming-of-age classic, things are not always what they seem. Hearsay and impressions can deceive; prejudices and superstition thrive in the darkness. While the book’s message, of course, applies to attitudes about people, it could as well relate to birds such as the blue jay. After all, this much-maligned bird does a lot more than clamor in backyards; it is one of North America’s most interesting and beneficial winged residents.

Sources:

  1. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1960). p. 103.
  2. Faulkner, W. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956 (first published in 1929). p. 209.
  3. The blue jay has fared much better in Canada, where it is the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island and the mascot of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team.
  4. A couple other birds, the mockingbird and cardinal, sometimes appeared in this role. (For more info, see Pucket, NN. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro [sic]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; Greenwood Press, 1975. pp. 549–550.)
  5. Pucket, NN. pp. 549–550.
  6. Young, M. Plantation Bird Legends. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916. pp. 122, 125, 126, 234, 237.
  7. Young, M. pp. 46–48, 51.
  8. Pucket, NN. p. 549.
  9. Lee, H. p. 293.

A Wick-ed Idea: Real Birds as Candles

stormypetrelcandle

Long before Thomas Edison, someone had another bright idea. Why not take a dead, oily bird, slip a string through its dried carcass, and use it as a candle?

It worked. Up till nearly a century ago, the seafaring communities of Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland Islands used thousands of these feathered torches (1, 2, 3). Aside from possible fire-hazard risks and odor, the idea was practical enough. No oil for a lamp? Too little wax for making a candle? No problem. The stormy petrel (or storm petrel), the so-called “devil bird” used for these candles, was a familiar sight to Scottish sailors in the subarctic.

These birds are still found in these parts during the spring and summer, but the candles are relics of the past. If you click here, a photograph of an old stormy petrel candle is available from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Twitter account. A tarred wick protrudes from the specimen’s head.

Devil, Saint, or Something Else?

Though most petrels produce stomach oils (4), the bird’s name actually is not directly connected to petrol or petroleum. The latter is a combination of the Latin words for “rock” and “oil.” On the other hand, the word petrel is thought to be an alternate or mangled form of “pitteral,” an old English expression no longer in usage today (5). The linguistic variation of the word we have probably relates to the way the bird appears to amble across the ocean’s surface (6).

In fact, the petrel’s ability to “walk on water” has been long tied to another source for its name—St. Peter, who Matthew 14:29 reports as having performed this miraculous feat with Jesus. Thus, an enduring explanation for the origin of petrel has been that it stems from French and Italian renderings of the apostle’s name (7, 8). However, this does not seem to be the case (9). Interestingly, though, Peter is the English derivative of the Latin (Petrus) and Greek (Petros) words for “rock,” both related to the petr- prefix of petroleum (10).

While the linguistics of petrel may be murky, the rationale behind the bird’s first name is clear. The “stormy” moniker originated from an age-old belief in the petrel’s ability to predict tempestuous weather. A congregation of these creatures flocking near ships was taken as a sign by sailors that a storm was on its way (11, 12). Unfortunately, that ominous reputation is what earned the birds nicknames like “Waterwitch,” Satanique, and Oiseau du diable (literally “devil bird”) (13).

Many seafarers harbored negative attitudes towards stormy petrels, yet such contempt was not universal. Some sailors saw in the birds’ appearance a sort of blessing, a warning that enabled them to anticipate and prepare best they could for oncoming gales and thrashing waves. Thus, one nickname, “Mother Carey’s Chicken,” supposedly derives from Mater cara, a Latin epithet for the Virgin Mary. But just as notions connecting the bird’s name to St. Peter are disputed, so too is this idea (14). What we’re left with is a bit of a mystery.

More Light?

Even if no etymological links exist to those Biblical figures, stormy petrels are no more feathered demons than many other supposed devil birds. In fact, petrels are not the only avian creatures to have been used as feathered torches. Penguins (15) and the extinct great auks (16) have also served the same purpose. I do wonder, though, if the use of petrels as candles is related somehow to how strongly Orkney and Shetland denizens of the past felt towards these birds. Perhaps more light will be shed eventually on this subject.

Sources:

  1. Brox, J. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. p. 21.
  2. Rossotti, H. Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 51.
  3. O’Dea, WT. “Artificial Lighting Prior to 1800 and its Social Effects”. Folklore. Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1951). p. 315. (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.)
  4. Place, AR, et al. “Physiological Basis of Stomach Oil Formation in Leach’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma Leucorhoa)” The Auk. Vol. 106, No. 4 (Oct., 1989). pp. 687–699.
  5. “Petrel”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petrel.
  6. Fraser, I, Gray, J. Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2013. p. 44.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  8. Swainson, C. The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds. London: Elliot Stock, 1886. p. 211.
  9. Fraser, I, Gray, J. p. 44.
  10. “Peter”, “Petroleum”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peter, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum.
  11. Newell, V. p. 56.
  12. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  13. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  14. Swainson, C. pp. 211–212.
  15. Rossotti, H. p. 51.
  16. O’Dea, WT. p. 315.

 

Scarecrow Season

scarecrow

It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.

Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.

Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the U.K. actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!

Making Them Scary (Sort of)                   

The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.

The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).

In many cases, ancient strawmen also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)

Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.

A New Era

Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Strawman figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.

So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.

Sources:

  1. Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
  2. Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
  3. Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals”. JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
  4. Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
  5. Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas”, 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
  6. Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management”. Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.

Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

swallowTattoo

Why have seadogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life onboard a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.

Sources:

  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration”, Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration”, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  4. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, A.W. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings”, 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.

A Fly-by-Night Operation

NightSkyBirds

Many birds make their seasonal departures and returns when people are least likely to see them—at night. No wonder folks long ago believed that these creatures migrated to the moon. Little, though, did they suspect the stars’ role in such journeys.

Navigating by the Stars

Before developing sophisticated GPS devices and even the magnetic compass, we humans relied on the constellations for guidance during nightly travels. So what if birds happened to use the stars in a similar manner? Sure, it may sound a bit farfetched at first. However, studies from over the past few decades indicate that for many species this is likely the case. In fact, certain birds depend on constellations as guideposts, so much so that researchers have discovered that heavy clouds can obstruct their view and, in turn, lead them astray, requiring the creatures to later correct their flights.

Like these birds, our ancestors, too, used astronomical formations as navigational aids. By identifying clusters of stars into constellations, earlier explorers were capable of making extensive expeditions over land and voyages over sea, long before the inventions of satellite technology and electronic communications. Connecting the night’s starry dots into linear forms was critical for orienting purposes. Some folks today still use the stars in this way.

An Interstellar Assembly of Fowl

The human practice of studying the stars has resulted in some interesting constellations, as societies easily found inspiration in their own myths as well as in the creatures around them. Among the most familiar bird-related constellations in the West are the Eagle (Aquila), Dove (Columba), Raven (Corvus), Swan (Cygnus), Crane (Grus), Peacock (Pavo), and Toucan (Tucana) (1, 2). Stargazers in other places, of course, generated different names for the same combinations. For instance, the Arabian equivalent to the constellation Lyra is sometimes referred to as the Vulture (3). In that same constellation, some aborigine people of southeast Australia see instead a Mallee-fowl (4). Different constellations also appear only to specific societies (not unlike a kind of Rorschach test), as in the case of a large Emu constellation recognized as well by Australian aborigines (5).

The Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada associated certain stars with birds. In their folklore, the constellation commonly referred to as the “Big Dipper” or Ursa Major is related as seven birds hunting a bear. The birds, all represented by individual stars, include a Chickadee, Blue Jay, and Pigeon, among others. They attempt to trail the ursine from the spring until fall, but only the Robin is at last able to kill the great bear. Interestingly, the Mi’kmaq’s astronomical interpretation operates as well as a just-so story, in that it seeks to explain why the robin has a red breast and why fall foliage turns red (both, according to the tale, due to the bear’s massive bloodshed) (6).

Starry Nights, Starry Flights

As mentioned earlier, ornithologists began learning decades ago that birds can use the constellations for navigational purposes. In the mid-20th century, Franz Sauer was the first to discover that such a thing was even possible. He ran numerous experiments on European warblers which led him to conclude that the birds have the ability to orient themselves directionally by the stars during autumnal migration periods. Another prominent researcher in this field, Stephen Emlen has worked extensively on indigo buntings (7, 8). He has stated, “Numerous species have been examined, and it appears that the ability to orient by the stars is widespread among birds that migrate at night” (9).

Interestingly enough, researchers use the full moon as a lit backdrop for tracking birds during these nocturnal migrations. As a bird flies over the moon, its silhouette is recorded via a photographic telescope. One such facility that routinely conducts such studies is Indiana’s Chipper Woods Bird Observatory (10). Another is New Hampshire’s Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, responsible for this YouTube video of several passing birds over a full moon. Of course, with spring on the way, more and more birds will be making such nocturnal migrations.

Sources:

  1. Cornelius, G. The Starlore Handbook: An Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
  2. “Constellation Names”, Constellation Guide: http://www.constellation-guide.com/constellation-names/
  3. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 69.
  4. Norris, R. “Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: Calendars”, Australia Telescope National Facility: http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/calendar.htm.
  5. Norris, R. “Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: The Emu in the Sky”, Australia Telescope National Facility: http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/emu.htm.
  6. Dempsey, F. “Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper”, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 102, No. 2, April 2008. pp. 59-61.
  7. Moon Watching: Studying Birds that Migrate at Night”, Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Indianapolis, IN: http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/moon.htm.
  8. Emlen, S.T. “The Stellar-Orientation System of a Migratory Bird”, p. 3: http://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/bionb221/WIM/readings/Emlen%20%281975%29%20-%20The%20stellar-orientation%20system%20of%20a%20migratory%20bird.pdf. (Also appeared in Scientific American. Vol. 233, August 1975. pp. 102-111.)
  9. Emlen, S.T.
  10. Moon Watching: Studying Birds that Migrate at Night”, Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Indianapolis, IN.

Cultural “Foot” Notes

crowsfeet

Folks often focus on the plumage of our feathered friends, overlooking their feet. However, besides serving an array of specialized functions, these structures have significantly impacted the history of human language, folklore, and, yes, even cuisine.

“Crow’s Feet”                                                              

It’s no secret. As we age, wrinkles form on the face, and the claw-like marks that appear under or along the outer corner of the eyes are likened to the feet of crows. This expression, still quite common today, dates back at least to 14th-century England, when Geoffrey Chaucer used it—with negative connotation regarding the feminine aging process—in his Troilus and Creseyde (1). Speculation exists as to the choice of the crow. Some believe this is due to the bird’s relationship with witchcraft and death (2, 3). Maybe, though, the crow’s association with wisdom and intelligence as well as the bird’s well-known habit for the extended rearing of its offspring were also factors. After all, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls cites the raven for its wisdom and the crow for its caring calls (4). Perhaps the enduring popularity of the “crow’s feet” term lies in part to its power as a metaphoric badge of wisdom and compassionate maturity.

A Crane’s Foot in the Family Tree

Another widely used word in our language derives as well from yet another bird’s foot, in this instance, that of the crane. The origin of the word “pedigree” has a long history, going back beyond Chaucer, to a period of time not that long after William the Conqueror and the Normans invaded England in 1066. Back then, families began illustrating their genealogical connections to the monarchy. The angled foot-like sections within these charts were thought to look a lot like a “crane’s foot” and, thus, were called such, but in French, pied du grue. This phrase developed into the word “pedigree” (5, 6). Today, of course, we refer to genealogical charts as “family trees” instead of “crane’s feet”.

The Foot Capable of One Fatal Blow

More than just a source of poetic inspiration and colloquialisms, a bird’s foot can deliver something much more lethal. This is definitely the case with the cassowary. Indigenous to parts of Australia and Indonesia, this large creature has acquired a frightening reputation. The notoriety is well warranted. It’s due to the bird’s sharp claws, especially the inner one, which is capable of gashing any animal (including humans) to death. Generally not aggressive, this is definitely one creature not to be provoked. Nevertheless, on the island of New Guinea, tribal people do hunt the cassowary, traditionally using its feathers and bones for items such as headdresses, jewelry, and tools. These folks also take the bird’s claws. They serve a rather fitting function—as daggers (7).

No Feet? Three Feet?

When first brought back to Europe from New Guinea during the 16th century, birds of paradise specimens fascinated the public. These creatures’ long, ornate tail feather were unlike anything Europeans had seen before. Adding to the bird’s mystique, natives of the South Pacific country typically clipped the legs and feet from the skins. Thus, Europeans initially thought these birds didn’t have any (8). This notion, though, was not unprecedented. Many people in the West at this time thought that swallows and house martins lacked feet as well. These small birds, in fact, were represented as the footless martlet (merlette or merlot) on seals, coats-of-arms, and other heraldic ornamentation (9, 10). The martlet is symbolic of swiftness as in traveling, or in fighting on the battlefield (11). On the other side of the world, in China and Japan, artistic renderings of another avian creature sometimes appeared with an extra leg—the three-legged crow. There is some debate, though, about the exact meaning of this as a symbol (12, 13, 14). As to the birds of paradise, no one now disputes that they have two feet!

Chicken Toes

Chicken “fingers” are a popular treat, especially with children. Though not really appendages, one thing’s definitely clear—they’re not toes! Fried chicken feet, however, are consumed in many places throughout the world, including parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean (15, 16, 17). In fact, they’re considered a delicacy in China, where the U.S. and Britain export them. Although I have never tasted them, I have occasionally seen packaged chicken feet in mainstream grocery stores in the South. I have even heard of folks, particularly in the Appalachian region, eating them (18). The dish is far from popular, even in that region, though. And I have my doubts that such culinary fare will ever become mainstream in the United States, no matter how well received it remains in other parts of the world.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 170.
  2. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 121.
  3. Walker, B. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1988. p. 398.
  4. Chaucer, G. “The Parliament of Fowls”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (The Online Archive): http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/08Fowls_1_17.pdf.
  5. Ingersoll, E. p. 170.
  6. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 70.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 21-23.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 398.
  9. Ingersoll, E. p. 64.
  10. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186-187.
  11. Vinycomb, J. pp. 186-187.
  12. Werness, H.B. p. 121.
  13. Chevalier, J., Gheerbrant, A. A Dictionary of Symbols. Buchanan-Brown, J. (translator). London: Penguin Books, 1969 (1996). p. 789.
  14. Stern, H. P. Birds, Beasts, Blossoms, and Bugs: The Nature of Japan. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976. p. 86.
  15. Kasper, L.R. “Footnotes: Eating hooves and claws from China to South Africa”. The Splendid Table: http://www.splendidtable.org/story/footnotes-eating-hooves-and-claws-from-china-to-south-africa.
  16. Flock, E. “Chicken feet in China, and other animal-part delicacies we eat around the world”, 12/16/2011. The Washington Post (Blog): http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/post/chicken-feet-in-china-and-other-animal-part-delicacies-we-eat-around-the-world/2011/12/16/gIQAjdYKyO_blog.html.
  17. Gray, R. “Let them eat chicken feet: drive to sell offal and animal feet abroad as delicacies”, 9/15/2013. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/10309562/Let-them-eat-chicken-feet-drive-to-sell-offal-and-animal-feet-abroad-as-delicacies.html.
  18. Farr, S.S. My Appalachia: A Memoir. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2014. p. 78.