Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets

cuckooClocks_JML

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.

Birds in Buddhism

buddhist

“I don’t know anything about consciousness,” a Zen master once declared. “I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing.”

At the time Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, was responding to a query from a clinical psychologist (1). For lots of people, questions about consciousness can spin into heady discussions. However, Suzuki Roshi’s answer, both simple and poignant, sidesteps any intellectual grasping. His response points to awareness, not as an idea, but rather as experience. Here he refers to a common, everyday activity. Indeed, birds are frequently calling. But how often are we able to hear them over our thoughts?

That the late Zen master referred to singing birds is likely not a coincidence. Our winged neighbors are addressed similarly within Buddhist scriptures. The Maharatnakuta Sutra, for instance, likens the Buddha’s voice to the songs of birds (2). While explicating the Amitabha Sutra, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh notes, “If we live in mindfulness and our mind is concentrated, we can also hear the teachings of the Dharma in the sound of the wind and the sound of the birds.”(3) In essence, such aural qualities can be viewed as invitations to awaken to the present moment.

Symbols of Attachment and Enlightenment

Buddhism, of course like other religions, also employs avian imagery for figurative purposes. In art illustrating the cycle of suffering, the junglefowl rooster is centrally depicted within the Buddhist bhavacakra or great wheel of life. Native to India, this bird and its links to lust and attachment (4) have a long and widespread history. A more flattering image, on the other hand, is afforded the white heron and egret. Due to their graceful movements and patient concentration, these creatures have come to represent meditation (5) and spiritual practice. Herons with white plumage regularly appear in Buddhist poetry, the most notable being “The Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” attributed to the ninth-century Chinese teacher Dongshan Liangjie (6).

Buddhist poems occasionally sprinkle in observations regarding birds. Two important Japanese writers, Bassho and Ryokan, both mention them. So, too, does the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen. In one poem, he compares the way a white heron disappears in a snowy winter landscape to the practice of bowing (7). Below is another Dogen piece, as translated by Brian Unger and Kazuaki Tanahashi:

Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.(8)

The Zen master’s verse here employs an avian metaphor for awakened individuals of “Nondependence of Mind.” The idea is evocative of a much older teaching. Briefly in The Dhammapada, the historical Buddha compares the paths of fully enlightened beings to the “flight of birds in the sky” (9). In Dogen’s analogy, the creatures move across water; whereas, in the Buddha’s they pass through air. Regarding the latter, scholar Edward Conze explains, “The saints have their range in the Void [selfless non-attachment], and one can no more discern their tracks than those of the birds through the sky.”(10)

Going Beyond Death

Another notable winged creature in Japanese Buddhist poetry is the cuckoo. Haiku and other short verse often allude to the songbird as sign of imminent death and subsequent rebirth in a better realm. The reason for these connections, scholar Yoel Hoffmann seems to suggest, involves the dual roles of this bird as both harbinger of spring and deadly brood parasite (11). He provides numerous translations of such poems. Here’s one example:

Cuckoo,
let’s go—how bright
the western skies!(12)

Though the poet writes of his impending demise, his tone is neither gloomy nor fearful. The cycle of life continues, perhaps to a realm more conducive for enlightenment. “In the Jodo, or Pure Land, sects of Buddhism,” explains Hoffman, “it is believed that the dead are born anew in the Pure Land in the West, ruled by Amida, the Buddha of Everlasting Light.” (13) Death, thus, may be greeted not with dread but instead with optimistic acceptance. The next world may afford better opportunities for enlightenment. [On a side note, the visual arts often associate the peacock with Amida (or Amitabha) Buddha (14); whereas, Japanese death poetry interestingly favors the cuckoo.]

The notion of rebirth has been explained and imagined in many ways, with the idea first presented in the Hindu Upanishads (15). One finds the concept later among the earliest Indian Buddhist scriptures, especially in the fable-like stories collectively known as the Jataka. These tales, recalling past lives of certain members and associates of the early Buddhist community, often portray human personalities as previously existing as animals. According to the Jataka, the historical Buddha took many such forms before his enlightenment, including avian ones like the peacock, goose, vulture and quail (16, 17). In another tradition, the ancient Tibetan text The Precious Garland of the Dharma of the Birds depicts the Buddha as a cuckoo who offers spiritual instruction to the other birds (18). Again, the nature of rebirth and the emphasis on it varies in Buddhist teachings, and animals are considered just one form of possible rebirth among several (19, 20).

Other Birds in Scriptures

While not abundant, additional avian references in Buddhist scriptures exist. At least a couple are nominally derivative. For instance, near the Indian city of Rajgir stands a famous mountain called Vulture Peak. This is where the historical Buddha frequently gave talks to his followers. Scholar Edward Conze explains, “Its name was derived from the beak-like shape of the formations, a kind of rugged and jumbled natural amphitheater appropriate for such sublime teachings.”(21) Probably the most obtuse avian reference, though, relates to one of the Buddha’s most famous disciples, Sariputra. His name is based on that of his mother, who—apparently due to her large or accentuated eyes—was named after the sarika (22). The sarika, by the way, is actually a real bird. We know it as the mynah (23).

Buddhist scriptures do occasionally mention mythical avian forms. For example, in the Lotus Sutra, among the guardians of the Buddhist teachings are listed the garudas, reminiscent of the eagle-like creature in Hinduism, and the kalavinkas, birds supposedly unrivaled in their ability to warble beautiful songs (24). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen notes that the “… garuda is occasionally used as a synonym for Buddha…” (25). The phoenix, popular in other religions, holds significance for some Buddhists, too. According to scholar Thomas Cleary, the mythical creature can represent in Zen “… an enlightened one, rising from the ashes of the death of ego …” (26).

Summary

While this post focuses primarily on birds in Buddhist teachings and in literature influenced by the religion, more could obviously be said about our winged neighbors, particularly regarding their role in ceremonies. Of these, merit-based animal releases and the ritualized “sky burial” of Tibetan Buddhists come to mind. Since this post is getting rather long, though, perhaps I can return to those subjects at another time. If you’re interested, do feel free to click on the above hyperlinks, which lead to articles regarding such practices.

Like the previous birds-in-religion posts, this one is only intended as an overview. For next time, let’s move on to several Chinese religions that have co-existed for centuries with Buddhism. We will find more birds there!

Sources:

  1. Suzuki, S. Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki. Chadwick, D. (editor). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. p. 107.
  2. Zhang, Z. (editor). A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras: Selections from the Maharatnakuta Sutra. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1983. p. 77.
  3. Hanh, T.N. Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2003. p. 67.
  4. Corless, R.J. The Vision of Buddhism. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1989. p. 167.
  5. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 214.
  6. Leighton, T.D. “Dongshan and the Teaching of Suchness.” Zen Masters. Heine, S., Wright, D.S. (editors). New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 50–52.
  7. Dogen, E. “Bowing Formally.” Unger, B., Tanahashi, K. (translators). Moon in a Dewdrop. Tanahashi, K. (editor). New York: North Point Press, 1985. p. 214.
  8. Dogen E., “On Nondependence of Mind.” Ibid 7.
  9. The Dhammapada. Easwaran, E. (translator). Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. p. 102.
  10. Conze, E. The Buddha’s Law among the Birds. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1996. p. 57.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co. Inc., 1986. p. 142.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. p. 204.
  13. Hoffmann, Y. p. 141.
  14. Werness, H.B. p. 320.
  15. Keown, D. (editor). Dictionary of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 235.
  16. Conze, E. p. 49.
  17. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. Stories of the Buddha: Being Selections from the Jataka. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989. pp. 85–89.
  18. Conze, E. p. 57.
  19. Keown, D. p. 235.
  20. Harvey, P. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp. 32–39, 44–46, 59–60.
  21. Conze, E. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001. p. xvii of introduction.
  22. Lopez, D.S. The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988. p. 151.
  23. Olivelle, P. (editor). The Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 351.
  24. Reeves, G. (translator). The Lotus Sutra. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. pp. 54–55, 66, 374–375, 463–464.
  25. Fischer-Schreiber, I., Ehrhard, F-K, Diener, M.S., Kohn, M.H. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1991. p. 76.
  26. Cleary, T. (translator). Book of Serenity: One Hundred Zen Dialogues. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2005. p. 458.

Fowled Up: Funny and Offbeat Names for Birds

catbird

Many of our chosen monikers for birds are nothing short of odd. At times, they’re outright humorous. Even several scientific terms are not immune to chuckles, especially for folks with a limited acquaintance of Latin. Then there are those familiar bird nicknames that have evolved into coarse slang. Indeed, at times our winged neighbors and human language have tangoed to form quite an intriguing pair.

Rolling off the Tongue

Although many of the names we have for birds make sense, the words themselves often seem strange at first to the ear, names such as bobwhites, chickadees, killdeers, kittawakes, rufous-sided towhees, whippoorwills, and willets, among a plethora of others. However, the source for these monikers could not be any more natural. All of these birds are identified by the calls that they produce, as if they were simply introducing themselves by saying, “My name is . . . so-and-so.”

This my-name-is-approach holds true as well for the coot and cuckoo. Both of these birds are dubbed for their peculiar cries. However, in their cases, their distinctive call-based names interestingly hold other connotations. Due to the offbeat sounds they generate, these birds have been associated respectively with idiocy and madness (1, 2). A “mad old coot” remains a common pejorative for describing a silly or stupid elderly man (3). And advertising, of course, has taken up the crazy cuckoo idea. Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, the cartoon personality on the Cocoa Puffs cereal box, famously goes loco in commercials, dramatically giving in at last to his wild cravings for the cereal. Oh, Sonny!

More Etymological Oddities

As discussed in last week’s post, several birds were named for the way they look rather than how they sound. Relying on this strategy, European explorers and naturalists often adopted Old World bird names for those they encountered in the Americas. A few birds, though, were named for affinities they share with other things. For instance, the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church provided inspiration for the northern cardinal’s moniker, as the bird’s color and crest were evocative of the cloaks and galeri already worn by those clerics (4, 5).

In several circumstances, other animals played roles in the labels bestowed upon our feathered friends. The catbird, for example, is named for the manner in which its call is thought to resemble that of a small, young feline (6, 7); the cowbird for frequently feeding off the insects near grazing cattle (8); and the anhinga or “snakebird” for the way its long S-like neck, when swimming for food, extends out of a lake or marsh, bobbing forward (9).

Mousebirds also exist, but strangely enough they are not named after the rodent—nor are they pursued as prey by catbirds! Diana Wells, the author of 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, explains that “mouse” in this case comes from mase, the old Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird” (10, 11). As for dogbirds or “dirds,” they only exist online such as on websites like sadanduseless.com!

Bird Names Gone Wild

Not only are some common names unusual, quite a few of the scientific ones are seemingly peculiar as well, at least initially to someone like myself who doesn’t know Latin well. For example, Circus cyaneus is not related at all to traveling, big-top, blue-tent amusement; this is the name for the marsh hawk. Sturnus vulgaris has nothing to do with stern warnings about crude, profane language; it’s the formal term for a starling. And while Turdus maximus sounds bad, like some archaic form of schoolboy bathroom humor, that term, too, is rather innocent—just the scientific name for the Tibetan blackbird.

But now that we’re on the subject of monikers-that-appear-to-be-offensive-but-aren’t, let’s not overlook several bird names that lend themselves erroneously to sexual innuendo. A couple obvious ones are well-known for their share of adolescent chortles: tits and boobies. As William Young notes in his The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat, neither of these terms has anything whatsoever to do with the female human anatomy. Titr, from which the former bird’s name derives, is simply Icelandic for “small” (12). Meanwhile, the other birds are known as “boobies” due to how explorers deemed the creatures’ appearance and behavior as comical (13). Incidentally, the celebrated ornithologist and artist John James Audubon thought the name more fitting for folks who belittled these or any other birds as stupid (14).

Nowhere to Go but up?               

Before ending this post, I’d be remiss to at least not touch upon a couple bird nicknames that actually have evolved (or perhaps, more aptly, digressed) into sexualized expressions. For example, here in the United States, the nickname for owls has become slang for the female breasts. This appropriation is probably due to the prominence of the creatures’ eyes; however, the age-old connection between these birds and witchcraft, as a mysterious feminine power, may play an important secondary role.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the owl euphemism is relatively recent—late twentieth century—as opposed to another common one, the name for a rooster that’s synonymous with a part of the male human reproductive system. The website notes the latter word’s contextualized usage as far back as the early seventeenth century (15), as does another source, tracing it to a pun used in Shakespeare’s play The Life of King Henry the Fifth (2.1.53) (16).

The strange ways in which we identify with birds, right? At this point, what more’s to be said? With these last few looks into the offbeat connections between linguistics and our winged neighbors, this post may have delved as low as decency permits. Next week, let’s take flight from the gutter!

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 33, 48.
  2. Young, W. The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2014. pp. 54, 68–71.
  3. Farmer, J.S. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: C to Fizzle. Volume 2. London: Harrison and Sons, 1891. p. 178.
  4. Wells, D. pp. 25–26.
  5. Young, W. p. 34.
  6. Wells, D. p. 148.
  7. Young, W. pp. 39–40.
  8. Wells, D. pp. 37–38.
  9. Wells, D. pp. 229–230.
  10. Wells, D. p. 253.
  11. Young, W. p. 44.
  12. Young, W. p. 42.
  13. Young, W. p. 42.
  14. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 367–368.
  15. Harper, D. Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com.
  16. Farmer, J.S. p. 135.

Love’s in the Air

DoveLove

If romantic love has a holiday then it has to be St. Valentine’s Day. But this was not always the case. As strange as it may sound, we likely owe this popular notion in part to an English poem composed more than 600 years ago—a poem about a bunch of birds written for a 14-year-old monarch and his soon-to-be-wife.

Nature Calls

Although Valentine’s Day has ties to the wild, drunken festivities of the ancient Romans’ Lupercalia celebration (1), one of the first documented connections made between Valentine’s Day and romantic coupling actually comes from the late Middle Ages. During this time, around 1381, Geoffrey Chaucer—yes, that same chap responsible for The Canterbury Tales—penned his dedication to a young King Richard II and his fiancée, Anne of Bohemia (2, 3). A rather curious work, Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls”(4) sets out in exploration of love and its mysteries. The poem includes a dream populated with Roman divinities and heroes before eventually moving toward a beautiful pastoral setting where an assembly of talking birds are gathering. In fact, birds of various kinds are arriving there on Valentine’s Day, we are told, for the purpose of selecting a mate.

In Chaucer’s poem, all sorts of fowl—goose, duck, peacock, stork, kite, robin, owl, and more—congregate on this annual occasion. This year the creatures settle near the great goddess Nature for a debate involving several eagles. One after another, the birds are frequently introduced in association with a particular characteristic, not unlike the moralizing bestiaries of this period. As examples, the cormorant is described as gluttonous and the raven is noted for its intelligence and wisdom. Interestingly, Chaucer does not specifically name the vulture, which was believed by some people at the time capable of reproducing without need of a male partner.

Feathers of Lust, Love, and Lechery

Overall, the poet maintains traditional stereotypes when citing particular birds. For instance, he links the dove and the sparrow with the goddess of love. Historically, deities concerned with amorous relations, such as Aphrodite, Venus, and Ishtar, had long been depicted with these birds (5, 6). Chaucer was likely well aware of these non-Christian motifs. Even our language today reflects this age-old connection, as with the rhyming descriptor “lovey-dovey” (7). But both doves and sparrows signified more than just love; they also were metaphors for sexual desire (8, 9, 10).

The same could be said of the “popinjay” or parrot, a bird that may be interpreted in the poem as lecherous (11). Again, like the previously mentioned fowl, parrots have been associated with affectionate and lustful feelings, particularly in the East. In India, they were even popular as pets with courtesans (12). These birds, first domesticated in Asia and Africa, were introduced to Europe in the fourth-century BCE during the time of Alexander the Great (13). And, thanks to traders, parrots later found their way to England before the time of Chaucer, who also writes of a popinjay in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales.

The Dead-Beat Cuckoo

Of the many birds throughout “The Parliament of Fowls,” one is cast in particularly bad light: the Old World cuckoo. Chaucer describes her as “unkinde” and murderous. His assertions, though, come with ample reason. The poet is referring to the female cuckoo’s habit of placing her eggs in another unsuspecting bird’s nest, a practice referred to in biology as brood parasitism. This deceit in turn leads to the mother bird of that nest feeding an illegitimate hatchling. Worse yet, though, are the illegitimate offspring’s lethal actions. Eventually the young cuckoo will nudge the other birds out of the nest and to their deaths.

The cuckoo’s brood parasitism has led people to label it as lazy and irresponsible, as well as unfaithful. Interestingly, the bird’s name is linguistically related in several languages—though not in English—to either an adulteress (14) or to the word “cuckold,” a term for an obtuse man, particularly an older one, who’s oblivious to the affairs of his adulterous wife (15, 16). The word appears in The Canterbury Tales several times, rendered as “cokewold.” Furthermore, the cuckoo’s reputation as one who mocks love, resurfaces in English literature, such as in “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” by Chaucer’s contemporary John Clanvowe and later in “O Nightingale” by John Milton.

The Affairs of Birds

Despite a few questionable aspects, Chaucer’s birds in general seem fitting enough for a love-themed poem. Like the poet, many of us still find avian metaphors appropriate today for romantic associations. In the United Kingdom, a significant other is referred to as my “duck,” while “dolly bird” is slang for a young, attractive woman (17, 18). There’s even the popular “birds and the bees” euphemism for sexual relations.

Clearly, though, there are several key ornithological inaccuracies within the central theme of “The Parliament of Fowls.” For starters, birds do not collectively select mates on one given day throughout the year, no matter whether it be February 14th or May 3rd, the day the young king’s engagement was announced (19). Also, our avian neighbors, especially songbirds, usually do not mate for life and are often unfaithful (20, 21, 22). Chaucer probably didn’t realize this; otherwise, he likely would have reconsidered using them in a matter related to royal matrimony!

On one important positive note, research has discovered a few stellar examples of avian faithfulness, as Australian ravens, mute swans, and several species of geese—and especially albatrosses—were found to rank among those birds with the lowest “divorce rates” (23, 24). They even appear to enjoy better conjugal success than human couples in the U.S.! So perhaps albatrosses are the birds most worthy of our adulation on Valentine’s Day, even if they fail to receive proper due in Chaucer’s poem.

Sources:

  1. Seipel, A. “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day,” 2/13/2011. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day.
  2. Tearle, O.M. “The Literary Origins of Valentine’s Day,” 2/13/2014. Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness: http://interestingliterature.com/2014/02/13/the-literary-origins-of-valentines-day/.
  3. Simpson, J. “Valentines.” The Folklore Society (of London): http://www.folklore-society.com/miscellany/valentines.
  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. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 37.
  6. Armstrong, E.A. 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: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 47.
  7. Tate, P. p. 37.
  8. Tate, P. p. 37.
  9. Mastin, L. “Passer, Deliciae Meae Puellae” (Catullus 2). Classical Literature: http://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_catullus_2.html.
  10. Eugenides, J. “Excerpt: ’My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead’,” 2/13/2008. NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18927224.
  11. Chaucer, G. The Parliament of Fowls. Kline, A.S., (translator) Poetry in Translation: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/Fowls.htm.
  12. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. p. 146.
  13. Chamberlain, S. “Parrot History: Yesterday & Today,” 10/21/2013. Bird Channel: http://www.birdchannel.com/bird-news/bird-entertainment/bird-history.aspx.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. p. 203.
  15. Williams, J. “Cuckolds, horns, and other explanations,” 7/4/2009. BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/8133615.stm.
  16. Tate, P. p. 29.
  17. “Duck”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/duck.
  18. “Lovey-dovey.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lovey-dovey.
  19. Tearle, O.M.
  20. Milius, S. “When Birds Divorce: Who splits, who benefits, and who gets the nest” http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/birddivorce.html.
  21. “Who’s the daddy?”, British Trust for Ornithology: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/behaviour/infidelity.
  22. Krulwich, R. “Introducing A Divorce Rate For Birds, And Guess Which Bird Never, Ever Divorces?”, 4/22/2014. Krulwich Wonders, NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/04/22/305582368/introducing-a-divorce-rate-for-birds-and-guess-which-bird-never-ever-divorces.
  23. Milius, S.
  24. Krulwich, R.

Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

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Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming.” This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite far fetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1–6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39:26–30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “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.
  3. 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/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”