The Great Race and Beyond

winnerpigeon

One of the most prestigious international sporting events was held a few weeks ago: the 21st annual South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR).

More than two thousand pigeons competed in the February 8th final, with three hundred of them completing the approximately 306-mile flight from liberation point to loft in under twenty-four hours.1 This year’s winner, Little Miss Nikki, was one of two top-ten finishers from the United States. Other countries well represented near the top were Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Pigeon Fandom

The SAMDPR has been compared to the Super Bowl and the World Series.2 While pigeon racing, of course, attracts only a fraction of the attention given other sports, it has big-name supporters and big money behind that support. Famous enthusiasts include Queen Elizabeth II and former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, whose relationship to pigeons goes back to his adolescent days in Brooklyn, NY.3

Like other sports, pigeon racing has unfortunately also experienced its share of ethical issues. In recent years, allegations of doping4 and cheating5 have emerged, which are not surprising considering the large prize amounts and six-figure pigeon auction prices.6 Problems have been reported as well regarding the treatment of bred pigeons in a few incidents7 and the risks racing conditions can pose for the birds,8 among other issues.9

Aside from these concerns, the sport continues to fascinate—as does avian racing in general.10 Pigeon racing has even inspired paintings by Andrew Beer and influenced the poetry of Geoffrey Hill (“Scenes from Comus”) and Rebecca Goss (“Pigeon Love”). In addition to the world of racing, pigeons have a long and significant history as messengers.

Sources:

  1. “Race Directors Report,” 2/16/2017. South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race: https://www.samdpr.com/news/gn20170216.
  2. Ganus Family Loft: http://www.ganusfamilyloft.com/.
  3. Blechman, AD. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 5–6, 163–165.
  4. Macur, J. “Pigeon Racing: Faster and Farther, but Fair?” 10/25/2013. The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/sports/pigeon-racing-doping.html.
  5. Criddle, C. “Pigeon Cheating Scandal: Champion Bird in Race from South of France Never Left Its Oxfordshire Loft,” 7/29/2016. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/29/champion-pigeon-racer-in-scandal-after-winning-bird-from-south-o/.
  6. “World Record Price Paid for Belgian Racing Pigeon Bolt,” 5/21/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22613247.
  7. Harrabin, R. “Is Pigeon Racing Cruel?” 3/27/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-21938429.
  8. Breen, J. “Racing Pigeons among Birds that Meet Their Doom against City’s Skyscrapers,” 9/13/2016 DNAinfo | Chicago: https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160908/downtown/racing-pigeons-among-birds-that-meet-their-doom-against-our-skyscrapers.
  9. Opar, A. “Mike Tyson to Star in Reality Show on Pigeon-Racing, A Sport Linked to Raptor Deaths,” 3/17/2010. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/news/mike-tyson-star-reality-show-pigeon-racing-sport-linked-raptor-deaths.
  10. Arizona’s Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival, for example, entertains its gatherers with races involving ostriches and emus, respectively. See that event’s official website for more information: https://ostrichfestival.com/2017-attractions/.

 

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Lovey-Dovey Duck Lips

ducklips

“Your mouth makes a pointy beak.…
the shape… / left me feeling slightly lyrical.”
—Kate Kilalea, “You Were a Bird”

“Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize…”
—Ted Roethke, “I Knew a Woman”

We are more like birds than some of us may realize. Even in the simplest and most mundane of ways. For instance, have you noticed that when people kiss, their lips become “pursed,” slightly protruding into a “pointy beak”? I must admit that I had never given much thought to this until recently when rereading the above lines.

Neither Kilalea nor Roethke explicitly refer to kissing. However, the human mouths described in their poems, one regarding a dinner date and the other about lovemaking, conjure images for me of canoodling. Of course, poetry typically approaches its subjects indirectly, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, “tell it slant.” In poet Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, she notes, “Not everything will be given—some part of a poem’s good weight will be found outside the poem, in us.” (1) With poetry, we frequently need to read between the lines.

Traditional Birds of Love

As to why poets have long included birds in love poems makes abundant sense. Few creatures of such beauty exemplify courtship and reproduction the way our feathered friends do. They fly thousands of miles to nesting grounds, an observation elegantly described in Pablo Neruda’s poem “Migration,” an ode to birds and “the erotic urgency of life” (2). The euphemism “the birds and the bees” is a common phrase related to this biological principle.

The way we use language today indicates that birds typically accompany conversations on love. Occasionally, before a “peck” on the mouth or cheek, one lover may affectionately giggle at the other’s “duck lips.” Sometimes one may jokingly call an affectionate couple of friends “lovebirds” or say they seem just “lovey-dovey,” expressions that tap into associations first culturally embedded thousands of years ago.

Avian imagery has a long history of widespread associations with sensual desire and romance. Several winged favorites once affiliated with the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus respectively, include the dove, sparrow, partridge, and goose (3). References to these birds, too, abound in Renaissance works playfully devoted to the goddess and her acolytes. In ancient China, the wild goose was also considered a bird of love (4), as it was, too, in eleventh-century India for the poet Bilhana:

I remember her:
deep eyes’ glittering pupils
dancing wildly in love’s vigil,
a wild goose
in our lotus bed of passion. (5)

The waterfowl here is a symbol of the speaker’s mistress in Balhana’s Caurapancasika, just one of many works throughout the world that uses avian metaphors to express the primal power of lust and the emotional significance of love.

“Like Amorous Birds of Prey”

Though many poets have relied on doves, sparrows, and geese—those traditional birds of love—Andrew Marvell proves in his “To His Coy Mistress” that less conventional ones can also provide for moving similes:

Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball.

Passion’s illicit, consuming nature is expressed poignantly here by Marvell’s choice of raptors. Amazingly, this suggestively rousing poem was composed in the seventeenth century, during the same time that John Milton lived. An earlier love poem that features birds of prey—specifically eagles—is Geoffrey Chaucer’s much-tamer, late fourteenth-century “The Parliament of Fowls.”

As noted in a previous post, Chaucer was the first to combine St. Valentine’s Day, romantic coupling, and birds all together into one poem, themes that have since collectively resurfaced in other works, notably Elizabeth Bishop’s “Three Valentines,” John Donne’s “An Epithalamion, or Wedding Song,” and Michael Drayton’s “To His Valentine.”

For those of you interested in the history and symbolism of birds in love poetry and works of fiction, I highly recommend Leonard Lutwack’s Birds in Literature. He devotes an entire chapter to “Birds and the Erotic.”(6) While he does not mention anything about duck-lipped smooches, he covers a wide range of Western writers, from Catullus to D.H. Lawrence.

Sources:

  1. Hirshfield, J. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. p. 115.
  2. Neruda, P. “Migración”. Schmitt, J. (translator). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Stavans, I, et al (editors and translators). pp. 743-749.
  3. Armstrong, EA. 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: Collins, 1958. p. 47.
  4. Armstrong, EA. pp. 42, 47.
  5. Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. p. 19.
  6. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 187-230.

 

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.

In Search of the Real Will o’ Wisp

hinkypunksJML

Strange roving lights in remote areas have long perplexed eyewitnesses. What possibly could be responsible for this odd nighttime phenomena? Wandering ghosts? Mischievous demons? How about fairies or elves? This Halloween, take your pick. All have at one time or another been suggested.

Speculation has also considered some natural sources. As we shall see, a few ideas seeking to explain this eerie luminescence—known the world over by names such as Will o’ wisp, Hinkypunk, Min Min light, La Luz Mala, and Hitodama—involve birds. Do any of these “theories” help put this mystery to rest?

Birds of Light

Incredible tales have alleged the luminosity of certain avian animals. For instance, the ancient Roman historian Pliny reports in his Natural History (Book 10, Chapter 47) of birds in the German forest of Hercinia that could glow at night. In the mid-nineteenth century, an eyewitness attested to having seen an American bittern illuminating “from its breast to enable it to discover its prey” (1). A few decades later, in 1907, a publication from a local naturalists’ society in Britain linked flying owls to the enigmatic lights long associated with the paranormal (2). The support for such claims obviously remains weak.

No scientific evidence exists demonstrating that birds are capable of bioluminescence. However, such a characteristic has been detected in other lifeforms. Among these are several types of fungi. Speculation has suggested that birds nesting in rotting trees could get light-producing fungi on their feathers. Thus, according to this line of thinking, parts of these winged creatures when airborne may glow at night. While undoubtedly an intriguing idea, skepticism remains regarding fungi’s role in the Will o’ wisp sightings (3, 4).

Upon Further Reflection

Bioluminescence is not the only possible natural explanation. Light does not have to be produced by a living organism; it can also be reflected from ambient sources. And the latter process might account for some of the Will o’ wisp sightings. At certain angles, moonlight could relay off birds’ eyes (specifically their tapeta lucida) or patches of white feathers. Keep in mind, too, that water from a pond or marsh would enhance reflective possibilities. Interestingly, “ghost lights,” “corpse candles,” “elf fire,” and the like are frequently seen around bogs and rivers.

Of course, there’s little likelihood that avian creatures are involved in all sightings. Other explanations include atmospheric conditions, the combustion of released methane gas from decomposed organic material, and possible chemical reactions involving bacteria-like organisms called extremophiles (5). In addition, one cannot rule out hoaxes and mischief-makers, optical illusions, and psychological factors such as poor memory recall, the power of suggestion, and overactive imaginations. An assortment of these—not just birds—are probably behind the mysterious lights.

So, for now, the source of the Will o’ wisp is not clear.  One could say that it remains hidden in the dark.

Sources:

  1. Whitmore, WH. “Bittern”. Notes & Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc. (Third Series, Second Volume). Various authors. London: Bell & Daldy, 1962. p. 360.
  2. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 196-197.
  3. Silcock, F. “A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba”, 6/4/2004. The Owl Pages: http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Studies+and+Papers&title=Min+Min.
  4. Edwards, HGM, “Will-o’-the-Wisp: an ancient mystery with extremophile origins?”, 11/3/2014. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/372/2030/20140206.short.
  5. Edwards, HGM.

Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

swallowTattoo

Why have seadogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life onboard a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.

Sources:

  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration”, Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “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.
  4. 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/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, A.W. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings”, 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.

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 4th-century B.C. 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.

“Tweeting” Before Twitter

tweet

For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”

A Little Bird Told Me…

Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.

Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).

Avian Express Messaging Systems

While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).

Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).

War Pigeons

Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).

As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.

Sources:

  1. Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
  2. Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
  3. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
  4. Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
  5. Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
  6. Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
  7. Werness, H.B. p. 188.
  8. Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
  9. Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
  10. Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers”. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
  11. Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History”. The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
  12. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe”. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
  13. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
  14. “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger”. Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
  15. Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap”, 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
  16. Dash, M.
  17. Razes, J. “Pigeons of War”, August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
  18. “All About Birds: Navigation”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
  19. Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads”, 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
  20. Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved”, 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.