Staying Warm!

snowygoose

A winter storm struck our area recently, bringing a bit of snow and ice but not nearly as much as expected. The worst part was that for several days temperatures stayed below freezing. What fell stuck around, keeping most people inside. Yet the neighborhood squirrels and birds were undeterred from going about their usual business.

Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, northern cardinals, blue jays, and several species of sparrows were frequent guests at our backyard feeders. There were a few dark-eyed juncos, brown-headed nuthatches, and brown thrashers, too. During an outing, my wife spotted the usual Canada geese at a nearby pond. They all managed just fine, thanks in part to their feathers.

Cuddy’s Duck

Feathers serve many functions, one of the most important in cold environments is helping keep birds warm. And of the types of feathers on birds, the innermost layer (down) is critical for insulation. Much shorter than contour and flight feathers, down has flexibly stubby structures that stick together to trap air and shut in body heat.1, 2 People ages ago, in their struggles to adapt to extreme cold, figured out waterfowl are equipped with down that’s well suited for human use. Today, manufacturers of winter jackets and bedding products rely on down feathers primarily from ducks and geese.

Of all avifauna cherished for their down, the common eider duck remains the gold standard.3 In the United Kingdom, the species is sometimes referred to as “Cuddy’s duck,” in reference to St. Cuthbert, perhaps the first person to decree protections for birds.4 Legend holds that the seventh-century cleric of Great Britain’s Inner Farne Island developed a special bond with the eiders, forbidding the other monks to harm the nesting birds. While killing or eating Cuddy’s ducks would have been off limits, eiderdown “harvesting” could have been acceptable.5 Harvesting often involves collecting feathers from the nests while the birds are there, but the intent is to disturb the ducks as little as possible. In Scandinavian island communities, such practices had been going on for centuries prior to Cuthbert.6 They still continue today, with Iceland being the largest producer.7, 8

The Downside

Unlike harvesting, other methods are far from innocuous. China is the world’s largest provider of down, mostly from ducks and geese, which are raised then slaughtered for food.9 Though feathers are considered a by-product of poultry production, disturbing accounts of live-plucking have been reported.10 The negative publicity has forced the fashion industry to reevaluate its suppliers and offer synthetic options.11, 12

So what can we do to help out? Before purchasing a down jacket or bedding, investigate the manufacturers. As part of your Internet search, check whether they comply with the voluntary Responsible Down Standard (RDS). Note that the nonprofit Textile Exchange offers an online list of certified compliers and extensive information about the down industry.

The other choice, of course, is to just look for down alternatives.

Sources:

  1. Thompson, M. “Everything You Need to Know About Feathers – Feather Anatomy: How Do Feathers Work?” Bird Academy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/2/.
  2. Brakhage, D, St. James, E. “Waterfowl Feathers.” Ducks Unlimited: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/understanding-waterfowl-waterfowl-feathers.
  3. “Down and Feather Quality.” Downmark, Canada: http://downmark.com/consumer_information/down_feather_quality.htm.
  4. “St Cuthbert Provided Blueprint for Nature Conservation,” 6/30/2012. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-23048394.
  5. Jenkins, J. “St. Cuthbert’s Ducks,” 10/29/2015. Pilgrimage & England’s Cathedrals project: http://www.pilgrimageandcathedrals.ac.uk/blog/st-cuthbert%E2%80%99s-ducks-1446120484.
  6. “World Heritage and the Arctic,” United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO): http://whc.unesco.org/archive/websites/arctic2008/annex.html.
  7. Morris, J. “Iceland: Grail Trail,” 4/20/2002. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/iceland/724009/Iceland-Grail-trail.html.
  8. “Ask IR,” 1/30/2014. Iceland Review On Line: http://icelandreview.com/stuff/ask-ir/2011/11/10/can-you-tell-me-about-eiderdown-production-iceland?language=en.
  9. Schmitz, H. The Sustainable and Humane Practices of the Down and Feather Industry. International Down and Feather Bureau: http://www.idfb.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/IDFB_White_Paper_6.07.16.pdf.
  10. Gibson, K. “A Foul Truth behind the Down in Pillows and Comforters,” 5/26/2016. MoneyWatch, CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-foul-truth-behind-the-down-in-pillows-and-comforters/.
  11. Milman, O. “‘Ethical down’: Is the Lining of Your Winter Coat Nothing but Fluff?” 1/14/2016. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/14/winter-coat-ethically-produced-down-goose-feathers.
  12. Dobson, J. “The Growing Fashion Trend for Winter Travelers, Cruelty-Free, Vegan and Sustainable,” 12/19/2016. Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimdobson/2016/12/19/the-growing-fashion-trend-for-winter-travelers-cruelty-free-vegan-and-fabulous/#6e9420a467cb.

 

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Winter Interlude

goose_footprints

Along the icy street, a procession of geese
amble with ease through the snow, oblivious
to the weekday morning’s comings and goings,
not affording even an occasional glance
at the cars cautiously
skirting by.

To a roadside pond intently they head,
like feathered emperors of the elements,
nomadic masters of land, lake, and sky,
undeterred by the harsh, frigid breeze
or the water’s frozen surface
before them.

Another rest stop to a lengthy flight?
Perhaps a homecoming? Then no sooner
these thoughts do they vanish beyond
my rearview mirror, into memory…
only web-footed tracks adrift
in wintry white.

 

This is a poem that I wrote several years ago. A gaggle of Canada geese used to hang out by a pond near where I worked. But then they disappeared. For several months there were no geese. I figured that I would not see any there again till the next spring or summer. Fortunately, I was wrong. The sight of these birds, especially right after a snowstorm, was a welcome surprise.

Happy New Year to everyone!

One Song, Twelve Days, and at Least 184 Birds

12Days

‘Tis the season for that peculiar Christmas carol, the one about a repeated litany of mostly live gifts, including dozens upon dozens of fowl, great and small—“The Twelve Days of Christmas”, a song that features more than enough birds for a large aviary!

Unfortunately, the winged creatures named in this tune—at least six different types—were likely included for another reason, as all of them have made their way onto dinner plates in Europe at one time or another. Mike Bergin, birder and founder of the website 10,000 Birds, offers a particularly enlightening post on this song and its “astonishing insight into the extravagant gifting conventions and ravenous appetite for bird flesh in England during the Baroque era” (1). Of course, much of the poultry named throughout this Christmas carol are still consumed today, but some much more regularly than others.

A Little History behind the Occasion and the Carol

For a better grasp of the context involving the song’s many birds, let’s consider a few things. First, the Twelve Days of Christmas occur from Christmas through January 5th. Secondly, as part of this long tradition, a feast day is held afterwards on January 6th marking the Christian celebration of Epiphany (2). So the inclusion of game birds throughout this song makes quite a bit of sense. Some people have even speculated that the golden rings introduced on the fifth day may actually refer to ring-necked pheasants (3). Anyway, the dozen types of gifts, with the exception of the golden rings (if taken literally as finger trinkets), could be considered either of entertainment or gastronomic value—all important for a large celebratory banquet commemorating the Magi’s visit to the Christ child.

As for the Christmas carol, evidence indicates that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has its origins as a “Twelfth Night ‘memory-and-forfeits’ game”, a function noted in the first printed version of the song around 1780; and the game may have developed earlier in France (4). We do know that neither the song nor the game is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. However, his play likely preceded the Christmas carol, for the former was composed possibly as early as 1599 (5).

Bird Gifts Galore

When talking about such seemingly disparate things as geese-a-laying, maids-a-milking, and ladies dancing, context is critical. As mentioned earlier, the birds cited throughout “The Twelve Days of Christmas” have historically been used for food. The most obvious ones are the French hens and geese-a-laying, feast items today with a long culinary history. Like chickens, the greylag goose has been domesticated in Europe for centuries, its meat and eggs both used as food (6). The mentioning of both these birds in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” easily suggests some relevance to a large celebratory meal.

Due to changes in cultural and culinary preferences, the other birds may seem less obvious today as menu options. The partridge, the only fowl that appears every day on the song’s daily gift list, was “frequently served at medieval tables, where it was prized for its tender flesh” (7). It’s still consumed at dinner tables but ranks in popularity far behind larger poultry such as the chicken and turkey.

The turtle-dove, albeit symbolic of romantic love, has been desired for centuries by the stomach as well as the heart. After all, dovecots, structures built for housing pigeons and other small birds until ready for the table, were common in the Middle Ages and sometimes contained turtle-doves (8). Clearly the appreciation of a bird’s pleasing appearance and positive associations was not enough to safeguard it from the most basic of human instincts—hunger.

Today we value mute swans primarily for their beauty. But in the past, these large, graceful birds also made their way into English feasts (9). For instance, they were eaten on important occasions, such as Christmas (10). While the meat is reportedly not considered succulent, it clearly had its share of enthusiasts (11). One reason may have been its size, for an adult male mute swan can weigh more than 50 pounds (12). Scholar Venetia Newell also reminds us, “Chaucer says of his worldly monk in The Canterbury Tales (1387): ‘A fat swan loved he best of any roast’…” (13). Of course, the bird’s popularity as poultry for England’s aristocracy and grand feasts has significantly waned since that time.

Blackbird Pie?                                  

Finally, we have colly birds, the fowl that was consumed primarily by the lower classes. Although in some versions the gifts are “calling birds” (as in caged songbirds such as canaries, starlings, and the like), the first printed version of the song uses “colly”, a word describing something that has been blackened, as if by soot or coal (14). So, in that case, we are actually talking about European blackbirds, which belong to the thrush family (15, 16).

People supposedly ate colly birds, while others apparently enjoyed watching live ones endure a cruel (but fortunately infrequent) dining practice. The birds, inserted inside a baked pastry that had been taken out of the oven to cool, were forced to entertain upper-class dinner guests by erupting from the served pie, as described in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (17, 18). That poem, of course, refers to a pastry made with 24 of these creatures. By the conclusion of our Christmas song, the “true love” has handed out 36 blackbirds—an ample amount for one and a half of these large dishes. “Calling birds”, to me, seem much more preferable.

All in all, we have 184 birds given over the Twelve Days of Christmas. And if you consider the “five golden rings” as intending pheasants, the tally grows to 224. No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of birds. You either have a major holiday feast in the works—one perhaps to end all feasts—or a heckuva re-gifting nightmare!

Sources:

  1. Bergin, M. “Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas”, 12/25/13, 10,000 Birds: http://10000birds.com/birds-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas.htm.
  2. “Epiphany”, 10/7/11, BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/epiphany.shtml.
  3. Bergin, M.
  4. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, 12/24/13, Snopes.com: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp
  5. Shakespeare, W. Bevington, D. (editor). The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Fourth Edition. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997. p. 326.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 80, 88.
  7. Heck, C., and Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 488.
  8. Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 77.
  9. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 90.
  10. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  11. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 90.
  12. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 3.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 60.
  14. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, 12/24/13, Snopes.com.
  15. Bergin, M.
  16. O’Connor, M. “The Twelve Days of Christmas Explained: Is it Calling, Collie or Colly Birds?”, 12/24/10, Bird Watcher’s General Store: http://www.birdwatchersgeneralstore.com/TwelveDays.htm.
  17. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 467-468.
  18. Scully, T. p. 109.

A Brief Flight through Horror: Birds of the Dead and the Damned

bloodySparrows

A tenant’s missing rent payment leads to a tough, street-smart property owner’s ghastly discovery. She enters the apartment unit to collect her money, but quickly realizes that she has stumbled upon a gruesome murder scene. Overcome with shock, the landlady screams. Then she faints. On the wall near a savagely mutilated body, a mysterious message is finger-scrawled in blood:

THE SPARROWS ARE FLYING AGAIN.

A ruthless homicidal rampage in Stephen King’s The Dark Half thus continues. It can only end with the inevitable showdown between the novel’s main character, author Thad Beaumont, and the killer George Stark (1). The connection between the two characters is complicated, with readers gradually finding out that Stark is much more than just Beaumont’s more successful and darker pseudonym come-to-life. As the story progresses, we learn more, too, about the mysterious and ever-growing number of sparrows.

“Back to Endsville”

The birds turn out to be escorts to the realm of the dead, an underworld which King at times calls “Endsville”. Such guides, known traditionally as pyschopomps, have historically taken on various forms in religion, folklore, and literature. These can include human or human-like beings. For example, Charon, the ferryman of the Greek/Roman underworld, is probably the most notable and familiar of psychopomps. Animals, angels, and other beings, however, can also fulfill these roles.

Another well-known psychopomp is the “ominous bird of yore” in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, who may be deemed a messenger from Hades or “Night’s Plutonian Shore” (2, 3). Has the raven not taken off with the protagonist’s spirit, swept away all hope of the narrator ever joining his deceased mistress (“my soul… shall be lifted—nevermore!”)? Or maybe something more sinister has occurred—perhaps the late mistress has been consigned to hell, and her lover learns from this ebony feathered “devil” that he, too, is to be ushered there but, as part of his torment, forever denied her presence. Having destroyed the thing that has sustained the speaker in his life, he is left at the very least in the raven’s “shadow” of despair, what could be interpreted as either a literal or metaphorical land of the dead.

“Screaming of vast flocks”

As one of the characters (a folklore professor and Beaumont’s colleague) in The Dark Half explains, whippoorwills and loons are among the birds most commonly identified as psychopomps. Swallows are also mentioned. And although ravens do not appear in the novel, King interestingly credits his inspiration to the sighting of a massive flock of crows, as well as to an H.P. Lovecraft poem (4). Psychopomps are a theme in several of Lovecraft’s works. For instance, whippoorwills assume this role in his short story “The Dunwich Horror”, of which below is a brief excerpt:

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down (5).

The story remains one of Lovecraft’s most popular works. His poem “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme” (perhaps the one to which King is referring) doesn’t mention whippoorwills, crows, or sparrows. Instead, it features a sinister “howling train” of wolves “that rend the air” to collect a dead boy’s soul from his parents (6). The description, though, is clearly evocative of the Wild Hunt stories often linked with Gabriel’s Hounds and the Seven Whistlers (7). These feared creatures were believed to ride out at night, particularly around the winter solstice, and snatch off with victims’ souls. Perhaps a combination of this poem and the whippoorwills of “The Dunwich Horror” actually influenced King.

“The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy”

As the name suggests, the Seven Whistlers consist of seven birds who make loud, frightful, piping/blowing noises. The types most often associated with the deadly flock are curlews, widgeons, golden plover, and wild geese (8). Many poets have expressed fascination with the legend. William Wordsworth, for instance, refers to it in his sonnet “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”:

He the seven birds hath seen, that never part,
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them: and oftentimes will start—
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds
Doomed, …. (9)

As the ornithologist Edward Armstrong also notes, English poet Edmund Spenser in his 16th-century epic The Faerie Queene cites the notorious flock among the “fatall birds”: “The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy” (10, 11). The creatures are the subject of Victorian poet Alice E. Gillington’s “The Seven Whistlers” (12). However, despite the similarities in Whistler lore with the poem by Lovecraft, he does not mention any birds by name that were commonly thought of as Whistlers in his “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme”.

Of course, none of birds connected with the legends of the Great Hunt seem nearly as menacing as those in King’s The Dark Half. His sparrows brandish a viciousness reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet surpassing in their ferocious intensity. Who knew that birds could be so terrifying?

In the hands of great horror writers, any animal may well assume a frightening presence, in this case a small bird commonly found throughout the world and occasionally deemed a pest. The sparrow may be an appropriate choice for psychopomp due to its near-universal presence, a symbolic reminder that death, though it may seem hidden in the backdrop of our lives, remains close by.

So along with the haunting figure of Poe’s demonic raven and the screaming whippoorwills of Lovecraft, let’s not forget the flesh-devouring sparrows of Stephen King this Halloween.

Sources:

  1. King, S. The Dark Half. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
  2. Poe, E.A. “The Raven”, The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178713.
  3. Cross, R.T. “Psychopomp”, 11/29/2011, The Etyman Language Blog: http://etyman.wordpress.com/tag/psychopomp/.
  4. King, S. “The Dark Half: Inspiration”, Stephen King’s official web site: http://stephenking.com/library/novel/dark_half_the_inspiration.html.
  5. Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror”, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/dh.aspx.
  6. Lovecraft, H.P., “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme”, The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/poetry/p139.aspx.
  7. 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. pp. 217-220.
  8. Armstrong, E.A. pp. 217-220.
  9. Wordsworth, W. “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”, William Wordsworth: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (1999): http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww339.html.
  10. Armstrong, E.A.. pp. 217-218.
  11. Spenser, E. The Faerie Queene (Book II, Canto XII, Stanza XXXVI), Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (2010): http://www.bartleby.com/153/55.html.
  12. Gillington, A.E. “The Seven Whistlers”, A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical Review of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria. Edmund Clarence Stedman (editor). Bartleby.com (2003): http://www.bartleby.com/246/1159.html.

The Bird that was a Fish

barnaclegoose2

Birds have feathers and fish have scales, right? So how could people have ever thought that a large black and white bird came from a crustacean or some strange form of fish? But, amazingly, just a few centuries ago in parts of Western Europe, many folks actually did.

In all fairness, when considering our forbearers’ limited scientific knowledge, bizarre notions were bound to arise. Superstitions, folklore, and hearsay are early attempts at making sense of the world, and often a lack of experience and understanding factored into the development of some off-the-wall ideas. This lack definitely led to some interesting beliefs regarding one particular bird—the barnacle goose.

Where are the Eggs?

Overall, folks throughout Europe were quite familiar with geese. But not so much with this particular species. Barnacle geese winter in the Scottish Hebrides and in some western areas of Ireland, but they do not breed at these sites. This means that onlookers there who saw the birds could never find any of their eggs. The reason, inconceivable to many people at the time, was that the birds were nesting during the summer within the artic regions of the North Atlantic.

Clearly, the barnacle geese, like all other forms of life, were reproducing. But if there were no eggs, how exactly were their offspring formed? This was the puzzle. And based on the evidence available at the time, the answer seemed obvious, even if quite unusual. The answer, as many thought centuries ago, must be related to something commonly found in the birds’ wintering areas: barnacles. Frequently spotted on driftwood and the like, these formations were thought to be the young geese, an explanation that today accounts for the bird’s name. Thus, by means of association, in appearance and location, the barnacle and the bird became causally connected in people’s minds.

Remarkably, even first-person reports supported this fallacious logic. In Giraldus Cambrensis’s 12th-century account within Topographia Hiberniae, the royal clerk and clergyman notes, “… with my own eyes [I observed] more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and already formed” (1). Some variations of the story by other writers indicate that fruit, dropping off trees into the water, developed into the geese (2, 3). Either way, the notion that the barnacle goose was not really a bird persisted with the support of erroneous eye-witness accounts from Cambrensis and others. But the pervasiveness of this belief likely continued for a more convenient reason.

Fish on Friday, Fish for Lent

Wishful thinking was without doubt a critical component for these legends’ popularity. Why? Well, periods of fasting within Catholicism (such as Lent) forbid the consumption of meat, including fowl; however, fish were acceptable. So since many people believed the barnacle goose was not really a bird, eating it was deemed excusable. Doing so, in fact, offered a win-win situation. The goose was a tastier (and plumper) alternative to fish. Secondly, according to this widely held misconception about the bird’s status, consuming it posed no problem for maintaining religious dietary restrictions.

Obviously, other folks who knew better or at least found the barnacle-bird connection suspect could not let this issue rest. How to classify the barnacle goose became such a problem that eventually the Roman Catholic Church intervened. At the Fourth Council of the Lateran gathering in 1215, Pope Innocent III declared that the bird should not be consumed during Lent (4). Despite this papal ruling, misinformation about the barnacle goose’s origins still remained rampant for centuries. Only as explorers ventured north, documented the areas where the birds breed, and reported their findings did many people at last recognize the barnacle goose as a true bird (5).

Eventually, the wintering and breeding aspects of migration became clearer to scientists and laypeople. Looking further into more misunderstandings about migration next week, we can see that the barnacle goose story, quite remarkable from today’s perspective, was just one of many incredible fallacies.

Sources:

  1. Cambrensis, G. Wright, T. (editor). Forester, T., and Colt, R. (translators). The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis. London: George Bell & Sons, 1905. p. 36.
  2. Lee, H. Sea Fables Explained. London: William Clowes & Sons, Limited, 1883. pp. 98, 101-3.
  3. Heron-Allen, E. Barnacles in Nature and in Myth. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. 10-25
  4. Ibid. p. 16.
  5. Ibid. p. xv of forward.