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.)
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A Salute to National Birds

quetzel

Several comments from my last post got me thinking. Most countries have national birds. But why? What do they matter? And which characteristics make for an effective one?

The custom is widespread, a heraldic vestige dating back to ancient empires and the once-flourishing practice of coats of arms. Countries as culturally diverse and far away from one another as Finland (the whooper swan), India (the Indian peafowl), and South Africa (the blue crane) give a nod to their avian preferences.1 As previously noted, the bald eagle was declared part of the United States’ official symbol in 1782, back when the country adopted its Great Seal.

Not all birds are sanctioned as national representatives; some have become accepted by consensus or through online voting. Such is the case with the United Kingdom’s European robin.2 It holds true as well for the common loon, a traditional but unofficial favorite of Canada. This is why Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project is conducting an online poll for selecting the top vote-getter from a bevy of avian candidates. Thus far, the common loon is leading. The aim of this project, once complete, is to persuade the Canadian government to act, making the nomination official.

Identity Politics

Generally speaking, the national bird is a cultural favorite that demonstrates some symbolic significance. The chosen symbol usually connotes a sense of respect, which undoubtedly accounts for the popularity of the eagle, a large bird associated with strength and expansive vision, as well as the ability to soar to great heights. Yet much more seems required for becoming a national bird than mere symbolism alone.

Most national birds, from best I can tell, fulfill three qualities:

  • The avifauna are native species found throughout many regions of a nation (either during breeding or wintering periods, or both).
  • Their features (and/or cultural relevance) are exceptional or distinctive in some manner (e.g., color, size, song) in relation to other native birds, as well as to other national birds.
  • They inspire special devotion and graphical representation within the national domain.

Thus, the first factor explains why the African fish eagle is appropriate for Zambia and the gyrfalcon for Iceland but not vice versa. The second factor provides further justification for why the colorful keel-billed toucan of Belize, the call-carrying bare-throated bellbird of Paraguay, the enormous emu of Australia, and the diminutive kiwi of New Zealand are national birds. And the third factor involves the depiction of these creatures on flags, currency, stamps, and the like. Think of this as the public relations campaign aspect of celebrating a national bird.

Vexillology? Numismatics?

Those familiar with The Big Bang Theory sit-com, may remember the fictional video podcast series called “Fun with Flags.” For their nerdy online project, hosts Sheldon and his girlfriend Amy regularly shared factoids about vexillology. For those unfamiliar with the term, that’s the study of flags—and, yes, the duo’s stilted conservation was that comically technical.

Unfortunately, poor Sheldon suffers from ornithophobia. However, if he and Amy had managed to record a podcast examining birds on national flags, they would have noted that very few include avian images, only about a dozen or so. And, not surprisingly, roughly a third of those display raptors, mostly eagles. Among the most unusual of birds featured on flags are Dominica’s imperial Amazon parrot, Uganda’s grey-crowned crane, and Kiribati’s frigatebird.

Interestingly, while the Andean condor is considered the national bird of several South American countries,3 its presence graces only a single national flag, that of Ecuador. The raptor however is among several avifauna depicted simultaneously on both flags and currency, a group that also includes Mexico’s golden eagle4 and Papua New Guinea’s bird-of-paradise.5 By the way, here’s another word worthy of a Sheldon podcast: numismatics. If you were wondering, that’s the term for the study of currency.

National Treasures

Of all the national birds, the one that arguably occupies the most prominent status is Guatemala’s resplendent quetzal. Valued for its beautiful feathers, this creature was linked centuries ago to two major Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl and Quetzalpetlatl.6 In honor of the bird’s historical and cultural significance, the quetzal not only appears today on Guatemala’s flag, banknotes, and coins, but its name has been conferred upon the national monetary system.7 Thus, rather than dollars or pesos, financial transactions are made in quetzals.

A lot of countries, of course, display a variety of birds and other animals on their currency. Doing so is a way to increase awareness of native wildlife and encourage conservation.8 Featuring creatures on flags and as national birds, national mammals, national reptiles, etc., is another means of cultivating an appreciation of the many lifeforms and environments in our home countries and abroad. For me, these are the most important reasons for having a national bird or national any-other-creature.

Sources:

  1. Long, A. “National Bird Day – Time to Take Pride in Your Birds,” 1/5/2016. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/national-bird-day-time-take-pride-your-birds.
  2. Mathiesen, K. “Robin Wins Vote for UK‘s National Bird,” 6/10/2015. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/10/robin-wins-vote-uk-national-bird-britain.
  3. Long, A.
  4. Armstrong, EA. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 73. (Note: arguments based on Aztec legend do exist for the northern crested caracara over the golden eagle as the actual bird on Mexico’s flag.)
  5. Armstrong, EA. p. 150.
  6. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Metro Books, 2007. pp. 212–213.
  7. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 5.
  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Voices: 5 Countries Putting All Their Money on Species,” 8/8/2014. National Geographic: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/08/5-countries-putting-all-their-money-on-species/.