Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)

 

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Fowl Ball: Birds as Mascots and Monikers

eagle_goteam

Out of hundreds of university and college team nicknames in the United States, one easily soars above the rest. In fact, according to Roy E. Yarbrough, a professor of sports management studies and author of a book on mascots, more than seventy schools use the same bird moniker (1, 2).

Symbols of Power, Emblems of Distinction

Fans of Boston College, Emory University, Marquette University, North Carolina Central University, and Tennessee Tech may already know the answer. Yes, the Eagles are #1. That moniker easily outranks other notables, such as Tigers, Bulldogs, Panthers, and Knights. It also is more than twice as common as the second-most popular bird nickname, the Hawks (3).

The popularity of raptors—eagles, hawks, and the like—is easy to understand. Like other popular team nicknames, such as Cougars, Bears, and Warriors, these birds are symbols of strength and finesse. Of course, birds generally known for their courage and aggressive behavior, such as Cocks and Cardinals, also make for common monikers in college athletics.

Perhaps as a way of setting themselves apart, some schools have opted for more unusual nicknames. As examples, there are the Ducks (University of Oregon), the Roadrunners (University of Texas at San Antonio), the Penguins (Youngstown State University in Ohio), and the Herons (William Smith College, a women’s college in New York state).

Birds Make it Big in the Pros

Professional sports organizations within the United States and Canada have displayed a bit of variety in their chosen monikers. Below is a compilation of thirteen clubs named after birds, from the Canadian Football League (CFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL):

Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

Arizona Cardinals (NFL)

Atlanta Falcons (NFL)

Atlanta Hawks (NBA)

Baltimore Orioles (MLB)

Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

Montreal Alouettes (CFL)

New Orleans Pelicans (NBA)

Philadelphia Eagles (NFL)

Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)

Toronto Blue Jays (MLB)

At this time Major League Soccer lacks any teams with bird monikers. However, one franchise, D.C. United, includes a stylized bald eagle as part of its logo.

Two hockey clubs absent from the above list, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, require a bit of explanation. Despite their costumed bird mascot Tommy Hawk, the Chicago team’s name is actually inspired by a Sauk Indian chief (4, 5). And while the logo for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, a franchise known briefly as the Falcons during the early 1930s, features feathered wings on a wheel, the team does not explicitly convey the name of any particular type of bird (6). So, these two clubs actually do not have bird-inspired nicknames, so that’s why they’re not included.

Like the Chicago Blackhawk’s Tommy, several popular bird mascots promote teams that do not bear their likeness. For instance, the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Major League Baseball team, have the Pirate Parrot (7). Even the biggest star among costumed squawkers and arguably the most influential mascot in all of sports history, The San Diego Chicken (a.k.a. The Famous Chicken), is not officially connected to any particular team (8).

When College Nicknames and Mascots Don’t Match

In the world of collegiate sports, several popular bird mascots, too, are not directly related to their school’s team nickname. For starters, there’s Sebastian the Ibis, who cheers for the University of Miami Hurricanes. You’re probably wondering, what does an ibis have to do with hurricanes? Well, the Mascot Hall of Fame website explains, “According to folk legend, the ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane, and the first to return after the storm passes” (9).

On the opposite side of the gridiron, another avian mascot represents Miami’s conference rival, the Virginia Tech Hokies. Derived from the school’s older Fighting Gobbler mascots, the HokieBird is a bit of a cross between a turkey and cardinal. However, the Hokies nickname, originating from an 1896 “spirit yell,” came before the introduction of the bird mascot (10). Perhaps one can say that a HokieBird is a Hokie, but a Hokie is not necessarily a HokieBird.

The moniker adopted long ago by the University of Kansas involves a similar situation. That institution’s nickname, the Jayhawks, has ties to a label adopted by the state’s mid-nineteenth-century political and paramilitary abolitionist groups. However, by the early twentieth century, notions of a large-beaked, shoe-wearing bird began taking root. Today, those precursors have evolved into the University of Kansas’s two costumed mascots, Big Jay and Baby Jay (11, 12). From a historical perspective, though, Jayhawks are arguably different than the school’s colorful representatives.

Of course, interesting histories can be found behind the nicknames and mascots at many other colleges. These teams are just a sample of several in the United States that are cheered on or fronted by popular fowl.

Sources:

  1. Rosenberg, B. “It’s all in the name: From Bulldogs to Horned Frogs, mascots help build institutional identity,” 8/13/2004. NCAA News: http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/NCAANewsArchive/2004/Association-wide/it_s%2Ball%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bname%2B-%2B9-13-04%2Bncaa%2Bnews.html.
  2. “The top mascots in college and professional sports,” 2/13/2005. USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/2005-02-13-tenworstjobs-mascots-yarbrough_x.htm.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “History: The McLaughlin years.” Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46778.
  5. “Tommy Hawk.” Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46626.
  6. “Written History: 1930s.” Detroit Red Wings (official website): http://redwings.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=43758.
  7. “The Pirate Parrot.” Pittsburgh Pirates (official website): http://pittsburgh.pirates.mlb.com/pit/fan_forum/mascot_index.jsp.
  8. “Biography.” The Famous Chicken (official website): http://www.famouschicken.com/biography.html.
  9. “Sebastian the Ibis, University of Miami.” Mascot Hall of Fame: http://www.mascothalloffame.com/virtual/past/index.html?staff_id=37.
  10. Cox, C.B. “What is a Hokie?” Virginia Tech (official website): http://www.vt.edu/about/traditions/hokie.html.
  11. “The Jayhawk.” University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/jayhawk/.
  12. “The Mascots.” University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/mascots/.