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? But 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!

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Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery

swallowTattoo

Why have sea dogs 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 on board 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, AW. (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.

A Fly-by-Night Operation

NightSkyBirds

Many birds make their seasonal departures and returns when people are least likely to see them—at night. No wonder folks long ago believed that these creatures migrated to the moon. Little, though, did they suspect the stars’ role in such journeys.

Navigating by the Stars

Before developing sophisticated GPS devices and even the magnetic compass, we humans relied on the constellations for guidance during nightly travels. So what if birds happened to use the stars in a similar manner? Sure, it may sound a bit far-fetched at first. However, studies from over the past few decades indicate that for many species this is likely the case. In fact, certain birds depend on constellations as guideposts, so much so that researchers have discovered that heavy clouds can obstruct their view and, in turn, lead them astray, requiring the creatures to later correct their flights.

Like these birds, our ancestors, too, used astronomical formations as navigational aids. By identifying clusters of stars into constellations, earlier explorers were capable of making extensive expeditions over land and voyages over sea, long before the inventions of satellite technology and electronic communications. Connecting the night’s starry dots into linear forms was critical for orienting purposes. Some folks today still use the stars in this way.

An Interstellar Assembly of Fowl

The human practice of studying the stars has resulted in some interesting constellations, as societies easily found inspiration in their own myths as well as in the creatures around them. Among the most familiar bird-related constellations in the West are the Eagle (Aquila), Dove (Columba), Raven (Corvus), Swan (Cygnus), Crane (Grus), Peacock (Pavo), and Toucan (Tucana) (1, 2). Stargazers in other places, of course, generated different names for the same combinations. For instance, the Arabian equivalent to the constellation Lyra is sometimes referred to as the Vulture (3). In that same constellation, some aborigine people of southeast Australia see instead a Mallee-fowl (4). Different constellations also appear only to specific societies (not unlike a kind of Rorschach test), as in the case of a large Emu constellation recognized as well by Australian aborigines (5).

The Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada associated certain stars with birds. In their folklore, the constellation commonly referred to as the “Big Dipper” or Ursa Major is related as seven birds hunting a bear. The birds, all represented by individual stars, include a Chickadee, Blue Jay, and Pigeon, among others. They attempt to trail the ursine from the spring until fall, but only the Robin is at last able to kill the great bear. Interestingly, the Mi’kmaq’s astronomical interpretation operates as well as a just-so story, in that it seeks to explain why the robin has a red breast and why fall foliage turns red (both, according to the tale, due to the bear’s massive bloodshed) (6).

Starry Nights, Starry Flights

As mentioned earlier, ornithologists began learning decades ago that birds can use the constellations for navigational purposes. In the mid-twentieth century, Franz Sauer was the first to discover that such a thing was even possible. He ran numerous experiments on European warblers which led him to conclude that the birds have the ability to orient themselves directionally by the stars during autumnal migration periods. Another prominent researcher in this field, Stephen Emlen has worked extensively on indigo buntings (7, 8). He has stated, “Numerous species have been examined, and it appears that the ability to orient by the stars is widespread among birds that migrate at night” (9).

Interestingly enough, researchers use the full moon as a lit backdrop for tracking birds during these nocturnal migrations. As a bird flies over the moon, its silhouette is recorded via a photographic telescope. One such facility that routinely conducts such studies is Indiana’s Chipper Woods Bird Observatory (10). Another is New Hampshire’s Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, responsible for this YouTube video of several passing birds over a full moon. Of course, with spring on the way, more and more birds will be making such nocturnal migrations.

Sources:

  1. Cornelius, G. The Starlore Handbook: An Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
  2. “Constellation Names,” Constellation Guide: http://www.constellation-guide.com/constellation-names/
  3. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 69.
  4. Norris, R. “Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: Calendars,” Australia Telescope National Facility: http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/calendar.htm.
  5. Norris, R. “Australian Aboriginal Astronomy: The Emu in the Sky,” Australia Telescope National Facility: http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/AboriginalAstronomy/Examples/emu.htm.
  6. Dempsey, F. “Aboriginal Canadian Sky Lore of the Big Dipper,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 102, No. 2, April 2008. pp. 59-61.
  7. Moon Watching: Studying Birds that Migrate at Night,” Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Indianapolis, IN: http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/moon.htm.
  8. Emlen, S.T. “The Stellar-Orientation System of a Migratory Bird,” p. 3: http://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/bionb221/WIM/readings/Emlen%20%281975%29%20-%20The%20stellar-orientation%20system%20of%20a%20migratory%20bird.pdf. (Also appeared in Scientific American. Vol. 233, August 1975. pp. 102-111.)
  9. Emlen, S.T.
  10. Moon Watching: Studying Birds that Migrate at Night,” Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Indianapolis, IN.