Owl Cafés

owlcafe

Looking for a date? A close and personal opportunity to gaze into the big eyes of some cutie?

Don’t expect much of a conversationalist. However, he or she may be willing to clasp your wrist. The possibility of posing for a picture or two is not out of the question either (but sorry, no flash photography). Did I mention that this acquaintance can be flighty?

Oh, and one more thing. Visits can get a little messy. More on that later. Apparently, lots of strings are attached—literally—in the owl cafés of Japan.

Who-hooo Gives a Hoot?

In the past few years Japan has spawned many animal-themed cafés, including those dedicated to goats (1), rabbits, goats, cats, and lizards (2). As for birds, parrots (3), falcons (4), and penguins (5) have become part of the scene. Yet none compare to owls, a sensation all their own. That trend has garnered attention from major news organizations, inspired visits from bloggers, and triggered criticism from wildlife conservation groups.

The fascination that residents of cities like Tokyo have toward owls, of course, is understandable. (London, UK, had its own controversial stint last year.)  In most cases, urbanization and technology have widened the rift between people and nature. Yet the human urge to reconnect persists. Owls are appealing because they paradoxically embody aspects that are both accessible and remote.

In fact, few animals seem as simultaneously familiar and strange as these avian creatures. On the one hand, owls are recognizable to just about anybody, even folks with only a cursory knowledge of birds. The frontal setting of the eyes and surrounding facial disks give the creatures’ heads a slight human appearance. Nevertheless, owls also seem exotic and mysterious. That most species are nocturnal and hence hidden from view must largely account for this. Their amazing head-turning abilities—a range of 270 degrees or three-quarters of a circle—and strange assortment of cries have to be factors as well. Add, too, the representations of owls throughout popular culture, most notably Harry Potter, and in mythology, including that of Japan’s own Ainu people (6).

Too Close for Comfort

At the owl cafés, the birds are tethered in dimly lit establishments that serve beverages. Visits last around an hour, with the opportunity to usually get close to a more than one fukurō (the Japanese word for “owl”). Supervision is customary. After all, unlike many birds including other raptors, owls do not have an extensive history of domestication.

Situations can get messy, so visitors have to be mindful of more than just the creatures’ sharp beaks and talons. Owls poop whenever the mood strikes. This means that coffee stains are the least of one’s worries. Some visitors seem to take the splatterings in stride, reporting that getting dinged by droppings is considered good luck (7). Wow, talk about marketing!

Of course, that people in metropolitan areas are excited about wildlife is great. However, there are much better alternatives than these cafés. In the United States, where for legal reasons owl cafés do not exist, raptor centers are a good option. Another possibility is going on a nature hike at dusk with friends or while camping. Why not see these amazing creatures without any artificial barriers at all? Make a “date” to hear and glimpse an owl in its own habitat.

Sources:

  1. Opar, A. “Japanese Cafés Use Live Owls to Attract Customers”, 11/11/2013. Audubon magazine: audubon.org/news/japanese-cafes-use-live-owls-attract-customers
  2. McKirdy, E. “Night Life: Owl Cafés are Tokyo’s Latest Animal Café Craze”, 12/10/2015. CNN: cnn.com/2015/12/09/travel/tokyo-akiba-fukuro-owl-cafe/.
  3. Kugan, J. “Owl Cafés in Japan are the Latest Hoot!”, 8/7/2014. The Star Online: http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/features/2014/08/07/owl-cafes-in-japan-are-the-latest-hoot/.
  4. Lombardi, L., Associated Press. “Owl Café a Hoot in Tokyo”, 2/1/2015. The Columbus Dispatch: dispatch.com/content/stories/travel/2015/02/01/1-hoo-knew-that-interacting-with-owls-would-be-a-hoot.html.
  5. Opar, A.
  6. Morris, D. Owl. London: Reaktion Books, 2009. pp. 57–58.
  7. Siese, A. “I Went to a Japanese Owl Café and Felt my Soul Take Wing”, 1/31/2016. The Daily Dot. http://www.dailydot.com/lol/japan-owl-cafe/.
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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.

Birds in Chinese Religions and Culture

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The power of Confucius’s teachings are legendary. Supposedly he had the ability to captivate predatory birds with his wisdom. A testament to such stories can be found among the ornate decorations at sanctuaries dedicated to the sage and the religion later established in his name. “In rows along the beams of the sloping eaves stand birds of prey,” scholar John Renard observes at one temple, “for, according to tradition, even the fiercest raptors alighted and paused to listen when Confucius taught.” (1)

Another Chinese religion similarly matches the magnitude afforded to its individuals of great insight and conduct. This time, though, the source is the Tao Te Ching, the ancient text of Taoism (also spelled as “Daoism”). Unlike Confucianism, with its emphasis on social structures and education, Taoist philosophy stresses harmonious action by transcending such institutions. The Tao Te Ching, thus, speaks of the person who relinquishes contrivances and artifice to live in accord with nature. And at one point, Lao Tzu, who’s credited as the author of this book, compares such an individual to an infant whom birds of prey will not disturb (2).

The approaches of Confucianism and Taoism often do not coincide, so their presentations of a wise person’s relationship to eagles, hawks, and other raptors differ subtly. Yet this divergence retains comparable features, which may offer a look into how both religions complement one another, not unlike the concepts of yin and yang. In fact, China has a rich history of balancing multiple spiritual disciplines. For instance, before the rise of communism in that country, people practiced Buddhism alongside both Confucianism and Taoism as well as various folk religions. And over time, such systems merged into a kind of socio-religious amalgam still evident in Chinese communities throughout the world (3).

Birds as a Key Cultural Component

Outside of religion, China has widely embraced bird imagery. Among the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, one finds the rooster (4). An ancient martial arts fighting technique is named after the crane (5). Certain avian creatures are employed to indicate important social bonds, or the lack thereof. For instance, a pair of Mandarin ducks signify marriage, whereas a single wild goose implies estrangement (6). Even the Chinese Imperial Court, as scholar Patricia Bjaaland Welch explains, once relied on bird-based badges (e.g., of peacocks, egrets, paradise flycatchers, etc.) for ranking its officials (7). Moreover, she elaborates in her book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery on how that country’s fine arts portray arrangements of specific birds, plants, and other animals to communicate meaningful social themes (8).

Overall, Chinese culture frequently imbues birds with symbolic significance and positive connotations. Jack Tresidder notes in his Symbols and Their Meanings that two common examples, the pheasant and quail, represent virtuous behavior and skill (9). Similar use occurs in Chinese religions, too, for avian creatures often exemplify spiritual wisdom. For example, the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu states in scholar Burton Watson’s translation, “The true sage is a quail at rest, a little fledgling at its meal, a bird in flight who leaves no trail behind.”(10) The last of these three metaphors appears also in Buddhist texts, as noted in a previous post. The pheasant and quail, though, are just a few winged creatures of importance in Chinese religions and folklore.

Finding the Yang in One Bird’s Yin

Before looking at the most popular avian representatives, consider that even questionable birds are not entirely deemed undesirable and without value. In ancient China, as in many places of the world, the owl was considered an ominous creature, for its appearance supposedly signaled imminent disaster or, even worse, death. Thus, an owl’s entry inside the residence of Jai Yi, a Taoist politician during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), spurred him to serious spiritual contemplation (11). The statesman, however, discovered profound inspiration in the superstitions of his peers.

In his poem “The Owl”, Jai Yi questions the creature as to why it has come to him. The bird, of course, is incapable of speaking. Nevertheless, the poet imagines the owl’s response, and in that answer the raptor imparts not warnings but, rather, wisdom:

‘Disaster is what fortune leans
on; fortune’s where disaster hides.
Joy and grief find the same door, as
good luck and bad find the same seat.’(12)

The lengthy discourse from the feathered intruder includes the lines above, as translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, before eventually closing with the following statement:

‘Be free and have trust in your fate
and be a man who seeks what’s true
and though the thorns and weeds may scrape,
what can such trifles mean to you?’(13)

Jai Yi is not the only one from this time period who reconsidered the owl’s supposedly portentous nature. Many of his contemporaries apparently did so as well. “During the Han dynasty,” ornithologist Edward Armstrong explains, “ornaments called ‘owl corners’ were set on the corners of roofs to protect dwellings from fire.” He explains that, due to the creature’s reputation as a “bird of darkness”, the bird and its image were thought capable of preventing lightning strikes and the subsequent incineration of buildings. (14). So, although associated with harm and ruin, even the owl was clearly believed at times to possess protective qualities.

Symbols of Immortality and Sovereignty

Of course, owls have never been as popular as many of their larger, diurnal counterparts. And of these, no other bird has appealed to Chinese religious sensibilities like the crane. The long-legged creature remains an iconic representation of the wise Confucian scholastic (15, 16). Meanwhile, for Taoists, the bird is commonly associated with longevity and immortality (17, 18), characteristics ascribed to living a virtuous life. One prominent Taoist was said centuries ago to have resided on White Crane Mountain (19). Today, the recently rebuilt Yellow Crane Tower stands near a site where several legendary figures supposedly took flight on a mythical golden bird (20). Moreover, depictions of Taoism’s celebrated Eight Immortals frequently include a crane (21)—though a stork appears by some figures (22).

Chinese legends and art also include imaginary birds, such as the aforementioned yellow crane. While too many mythical avian creatures occur to detail here, two of the most important are the great three-legged crow of the sun and the magnificent phoenix. Both have existed as emblems of imperial Chinese rule (23, 24). The former bird became a prominent figure later in Japanese lore, as will be noted in the upcoming post on Shinto. However, Confucius attached significance to the phoenix. For him, this creature represented the wise monarch, the type of figure he wished to see eventually come to power (25). And though such a person never ascended the throne during his lifetime, Confucius left a legacy of ethical teachings to guide the future leaders and citizens of his country.

Summary

Spanning thousands of years before Confucius and the first Taoists as well as after, China’s history is vast. So, of course, is its size. From the rugged Himalayas to an extensive eastern coastline, the nation encompasses great geographic diversity. An abundance of avian life, thus, can be found there. The same holds true of birds in Chinese culture. Gamebirds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors figure in several millennia of scriptures, folklore, poetry, and paintings—more than can be presented in one post! Overall, avian symbolism in Confucianism and Taoism comprises just a part, albeit an important one, in this country’s myriad cultural traditions.

Sources:

  1. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 129.
  2. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Dale, R.A. (translator and commentator). London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Barnes & Noble Inc., 2005. pp. 158-159.
  3. Renard, J. pp. 14-16.
  4. Sun, R.Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. pp. 161-176.
  5. Galante, L. Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel / Weiser, 1981. pp. 15-16.
  6. Liu, W., Lo, I.Y. (editors). Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. First Midland Book Edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. p. 256.
  7. Welch, P.B. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2008. p. 67.
  8. Welch, P.B. pp. 69-88.
  9. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2006. p. 69.
  10. Chuang Tzu. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. Watson, B. (editor, translator). New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. p. 130.
  11. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. (editors, translators). The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, the Full 3000-Year Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. p. 38.
  12. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 39.
  13. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 41.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 215.
  15. Taylor, R.L., Choy, H.Y.F. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Confucianism: A-M. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2005. pp. 157-158.
  16. Palmer, S.J. Confucian Rituals in Korea. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1984.
  17. Renard, J. p. 124.
  18. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 217.
  19. Liu, W., Lo, I.Y. p. 87.
  20. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 355.
  21. Wilkinson, P. Eyewitness Companions: Religions. New York: DK Publishing, 2008. p. 254.
  22. Renard, J. p. 103.
  23. Tresidder, J. p. 71.
  24. Wilkinson, P. p. 243.
  25. Legge, J. (translator), Muller, F.M. (editor). The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism. Volume III. London: Oxford University, Macmillan and Co., 1879. p. 406.

Just a Few of My Favorite Blogs

First Post Pic-Triptic

Since I started blogging, I’ve had the good fortune of getting to see the incredible work of so many talented individuals. Artists. Humorists. Photographers. Scientists. Writers. All here on WordPress.

One of these people surprised me a few weeks ago. Marcy Erb made a special announcement on her award-winning blog Illustrated Poetry. There as part of “Award Wednesday”, she included nominees for two honors. And among the sites she listed was A-wing and A-way. I am grateful to Marcy for her vote of confidence and continued support. She just recently completed five illustrated posts dedicated to the theme of “Poetry of the Everyday”. So I encourage you to visit her site!

To continue in the same vein as Marcy, I would like to nominate a few of my favorite sites today for the “No Strings Attached Award”. What I really like about this honor is that it expresses one blogger’s special appreciation towards the work of another. But no entry fees, contests, or special tasks are required.

In alphabetical order, my four nominees are…

Create Art Everyday

A relatively recent blog, Laura’s Create Art Everyday launched late last year. Her mission, as aptly stated in the site’s title, includes demonstrating a new piece of artwork every day. But this blog is much more than that! Laura is dedicated to discussing the creative process and, moreover, inspiring others. And her enthusiasm is contagious. Since its debut, Create Art Everyday has amassed more than 400 followers and 10,500 hits. In that time, the site has explored collage, portraiture, painting, quilt-making, and mixed media. Laura also has provided a step-by-step tutorial for creating illustrations of birds and promoted “Draw a Bird Day” as a monthly event.

eMORFES: Art Design & Oddities

This ranks among the most unusual sites I’ve ever encountered. As eMORFES explains, it’s “a photo blog focused on the unique and bizarre things of the world. Its articles explore a number of different subjects such as art, photography, architecture and travel.” The site’s quirky entries span from a “Stone-shaped Wooden Cabin in the Swiss Alps” and “The Mysterious Fairy Circles of Africa” to “Owls—Masters of Disguise” and “Frozen”, the latter showcasing a photographer’s images of ice-encased objects such as a lighthouse, flower buds, and even bubbles! If you haven’t visited this blog before, prepare to be amazed!

Graceful Press Poetry

Anyone who believes poetry is dead hasn’t been checking out blogs. The sheer abundance of passion and talent is more than awe-inspiring. Among the many sites I follow, Jennifer G. Knoblock’s Graceful Press Poetry stands out with a style that merges modernist tendencies with neo-romanticist symbolism. One of her poems that first grabbed my attention is “At Yeats’ Grave”, a must-see entry. A prolific writer that regularly experiments with form, her most recent poem “Heartsease for Desire” conjures a vivid bucolic realm of haunting magic featuring a “blackbird boy”. Although all of her poems are gems, here are a few of my other favorites: “J.W. Booth”, “Sun/Child”, and “Grace Speaking”.

Red Newt Gallery

Last but definitely not least, Red Newt Gallery is a blog that’s dear to my heart. Sure, the author is my wife. And she also happens to be the artist and inspiration behind my blog, providing ideas and valuable feedback. So maybe I’m a tad bit biased. But I think she’s more than deserving of special recognition. Dedicated to both science education and biological illustration, her site briefs readers on nature’s oft overlooked treasures—and occasional pests, like the Oak Scale insect eggs inadvertently spilled on our kitchen table! Topics range from the beautiful, such as seasonal changes in the colorful feathers of the American goldfinches and the deceptively disappointing mock strawberries, to the peculiar—the reproductive systems of mushrooms and certain animals (bacula). I continue to learn a lot!

So many great blogs are out there, but the above are a few of my favorites. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you have a wonderful week!

Happy Birthday, John James Audubon

Audubon

One of America’s first great success stories began 230 years ago today. Back then Audubon’s rise to fame was far from certain and definitely not easy. Viewing him as a controversial figure, the scientific community in his adopted homeland even initially rejected his work. Only due to his perseverance and talent was the man whose name today is synonymous with all things bird-related able to secure his rightful place in history.

Born on a Caribbean Plantation

On April 26, 1785, our hero’s unlikely story started in a French colony in an area known today as Haiti. An illegitimate child born to the owner of a sugar plantation, the boy initially resided in the Caribbean. Within a few years, though, his father brought him to France. There he began drawing. Audubon later in life attributed several childhood experiences with his passion for birds, one of which oddly enough involved a parrot-killing monkey. Reportedly, the young Audubon wailed for the dead pet bird, which was later “buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one” (1).

Immigrating to the United States, where he soon married and became a citizen, Audubon continued his lifelong fascination of studying and illustrating birds. His travels took him through much of the continental United States, including parts of New England, the Ohio River Valley, and the Louisiana territory. He interacted with the Native Americans of the frontier, especially the Osage tribesmen (2). On one occasion while hunting a great horned owl, Audubon reported falling into “quicksand up to my armpits” but was pulled free by his companions (3, 4). Like other ornithologists of that day, he often had to kill his specimens. Instead of photography—cameras had not been invented yet—he had to rely on his shotguns (5, 6).

Continuing to perfect his artistic skills, Audubon developing a special grid-board with wires for mounting his avian specimens in life-like poses. The belted kingfisher was the first bird he painted via this new system, a method that he would eventually share with other ornithologists (7). His first successful depictions of birds in flight were of a whippoorwill and nighthawk (8). Throughout his lifetime, Audubon illustrated at least 440 species of birds, according to an estimate made in William Souder’s Under a Wild Sky (9). Among these creatures, the wild turkey ranked among his favorites, its image used for his own personal seal (10, 11). Known primarily today for his paintings of birds, Audubon also illustrated other animals (12). He even made a living during some of his travels by working on portraits (13).

A Few Missteps

Richard Rhodes’s John James Audubon: The Making of an American and Souder’s book, both published in 2004, are wonderful sources for an in-depth view of Audubon’s triumphs and struggles. Much of the information cited here is available in those two biographies. From these books, one can easily sense that Audubon was a man of remarkable expertise, talent, ingenuity, and fortitude. Yet, all these traits beg an important question: Why was he forced to seek endorsement and financial assistance in Britain to publish his magnum opus?

Part of the problem likely involved Audubon’s personality. He was known on occasion to stretch the truth. He frequently misrepresented his origins, but understandably so due to social stigma and legal issues (14, 15). Other statements he made, though, seem less reasonable, such as his dubious claims about receiving instruction from the French portrait painter Jacques-Louis David and hunting with Daniel Boone (16, 17). Some of his field studies and accounts drew ridicule for misinformation, in particular those regarding rattlesnake behavior (18) and his claim that turkey vultures cannot smell (19, 20). While such circumstances are notable blemishes, one must keep in mind that reputable ornithologists of that time period were not immune to mistakes.

Like all great men and women in history, Audubon had his share of flaws. For instance, he and his wife for a few years owned several slaves (21). As noted above, he may have been dishonest at times. Some people, too, may find fault in that he killed hundreds of birds to complete his drawings. Let’s not overlook the fact, though, that he also kept several as pets (22), and that he was concerned about the effects of industrialization on avian habitats (23). But most importantly, besides being the foremost expert on American birds in his day, Audubon was a pioneering artist.

Success First in Britain then America

Some influential people in U.S. ornithological circles refused initially to acknowledge the value of his work, most notably, George Ord, who held prominent positions in the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Believing Audubon lacked the necessary integrity and aesthetic style for science illustrations, Ord and others within the establishment treated the outsider with disdain. Most likely, Ord, who had played a role in the late Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, felt Audubon a personal threat (25). No such resistance occurred in Britain, where Audubon was able to secure the means to print volumes from 1827 through 1838 of his Birds of America, a masterpiece of unequaled quality and scope.

Unlike previous illustrations of ornithological specimens from the United States, Audubon painted his birds in life-sized proportions. He also chose to represent his subjects interacting with one another and their environment. And, as a special thank-you to his supporters, Audubon named several species of birds for international ornithologist-friends, such as Charles-Lucien Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), William Swainson, and William MacGillivray (26).

Later, praises and admiration followed in his adopted homeland. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest and most respected conservation groups in the world, was named in his honor. In fact, digital reproductions of Audubon’s work are featured on the group’s website. Also, several historic sites in the U.S. share his namesake, including John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, Kentucky.

Sources:

  1. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 4-5, 21-22.
  2. Rhodes, R. pp. 82-83.
  3. Rhodes, R. p. 116.
  4. Souder, W. Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. New York: North Point Press, 2004. p. 147.
  5. Rhodes, R. pp. 11, 73-74.
  6. Souder, W. pp. 97-99.
  7. Souder, W. P. 71.
  8. Rhodes, R. pp. 101-102.
  9. Souder, W. p. 286.
  10. Souder, W. p. 245.
  11. Rhodes, R. p. 273.
  12. Rhodes, R. pp. 240-241, 262-263, 335.
  13. Rhodes, R. pp. 145, 216.
  14. Rhodes, R. pp. 4-5, 315.
  15. Souder, W. pp. 11, 19-21.
  16. Rhodes, R. pp. 315, 346.
  17. Souder, W. pp. 11, 264-266.
  18. Souder, W. pp. 223-225.
  19. Souder, W. p. 219.
  20. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 53-54, 62-63.
  21. Rhodes, R. p. 115.
  22. Rhodes, R. pp. 117-118.
  23. Rhodes, R. p. 280.
  24. Rhodes, R. pp. 221-223.
  25. Souder, W. pp. 286-287.

Ancient Flights of the Eternal

Tomb_of_Nebamun_web

Earth, air, and water. Birds embody transition, shifting effortlessly from one realm to another. What if these graceful beings, however, also possessed the power to freely pass to and from other worlds, going off to some Great Beyond or communing with the divine? Ancient art and scriptures throughout much of the world, from India to Egypt, allude to these kinds of beliefs.

The earliest depictions of avian creatures, discovered in caverns of Western Europe, such as Lascaux, Les Trois Frères, Cosquer, Chauvet, and El Pendo (1, 2), provide our first look into how humankind viewed its relationship with birds. Some of the art, which includes designs of owls and auks, dates back to at least 15,000 years ago (3, 4). Ornithologist Edward Armstrong notes that such prehistoric images of birds, usually found in remote cave areas, are actually not common, adding, “The secretive location of these designs suggests they had some esoteric or magical significance” (5). As civilization developed centuries later, the ideas behind bird imagery became bolder and more well-defined.

Links to the Divine and Transcendent

Birds in the iconography and stories of antiquity often hold varying degrees of religious significance. In some instances, the creatures were directly linked with divine entities. For example, in ancient Greece, carvings and sculptures of birds associated with certain deities (e.g., Zeus’s eagle) appeared on temples (6). In parts of India, a wide range of art and architecture features birds, including Buddhist stupas from fourth-century B.C. and Hindu stepwell relief sculptures as early as seventh-century A.D. (7). Hinduism, like other ancient belief systems, connects several of its divine entities with winged associates. Brahma and his consort Saraswati, for instance, have the peacock (8). Other examples of such pairings include the partridge, linked with the god Indra, and the parrot, a favorite of Kama, the god of love (9, 10).

Not just associated with the divine, birds also exemplify the spiritual or transcendent aspects of human life and also life-after-death. For instance, bird symbolism is used in the Hindu Rigveda to describe the passage of the human spirit once liberated from the body (11). Other kinds of stories, though, seem less figurative, in that they tell of people who supposedly changed form. The eighth-century Kojiki, a collection of ancient Japanese myths and historical accounts, reports of an early hero who upon death transforms into an enormous seabird. The description is rather moving: “His wife and children chase after [him] over sea and shore,” scholar Yoel Hoffmann explains, “cutting their feet on bamboo stumps and singing songs of mourning” (12).

In many cultures, birds appear as psychopomps or guides to the afterlife. Some examples include the so-called “Three Birds of Rhiannon”, believed by the ancient Welsh to sing on battlefields (13), and the Celtic goddess Mórrigan said to appear to dying warriors as a crow (14). I can imagine that in such scenarios the weary, untethered spirit was assumed to flutter out of a battle-torn corpse, emerging in flight with its avian guides. Such escorts to the netherworld or afterlife, of course, are not always connected to combat-related fatalities (see a previous post here for some additional information).

The Egyptians’ Obsession with Immortality

As naturalist Ernest Ingersoll notes in his early 20th-century classic Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore, ideas “… that the disengaged soul departs to heaven in the form of or by aid of a bird is historically very old” (15). Disparate cultures are known for such beliefs, including the Assyrians, Aztecs, and Australian aborigines (16). The ancient Egyptians, in particular, were among the earliest of civilizations enthralled by myriad aspects of the spiritual with birds. Besides worshipping a list of deities represented with avian heads (e.g., Geb, Horus, Thoth, Nut, etc.), Nile River Valley residents millennia ago also emphasized the roles of birds throughout an elaborate system of burial practices and afterlife beliefs.

Archeologists have discovered avian imagery and relics in the Egyptian tombs of ancient rulers, scribes, and other officials of high rank. In several instances, bird iconography found at these sites appears to celebrate the hunting prowess of the deceased, such as the wildfowl hunt scene paintings in King Tutankhamen’s tomb (17), Nebamum’s burial chamber (18), and the tomb of Khnumhotep II (19). Experts believe that paintings like these may have also held some sort of magical significance, working as enchantments “to control chaos and to destroy evil forces” (20). In this sense, the Egyptians may have created the images as some arcane means of offering protection and subsistence for the spirit and preserved body in the hereafter.

Besides paintings, other bird-related items to aid the deceased have been found in cemeteries and tombs. For instance, Book of the Dead papyri provide “transformation spells” that include incantations for becoming a “falcon of gold”, “heron”, “swallow”, and “phoenix”, among other possible creatures in the afterlife (21). Furthermore, small figurines of human-headed birds were usually left near the mummified remains. Referred to as ba-birds, the items were thought to represent the deceased’s spirit or ba, giving it the ability to move on as needed in its afterlife (22).

Even preserved bodies of birds and other animals were enclosed in tombs and sanctuaries. Archeologists have discovered millions of mummified ibises within Thothian temples at Saqqara and Tuna al-Gebel (23). Similar counts exist at necropolis sites of other animals, ranging from birds such as falcons to lizards, beetles, and jackals (24). The Egyptians apparently were obsessed with all forms of the eternal. Birds, though, important in many early cultures, clearly played a pivotal part in their complex belief system.

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 200.
  2. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 227, 272, 280.
  5. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 200.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 155.
  7. 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. pp. 141-151.
  8. Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
  9. Bunce, F.W. A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1997. pp. 140, 278.
  10. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. pp. 317, 319.
  11. Bhatt, P.M.. p. 145.
  12. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. pp. 33-34.
  13. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 14.
  14. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  15. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. p. 149.
  16. 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. p. 49.
  17. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 204.
  19. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 376.
  20. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife”. Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. p. 201.
  21. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt” Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34-35.
  22. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. pp. 201-202.
  23. Wilkinson, P., Philip, N. p. 299.
  24. Scalf, R. p. 36.

“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.