If Looks Could Kill

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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.

 

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Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets

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Out the flapping doors springs a little mechanical bird. Coo-coo! Coo-coo! Admittedly kitschy and somewhat annoying, it likewise has to be one of the cutest and most delightful inventions of all time.

Since emerging from the German Black Forest region in the eighteenth century (1), the cuckoo clock has become a cultural icon. If having never seen or heard one firsthand, you still likely know what one is. After all, the device appears in literature and art, even cartoons and pop music. It remains a cultural fixture of the West.

The staying power of the cuckoo is all the more impressive when considering that avian automatons have existed for more than two thousand years. Bird-themed devices that simulate the calls and motions of the real thing have exerted an alluring pull on people’s imaginations. But what are we to make of this? And, specifically, why has the cuckoo become the modern standard-bearer of avis mechanica and clockwork figures?

Ancient Feats of Fowl Engineering

As far as bird-styled mechanical clocks and automatons go, the cuckoo clock is a relative latecomer. At least a couple millennia before the Black Forest community of craftsmen popularized their iconic inventions, ancient Greek scientists had put forward their own designs. Archytas’s wooden pigeon employed weights and pressurized air for flight (2). Ktesibios’ mechanical water clock featured birds that whistled with the turning of each hour (3). Later, utilizing similar pneumatic and water principles, Hero of Alexandra and Philo of Byzantium conceived their versions of artificial singing birds (4, 5).

With the fall of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages, interest in mechanical inventions declined. Of course, such contraptions eventually returned with greater flair and refinement. For instance, inside the ninth-century Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’s lavishly furnished throne room supposedly sang mechanical birds forged in gold (6). More than a thousand years later, William Butler Yeats reimagined these warbling automata in his “Sailing to Byzantium” (7) and “Byzantium,” as the songsters represent the “artifice of eternity” for which the poems’ speaker longs. While previous literary works containing songbird gadgetry, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” suggest a leeriness towards machines (8, 9), Yeats’s poems welcome the “glory of changeless metal” over “complexities of mire or blood.” (10)

Of course, humanity’s fascination with technology continued well beyond Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). During Europe’s middle and late medieval periods, pleasure gardens and rooms featuring mechanical birds sprung up principally in the Islamic world. Such automata were noted in the palace courtyard of al-Muqtadir, the early tenth-century caliph of Baghdad (11). Technology like this developed a few centuries later in Western Europe. Around 1300, avian automata were reportedly installed at the Hesdin chateau in Artois, France (12). Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli depicted elaborate designs in his 1588 Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine, some featuring mechanical birds (13). Among the oddest of simulacrum contraptions, though, occurred one and half centuries after Ramelli’s work. The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson began demonstrating an artificial duck in 1738 that was said to mimic the actual waterfowl’s behavior, including activities such as eating and defecating (14).

About Time

The clockmakers of the Middle Ages returned to the avian theme initiated by Ktesibios. Timekeeping designs, like their automata counterparts, also steadily became more sophisticated. Syrian engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206) envisioned an “Elephant clock,” which atop a pachyderm replica included a whistling mechanical bird (15). Several centuries later, clockwork masterpieces in Western Europe featured mechanically animated crowing roosters. Among these, one was installed in 1573 at the cathedral of Strasburg, Germany, and another the following century within the royal apartments of Versailles, France (16). By the 1700s, the cuckoo clock emerged an exciting novelty from the southwestern mountains of Germany. Later productions included additional favorites, such as blackbirds and nightingales (17).

Feathered creatures are an obvious choice for clocks, for birds have long been linked to time. Even Yeats’s eternal songsters in “Sailing to Byzantium” trill “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Such connections have much to do with avifauna’s migratory instincts. As American writer Jim Harrison eloquently states in one his poems:

Most birds own the ancient clock of north and south, a clock that never had hands, the god-time with which the universe began. (18)

The times of day or seasons when birds are heard, thus, are rich with temporal associations. Roosters, due to their morning calls, are connected with the day and sun, just as owls, for their nocturnal habits, are to the night and the moon. Swallows return in the spring, and cuckoos in the summer, an observation noted in a sixteenth-century English poem of Geoffrey Whitney (19). Regarding the cuckoo, migratory connections, as well as the simplicity and familiarity of its call, most likely account for the bird’s popularity.

Let’s not overlook that cuckoos are likewise associated with zany, off-the-wall behavior. So as far as clocks go, not much could be more outlandishly amusing than a little bird popping out of a house-shaped clock, right?

Coo-coo! Coo-coo!

Sources:

  1. Wolff, HW. Rambles in the Black Forest. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890. pp. 178-179.
  2. Cooke, CW. Automata Old and New. London: Chiswick Press, 1893. p. 16.
  3. Truitt, ER. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. p. 4.
  4. Cooke, CW. pp. 17-24.
  5. Truitt, ER. p. 4.
  6. Treadgold, W. “The Macedonia Renaissance”. Renaissances Before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Treadgold, W (editor). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984. p. 86.
  7. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. p. 58.
  8. Hyman, WB. “‘Mathematical experiments of long silver pipes’: The Early Modern Figure of the Mechanical Bird”. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. Hyman, WB (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. pp. 145-162.
  9. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  10. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  11. Truitt, ER. p. 20.
  12. Truitt, ER. pp. 122-124.
  13. Hyman, WB. p. 151.
  14. Cooke, CW. pp. 60, 64-68.
  15. “The Elephant Clock”, Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/451402.
  16. Cooke, CW. pp. 52-54.
  17. Wolff, HW. pp. 179.
  18. Harrison, J. “Old Bird Boy”. In Search of Small Gods. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. p. 56.
  19. Lutwack, L. p. 24.

Tweet Dreams and Flights of the Imagination

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What do you see when you gaze up at a bird? Just a small flapping bundle of bones, tissue, and feathers? Maybe a winged life-form in search of a mate or on the lookout for its next meal? Perhaps a colorful songster if it’s trilling a pretty tune?

But is that all? Chances are that there’s also something calling forth to deeper dimensions of your being, beyond the surface of empirical and intellectual analysis, to those undercurrents where myth, poetry, folklore, music, and the visual arts live. To the world of dreams and the imagination, the place where deep-seated and powerful emotions play with a language all their own. And if we look closely, our feathered friends take flight from there as well.

When a Bird is not just a Bird

As Freud and other psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began exploring the human subconscious, they soon noticed the appearance of birds in their patients’ dreams. This is not surprising. “Dreams about birds are very common and extremely various,” Julia Turner remarked in her 1924 book Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream (1).

Anybody remotely aware of Freud’s research knows that he frequently ascribed sexual implications to his patients’ dreams. The subject of birds was no different. “The intimate connection between flying and the idea of a bird makes it comprehensible that the dream of flying in the case of men usually has a significance of coarse sensuality,” he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, adding that similar content revealed by female patients also indicated “longing.” (2)

The Austrian psychoanalyst’s assessments did not go unchallenged. In particular, Freud’s former protégé Carl Jung saw a greater range of dynamics at work, often extending well beyond sexuality. These aspects typically related to archetypes found in world religions and mythology. Joseph L. Henderson, one of Jung’s followers, indicated that avian creatures often symbolize spiritual release and transcendence (3). Such ideas also correspond in part to those of Julia Turner, who connected birds to a person’s “higher self,” seeing feathered animals as longstanding symbols of the soul (4). A previous post here delves more into the bird-as-spirit cultural element.

On a sidenote, the very nature of dreaming may be responsible for the long-held and widespread association of birds with the soul. In other words, the dreaming state conceivably fostered notions in early societies of a spirit separate from and capable of venturing outside the body. Stanislas Dehaene, a professor of experimental cognitive psychology at the Collége de France, touches on this idea in his 2014 book Consciousness and the Brain. “And the bird,” he adds, “seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.” (5) Dehaene briefly notes in his book several historical instances of related bird symbolism.

“Therapeutic” Meanings

Birds probably fascinated humans long before the invention of language, which may account for the many ways our winged neighbors continue to entice us. Like the pioneers of modern psychology, British ornithologist Edward A. Armstrong respected the pull that symbols can have on the mind. After all, he devoted several books to bird folklore. Though he embraced science, he also valued so-called “dream thinking” and “folk thinking.” “Probably both types of thinking are therapeutic,” he stated, “because in them the lightly buried, partly repudiated, past finds expression.” (6)

As for the various interpretations of such expressions, ideas advanced by Freudians, Jungians, and others are all probably correct—depending on the individual, his or her culture, and the circumstances. In a sense then how people decipher the avian content of the subconscious mind may be debatable. That birds still rouse feelings of hope and desire, wonder and excitement, continuing to give flight to the imagination, fortunately is not.

Sources:

  1. Turner, J. Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000 (reprint – first published in 1924 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.). p. 163
  2. Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams. Third Edition (Translator: Brill, AA). New York: Macmillan, 1923. p. 239.
  3. Henderson, JL. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man”. Jung CG, et al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968. pp. 147-156.
  4. Turner, J. pp. 162-163.
  5. Dehaene, S. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. New York: Viking Penguin. 2014. p. 1.
  6. Armstrong, EA. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Collins, 1958. p. 84.

 

In Search of the Real Will o’ Wisp

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Strange roving lights in remote areas have long perplexed eyewitnesses. What possibly could be responsible for this odd nighttime phenomena? Wandering ghosts? Mischievous demons? How about fairies or elves? This Halloween, take your pick. All have at one time or another been suggested.

Speculation has also considered some natural sources. As we shall see, a few ideas seeking to explain this eerie luminescence—known the world over by names such as Will o’ wisp, Hinkypunk, Min Min light, La Luz Mala, and Hitodama—involve birds. Do any of these “theories” help put this mystery to rest?

Birds of Light

Incredible tales have alleged the luminosity of certain avian animals. For instance, the ancient Roman historian Pliny reports in his Natural History (Book 10, Chapter 47) of birds in the German forest of Hercinia that could glow at night. In the mid-nineteenth century, an eyewitness attested to having seen an American bittern illuminating “from its breast to enable it to discover its prey” (1). A few decades later, in 1907, a publication from a local naturalists’ society in Britain linked flying owls to the enigmatic lights long associated with the paranormal (2). The support for such claims obviously remains weak.

No scientific evidence exists demonstrating that birds are capable of bioluminescence. However, such a characteristic has been detected in other lifeforms. Among these are several types of fungi. Speculation has suggested that birds nesting in rotting trees could get light-producing fungi on their feathers. Thus, according to this line of thinking, parts of these winged creatures when airborne may glow at night. While undoubtedly an intriguing idea, skepticism remains regarding fungi’s role in the Will o’ wisp sightings (3, 4).

Upon Further Reflection

Bioluminescence is not the only possible natural explanation. Light does not have to be produced by a living organism; it can also be reflected from ambient sources. And the latter process might account for some of the Will o’ wisp sightings. At certain angles, moonlight could relay off birds’ eyes (specifically their tapeta lucida) or patches of white feathers. Keep in mind, too, that water from a pond or marsh would enhance reflective possibilities. Interestingly, “ghost lights,” “corpse candles,” “elf fire,” and the like are frequently seen around bogs and rivers.

Of course, there’s little likelihood that avian creatures are involved in all sightings. Other explanations include atmospheric conditions, the combustion of released methane gas from decomposed organic material, and possible chemical reactions involving bacteria-like organisms called extremophiles (5). In addition, one cannot rule out hoaxes and mischief-makers, optical illusions, and psychological factors such as poor memory recall, the power of suggestion, and overactive imaginations. An assortment of these—not just birds—are probably behind the mysterious lights.

So, for now, the source of the Will o’ wisp is not clear.  One could say that it remains hidden in the dark.

Sources:

  1. Whitmore, WH. “Bittern”. Notes & Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc. (Third Series, Second Volume). Various authors. London: Bell & Daldy, 1962. p. 360.
  2. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 196-197.
  3. Silcock, F. “A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba”, 6/4/2004. The Owl Pages: http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Studies+and+Papers&title=Min+Min.
  4. Edwards, HGM, “Will-o’-the-Wisp: an ancient mystery with extremophile origins?”, 11/3/2014. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/372/2030/20140206.short.
  5. Edwards, HGM.

Oh, the Wonder—and Ugh, the Disgust!

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People seem to either really like or loathe starlings. Videos of these creatures’ aerial maneuvers have become Internet sensations. On the other hand, agriculture officials frequently regard the birds as avis non grata, going so far as to employ mass extermination measures in the United States. What’s with both all the love and so much hate?

Those Amazing Murmurations

A murmuration, the name for a group of starlings, is an amazing sight, something my wife likens to a moving sculpture in the sky. “Murmuration” is also the title of a short online viral video posted a few years ago by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith. In their footage, the young women are paddling in a canoe before coming across a sudden swarm of starlings. Their recorded close encounter immerses viewers in nature’s serendipitous beauty, each sweeping movement a spectacle of wonder. Watching the feathered formations bound in flight over Ireland’s River Shannon must have been something special. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, we can partake in their experience vicariously.

“A Bird Ballet”, Neels Castillon’s short film from Marseille, France, evokes similar feelings of amazement. Both his and the “Murmuration” videos are professionally edited and include music. Occasionally, one hears the wowed responses of those shooting the footage. However, the rhythmic sky dance of starlings is so mesmerizing that I prefer watching with the sound muted. No enhancements necessary!

There’s nothing like seeing starlings fly en masse. In the poem “Starlings in Winter”, Mary Oliver refers to the birds as “acrobats”. She marvels at how “they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented, then closes again …” (1). Of course, she’s just one of many poets that these birds have fascinated. Once while watching a murmuration during a coach ride, Samuel Taylor Coleridge compared the shapeshifting formations to “smoke” and “mist”, always in flux, “… expanding or contracting, thinning or condensing … thickening, deepening, blackening!” (2).

Thousands of these creatures engage in ever-changing flight maneuvers somehow without getting tangled and crashing—that’s the spectacular thing about murmurations! How do these birds do this? In the 2014 book The Thing with Feathers, ornithologist Noah Strycker devotes an entire chapter to starling flocks. There he discusses how a collection of the birds form a magnetic system while in flight, and why the number seven is significant in this process. Due to these discoveries, researchers can now generate models that successfully predict the aerial patterns of a murmuration based on its size (3).

For Many, Still Avis Non Grata                                         

Strycker touches as well on humans’ love-hate relationship with starlings. He writes about the “Murmuration” video that garnered millions of views in just a matter of days, and also of Google search results easily confirming starlings as “America’s most hated bird” (4). Only introduced to North America in 1890, the European starling ranks today among the ten most populous avian species on the continent. With millions migrating across the country, starlings are generally regarded as an invasive pest. Strycker questions whether the birds deserve their negative reputation (5). Nevertheless, for nearly 50 years, a pesticide has been employed to poison these birds. It’s a practice that continues to this day.

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that multitudes of dead starlings had been discovered in the northern parts of Nevada. At first, many residents were uncertain as to what had happened to the birds. People learned later, though, that the United States Department of Agriculture had used DRC-1339, a chemical sometimes referred to as Starlicide, to kill them. In that article, an official provides the rationale for the baiting and extermination of the starlings: “Bird feces can contaminate food and water sources, putting cattle at risk for salmonella and E. coli infections if ingested” (6). In short, the measure was performed for the sake of public safety.

The U.S. has used this chemical since 1967 to kill starlings. Once ingested, the agent quickly damages a bird’s heart and kidneys, often resulting in death within one to three days. Officials have also employed DRC-1339 to control populations of pigeons, mynas, gulls, blackbirds, ravens, crows, and other birds (7, 8, 9). Proponents of the compound tout that its toxicity is quickly degraded by exposure to sunlight and moisture. Also, most raptors, with the exception of owls, are not sensitive to the chemical. So birds of prey, as well as many mammals, that may consume the dead starlings are deemed safe. Cats, however, are at risk, and research indicates that the chemical can be “moderately toxic to fish” (10).

A Balancing Act

Several animal organizations continue to frown upon employing DRC-1339 baits. Both the National Audubon Society (11, 12) and the Humane Society of the United States (13, 14) have been critical of its use. Despite claims that DRC-1339 is relatively safe, questions remain, especially regarding whether such mass-killing measures are warranted. And the debate looks to continue, especially with the recent bad publicity in Nevada. In the balance hangs the considerate treatment of wildlife on one hand and the wellbeing of cattle and crops on the other.

Starlings are marvelous beings, easily adapting to and flourishing in new environments. While their feathered formations awe many folks, the birds still provoke fear and revulsion in others. The dynamics of how humanity perceives these creatures persist in closely bound, twisting motions just like their flight patterns. Acrobats indeed.

Sources:

  1. Oliver, M. “Starlings in Winter”. Best Poems Encyclopedia: http://www.best-poems.net/mary_oliver/poem-13085.html.
  2. Dee, T. Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life with Birds. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2009. p. 113.
  3. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 43-48.
  4. Strycker, N. pp. 29-30, 39-40.
  5. Strycker, N. pp. 40-43.
  6. Griffith, M. “Feds Under Fire for Mass Killings of Starlings in Nevada”, 3/24/2015. Associated Press. MSN.com: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/feds-under-fire-for-mass-killings-of-starlings-in-nevada/ar-AA9WqTh?ocid=AARDHP.
  7. Feare, C.J. “The use of Starlicide® in preliminary trials to control invasive common myna Acridotheres tristis populations on St. Helena and Ascension islands, Atlantic Ocean”. Conservation Evidence (online journal), Vol. 7, 2010. pp. 52-61: http://www.conservationevidence.com/collection/7.
  8. “Compound DRC-1339 Concentrate—Staging Areas”. Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339StagingAreas.pdf.
  9. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide)”. Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339Starlicide.pdf.
  10. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide)”. Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001.
  11. Jonsson, P. “Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA acknowledges a hand in one mass bird death”, 1/20/2010. The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2011/0120/Bye-Bye-Blackbird-USDA-acknowledges-a-hand-in-one-mass-bird-death.
  12. Williams, T. “Red Baiting”, 11/2001. Audubon Magazine (online archive): http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0111.html.
  13. “What to Do About Crows”, 10/3/2009. The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/crows/tips/solving_problems_crows.html.
  14. Griffith, M.

Look but Don’t Touch: Watching out for Nesting Birds

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Look but don’t touch. This was a lesson I learned early on as a young boy, staring intently along with my grandmother at a bird nest. Inside a shrub-like tree, a bowl of straw lay almost hidden. Within it, several nestlings, their mouths wide open, were awaiting their next meal.

After a quick look, we hurried away, soon noticing that the mother robin returned with sustenance for her young. Folklore, of course, advises people to not harm bird nests, for doing so was commonly thought to bring bad luck (1). However, for many children, superstitious appeals are not necessary, as a simple reverence for nature may be more persuasive. Why disturb a nest? Instead, by just watching, all people, no matter their age or occupation, can spend days learning about the behavior of our winged neighbors.

A Few Famous Nest Watchers

Such appreciation is expressed eloquently in the beginning of Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, which notes his frequent engagement afar with a pair of nesting mockingbirds: “… every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, / Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.” (2)  The perils of nature may have eventually laid claim to one of the birds, but the poet’s powerful connection to them, especially the surviving bird, is undeniable.

As a few literary examples demonstrate, birds do sometimes choose risky locations for their nesting spots. Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest” relates an amazing find within a freshly cut hayfield—a nest of young birds somehow surviving untouched by a passing blade (3). In John Clare’s “The Pettichap’s Nest”, a narrator marvels at a warbler’s eggs precariously placed by a well-traveled horse-and-wagon road. “Yet,” he remarks in the poem, “like a miracle, in Safety’s lap / They still abide unhurt, and out of sight,” housed in a nest “Built like an oven.” (4)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest” presents perhaps what may be the worst place imaginable for most birds—the outskirts of a battlefield. However, in this poem, the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, while planning a military campaign, decides to protect a swallow nesting on the ruler’s makeshift dwelling. Even when his army finally packs up its belongings, the tent is ordered to remain, “Loosely flapping, torn and tattered, / Till the brood was fledged and flown.” (5)

Birdhouses and Backyard Birding

People, having an affinity towards nesting birds, usually desire to offer some form of protection to the winged caregivers and their offspring. This is a big reason for the introduction and success of birdhouses. We enjoy watching and hearing bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, finches, wrens, and many other of our feathered friends. In fact, it’s not uncommon for folks to have several nest boxes set up near their home, a practice commonly referred to today as “backyard birding.”

The use of human-made birdhouses actually goes back at least five centuries to parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. These structures were often, and still are, freestanding entities placed near human residences. They’re typically constructed out of wood, but materials over time have varied, including clay, gourds, and, most recently, concrete (6). Designs tend to be simple and box-like for housing one bird nest. Ornate assortments also exist, consisting of decorative models with multiple nesting compartments made to resemble castles, palaces, ships, and other elaborate abodes.

Not all birdhouses are built as isolated units. Enclosures for nesting birds are sometimes constructed as part of a building’s façade. The country of Turkey, especially the city of Istanbul, is renowned for such architectural structures (7). Of course, several kinds of common birds are notorious throughout the world for nesting in parts of human dwellings not intended as “birdhouses.” Pigeons display a fondness for ledges, for instance, while certain swifts like to use chimneys.

Some Quick Guides for Getting Started

Birds generally don’t require fancy amenities, but they do need a dry, well-ventilated space that’s just the right size for a particular species’ entry and residence. Using the interactive tools on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch’s site, you can quickly determine which types of birds, based on region and habitat, are found in your area. Out of those, think about which ones you’d like to attract.

Also, to help you offer a safe, sturdy, and accommodating home for your avian guests, an illustrated guide with tips and information on birdhouses is available, as are step-by-step instructions on the proper way to install a camera within a nest box and monitor nesting activity.

Teachers can even download a NestWatch lesson plan packet for their students. Course information includes how to identify local birds by their song and type of nest, guidelines and legal requirements for observing nests, and methods for collecting and reporting data.

With the lesson plan packets and latest technology, you can look all you want. But still, no touching.

Happy watching!

Note: This post first appeared a few weeks ago on the Your Wild Life science website.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. 8, 114, 115.
  2. Whitman, W. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178710.
  3. Frost, R. “The Exposed Nest”, Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt, 1920. New York: Bartleby.com, 1999: http://www.bartleby.com/119/21.html.
  4. Clare, J. “The Pettichap’s Nest”, John Clare Info pages: http://www.johnclare.info/sanada/4Rm2.htm#PETTICHAPS.
  5. Longfellow, H. W. “The Emperor’s Bird’s-Nest”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Maine Historical Society Web Site: http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=134.
  6. Cranmer, T. “Nesting Cavities and the History of the Birdhouse”, Cranmer Earth Design: http://www.earthdesign.ca/bihi.html.
  7. “Bird Houses in Turkey”, Turkish Cultural Foundation: http://www.turkishculture.org/architecture/bird-houses-104.htm.

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.