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.
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WANTED: The “Real” Robin

robins

Just about everything—no matter its size, location, or value—has a name. After all, the process of getting to know something involves identifying it. Your street and city have names. Days, months, and years have them, too, as do galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, plants, atoms, viruses, etc.

Obviously, some folks more than others need a precise and well-established system of naming things. This is true in particular for those working in scientific fields, such as ornithology. As specialists studying birds, many of which migrate from one region to another, ornithologists around the world must be in agreement on what to call a particular bird; otherwise, misunderstandings are bound to ensue. Below is a look at just how easily problems can occur.

A Case of Stolen Identity?

Confusion easily arises when two different species of birds have the same common name. This happens more often than you may think. The popular robin is a prime example. The one chirping in the backyard of an American home is not the same robin singing around the English countryside. In fact, as far as birds go, they’re not even closely related. The American robin—on the left in the line-up above—belongs to the thrush family, while the European robin—the one on the right—is considered a chat (1). This means that nineteenth-century poets Emily Dickinson and John Clare, both well-known for their poems involving robins, were actually referring to two different kinds of birds.

The two songbirds do possess similar characteristics, mainly the red breast amid an otherwise dark-feathered body. The likeness in their appearance is primarily why the American bird came to be known by the same moniker as another across the Atlantic. Overall, European explorers and settlers encountered lots of birds overseas that were unfamiliar to them. And in many cases, these folks referred to the New World creatures with Old World labels, based primarily on similarities in how the birds looked (2). Unfortunately, the American robin is just one of several birds with a borrowed name.

Borrowed Names Hatch Confusion

In Europe, the yellowhammer is a bunting known for its golden color and erratic flight. The poet John Clare wrote at least a couple poems about the bird, including “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” where he describes the female creature’s most peculiar attribute, laying what looked like “pen-scribbled” eggs (3). On the other hand, when reading Clark Ashton Smith’s short poem “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest”, one can’t help but notice a critical discrepancy—he describes the eggs as “porcelain-white” (4).

It’s as if the two men are writing about two different types of birds. And, in fact, they are. Though better known today as the yellow-shafted northern flicker of the woodpecker family, the creature in Smith’s poem is also often regarded in the U.S. as the yellowhammer—perhaps in part due to the hammering sounds produced by the wood-pecking bird. Alabama, nicknamed the “Yellowhammer State”, has even named this flicker its official bird (5, 6). However, these two creatures, just like the aforementioned robins, are not closely related.

More Birds in Name—but Not the Same

As with the yellowhammer, New World versions of orioles, warblers, and blackbirds belong to different families than their Old World namesakes (7). For a couple common examples in literature regarding the latter, the North American subject of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is different from the thrush “blackbird” of the popular English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” But despite issues such as these, the most confusing instance in identification has to lie with the nightingale. This is because that name has been applied on several continents to a host of different birds.

The songbirds mentioned in the poems of John Keats, Ryokan, and Hafiz of Shiraz are all called nightingales, yet each are from different avian families. A chat’s “plaintive anthem” inspires a terminally ill Keats to write what perhaps is his most famous ode (8). This is the bird we here in the West, of course, still commonly regard as the nightingale. Meanwhile, the uguiso, a Japanese warbler renowned as well for its vocals, is the nightingale cited in the verse of Ryokan, a contemporary of Keats (9). And then there’s the bird featured in the work of Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Persian poet. His nightingale is the bulbul, a songbird in the Middle East celebrated as the unrequited lover of the rose (10, 11).   And to further complicate matters, some Americans have thought of the virtuoso mockingbird as a “nightingale” (12). Interestingly, seventeenth-century English ornithologist Francis Willughby even refers to the cardinal as a “Virginian Nightingale” in his Ornithologiae libri tres (13).

Some Simple Solutions

One can easily see that a nightingale is not always the same nightingale another person may have in mind! Location, of course, dictates language, but less so when global communication is at stake. For worldwide conversations, relying on common names can be problematic. But what’s one to do, outside of learning the Latin-based scientific nomenclature? Well, one helpful approach entails cultivating an awareness of possible discrepancies in usage when looking back at historical documents, literature, art, and the like. This method particularly seems feasible for dealing with past occurrences in writings.

For present-day usage, many people, especially scientists, have introduced another solution. To help thwart the confusion that has arisen due to such nomenclature issues, the International Ornithologists’ Union has established a standard set of common English names for all birds (14). This group’s recommendations ensure that no two birds end up sharing the same name. Overall, the uniform standards are helpful. I’m still acclimating myself to the guidelines, a few of which I may continue to skip (e.g., capitalizing names). Nevertheless, at least there’s some clarity available when attempting to speak about two different birds with the same common moniker.

Next week, we will look a little bit deeper at bird names, exploring some of their more unusual and humorous aspects.

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 212-214.
  2. Wells, D. p. xiv of introduction.
  3. Clare, J. “The Yellowhammer’s Nest.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179904.
  4. Smith, C.A. “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest.” PoemHunter.com: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/boys-rob-a-yellow-hammer-s-nest/.
  5. Wells, D. p. 72.
  6. “Official Symbols and Emblems of Alabama: State Bird of Alabama.” Alabama Dept. of Archives and History: http://www.archives.state.al.us/emblems/st_bird.html.
  7. Wells, D. pp. 12-14, 156-157, 263-266.
  8. Keats, J. “Ode to a Nightingale.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173744.
  9. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Stevens, J. (translator). New York: Weatherhill, Inc. 2004. p. 40.
  10. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 49.
  11. Wells, D. p. 151.
  12. Wells, D. pp. 147, 150.
  13. Page, J. and Morton, E.S. Lords of the Air. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1989. p. 49.
  14. Gill, F. and Donsker D. (Editors). 2014. IOC World Bird List (v 4.4). doi: 10.14344/IOC.ML.4.4.: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.

If the Human Spirit Had Wings

cagedBluebirds

We look up to songbirds. Literally, of course, as when tilting our heads toward their tree-branch perches, but, moreover, metaphorically. Colorful bundles of energy, capable of such pleasant songs and distant journeys, these little creatures easily stir the imagination. What better symbols for the human spirit and its highest aspirations?

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Musicians and writers have often viewed our winged neighbors as emblematic of humankind’s greatest qualities, those aspects that inspire us, that make us feel whole. Feelings that lighten our state of being, for instance, can easily be likened to birds in flight. Such sensations people usually describe as elevated, as if no longer weighted, effortlessly able to rise up off the ground and towards the sky.

Joy is such an emotion, both beautiful and at times fleetingly whimsical. Birds are sometimes thought to embody it. You’ve likely heard of the bluebird of happiness. Well, Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Six Acts, an early twentieth-century children’s drama about the search for this small creature of delight, may have given birth to this now-popular expression in Western culture (1). Of course, many poems celebrate birds for the joy they provide. Percy Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark” and William Ernest Henley’s “The Blackbird” are just a couple examples.

Compassionate and wishful aspiration is another emotional state that can be depicted as bird-like, descending to comfort us with its uplifting song. Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” speaks of how such optimism “perches in the soul”.   Even as it provides its tune in the harshest of circumstances, the little one never begs for a “crumb” (2). Another poem of comparable sentiment, “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, relates the comfort serendipitously discovered from a little creature’s “full-hearted evensong / Of joy.” Despite the cold winter wind and frost, the bird seems to offer “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware” (3).

Besides happiness and hope, birds can act as proxy-symbols of a naïve desire that’s unharnessed from reason and calculating restraint, as demonstrated in Robert Graves’s short poem “Love Without Hope.” Here larks in song fly away from their young romantic captor towards a sophisticated and unattainable love interest (4). Numerous examples in verse abound, of course, involving similar characteristics.

“For the caged bird sings of freedom”

The caged or ensnared songbird, in particular, ranks among the most powerful of metaphors. Symbolic of the desire to overcome oppression, the imprisoned creature can represent both the basic needs of the individual as well as a segment of society. Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” “sings of freedom” (5), a theme taken up in Alicia Keys’s song of the same title and the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “Sympathy.” To fly is to be free, to fully express one’s nature, unhindered by others’ imposing, self-serving agendas. The profoundly spiritual appeal of such sentiment is expressed by the Biblical author of Psalms 124. Employing a similar metaphor, the scriptural song likens the “soul” of an entire nation (Israel) to an escaped bird rescued by God from its enemy captors.

A few songs present the bird within a cage as a metaphor for a dualism in which the spirit or mind animates the body.   In such a manner, for example, the necessity of being on good terms with one’s self is poignantly conveyed by a verse in Tori Amos’s “Crucify”. “You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird,” she croons, suggesting the deadening effects of guilt and suffering. Another example looks beyond this life. The narrative within Sting’s “The Language of Birds” focuses on an elderly pigeon keeper whose “soul was still trapped in the cage” (6). Only upon death is the man at last released from his own “cage” of corporeal confinement.

“Planted on the starlit golden bough”

Also invoking bird imagery, William Butler Yeats’s poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” address old age, death, and the quintessential search for the eternal. The first piece describes the speaker’s quest, alluding to some transcendent, avian-like form for his spirit, fashioned “as Grecian goldsmiths make” (7). Furthering this vision, the second poem expresses this figure as “More miracle than bird or handiwork” (8). What perhaps could we expect of a form that both seeks and represents the unbounded, the spiritual, the otherworldly? Regardless of this creature’s exact nature, Yeats taps into an allegorical power that has long associated birds with the soul, an idea that I’m hoping we can further explore later.

As Joseph Campbell noted in conversations a few decades ago with journalist Bill Moyers, “The bird is symbolic of the release of the spirit from bondage to the earth…” (9). Poets, musicians, and others within the arts have long understood this connection between our feathered neighbors and the heart’s profound yearning for freedom and happiness.

Included here are just several examples of this theme, most relatively recent. Next week’s post will look back thousands of years at some of the oldest.

Sources:

  1. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  2. Dickinson, E. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.
  3. Hardy, T. “The Darkling Thrush,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173590.
  4. Leithauser, B. “A Poet of Piercing Valentines,” 2/13/2013. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-poet-of-piercing-valentines.
  5. Angelou, M. “Caged Bird,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948.
  6. Sting (official website), “Language of Birds” (lyrics): http://sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/596.
  7. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. First Scribner Paperback Poetry edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996. pp. 193-194.
  8. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). pp. 248-249.
  9. Campbell, J., with Moyers, B. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1991. p. 23.