A Holiday just for Drawing Birds

DrawaBird_Kaeli

Kids love to draw. Almost all children do it, but adults, not so much. Unfortunately, as we become grown-ups we often lose our connection to this creative impulse. Sometimes a child needs to show us again how making art can not only be fun but even therapeutic. Such is the story of Dorie Cooper, a little girl in 1940s England, whose memory later inspired Draw a Bird Day.

Bird Art as Therapy

The website devoted to this unofficial holiday, www.dabday.com, recounts that a 7-year-old Dorie frequently accompanied her mother to the hospital. There they visited the girl’s uncle, a war veteran maimed from a landmine explosion. Dorie attempted to cheer him up, suggesting he draw a picture of a bird for her. And so the uncle did, attempting to sketch a European robin. Apparently, the drawing wasn’t very good, but that was okay—his mood seemed to improve a bit nonetheless. During the girl’s subsequent visits, her uncle and eventually the other injured soldiers on the ward felt inspired by her to continue making bird illustrations.

Not many details are readily available online about Dorie’s story. Besides the tremendous impact the girl reportedly had on others at the hospital, from patients to doctors, the Draw a Bird Day website notes that the girl’s life was soon cut short due to a tragic accident. She was hit by a car just a few years after her first visit to the hospital. April 8th—the day set aside for people all over the world, no matter their age or skill level, to make pictures of birds—was her birthday. According to the website, it commemorates Dorie’s love of drawing birds as both “a way to express joy in the very simplest of things in life and as a way to help soldiers everywhere forget war and suffering even if only for a short time” (1).

Why Dorie chose birds, rather than, say, cats, dogs, or trees, likely lies in the meaning humans have long attached to our winged neighbors. As a symbol, birds generally represent very positive and dynamic things, like hope, joy, and freedom. So I can easily see how illustrating these creatures makes sense as a means of art therapy. For example, after rock musician Edwyn Collins suffered a debilitating stroke several years ago, he later explained how drawing birds aided his recovery. “Drawing was the first skill to come back to me, so it meant the world,” he states in a 2008 online article in The Guardian. “If I can draw, what else can I do? It gave me back my confidence in myself. And my dignity.” His first bird drawing was of a widgeon. That was the beginning. “Each day I drew at least one bird”, says Collins, noting that he could see the quality of his sketches getting better with time and practice (2).

Overcoming Obstacles

Of course, besides its therapeutic value, drawing birds can offer other rewards. First and foremost, the activity can just be a fun thing to do. Kids realize this. Also, they usually won’t hesitate to try their hand at something new. Adults, on the other hand, may need some coaxing. Some folks mistakenly believe that drawing is only for children and professional artists. But having fun requires letting our urge to quickly judge and criticize drop to the wayside so that we can move forward. After all, enjoying the process is much more important than any attachment to the final result.

At the very least, drawing can turn into a fun hobby, just like watching birds—or writing about them. So, here’s to Draw a Bird Day. And to that creative “inner child” in all of us!

In anticipation of Draw a Bird Day on Wednesday, this week’s post features drawings from our neighbors’ talented 8-year-old daughter, Kaeli. She’s sitting in this week for my wife. So, many thanks to Kaeli!

Sources:

  1. “Draw a Bird Day: in Memory of Dorie Cooper”. Draw a Bird Day (official website): http://www.dabday.com.
  2. Collins, E. “My feathered friends”, 10/26/2008. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/27/art-illustration-edwyn-collins.
Advertisements

WANTED: The “Real” Robin

robins

Just about everything—no matter its size, location, or value—has a name. After all, the process of getting to know something involves identifying it. Your street and city have names. Days, months, and years have them, too, as do galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, plants, atoms, viruses, etc.

Obviously, some folks more than others need a precise and well-established system of naming things. This is true in particular for those working in scientific fields, such as ornithology. As specialists studying birds, many of which migrate from one region to another, ornithologists around the world must be in agreement on what to call a particular bird; otherwise, misunderstandings are bound to ensue. Below is a look at just how easily problems can occur.

A Case of Stolen Identity?

Confusion easily arises when two different species of birds have the same common name. This happens more often than you may think. The popular robin is a prime example. The one chirping in the backyard of an American home is not the same robin singing around the English countryside. In fact, as far as birds go, they’re not even closely related. The American robin—on the left in the line-up above—belongs to the thrush family, while the European robin—the one on the right—is considered a chat (1). This means that nineteenth-century poets Emily Dickinson and John Clare, both well-known for their poems involving robins, were actually referring to two different kinds of birds.

The two songbirds do possess similar characteristics, mainly the red breast amid an otherwise dark-feathered body. The likeness in their appearance is primarily why the American bird came to be known by the same moniker as another across the Atlantic. Overall, European explorers and settlers encountered lots of birds overseas that were unfamiliar to them. And in many cases, these folks referred to the New World creatures with Old World labels, based primarily on similarities in how the birds looked (2). Unfortunately, the American robin is just one of several birds with a borrowed name.

Borrowed Names Hatch Confusion

In Europe, the yellowhammer is a bunting known for its golden color and erratic flight. The poet John Clare wrote at least a couple poems about the bird, including “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” where he describes the female creature’s most peculiar attribute, laying what looked like “pen-scribbled” eggs (3). On the other hand, when reading Clark Ashton Smith’s short poem “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest”, one can’t help but notice a critical discrepancy—he describes the eggs as “porcelain-white” (4).

It’s as if the two men are writing about two different types of birds. And, in fact, they are. Though better known today as the yellow-shafted northern flicker of the woodpecker family, the creature in Smith’s poem is also often regarded in the U.S. as the yellowhammer—perhaps in part due to the hammering sounds produced by the wood-pecking bird. Alabama, nicknamed the “Yellowhammer State”, has even named this flicker its official bird (5, 6). However, these two creatures, just like the aforementioned robins, are not closely related.

More Birds in Name—but Not the Same

As with the yellowhammer, New World versions of orioles, warblers, and blackbirds belong to different families than their Old World namesakes (7). For a couple common examples in literature regarding the latter, the North American subject of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is different from the thrush “blackbird” of the popular English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” But despite issues such as these, the most confusing instance in identification has to lie with the nightingale. This is because that name has been applied on several continents to a host of different birds.

The songbirds mentioned in the poems of John Keats, Ryokan, and Hafiz of Shiraz are all called nightingales, yet each are from different avian families. A chat’s “plaintive anthem” inspires a terminally ill Keats to write what perhaps is his most famous ode (8). This is the bird we here in the West, of course, still commonly regard as the nightingale. Meanwhile, the uguiso, a Japanese warbler renowned as well for its vocals, is the nightingale cited in the verse of Ryokan, a contemporary of Keats (9). And then there’s the bird featured in the work of Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Persian poet. His nightingale is the bulbul, a songbird in the Middle East celebrated as the unrequited lover of the rose (10, 11).   And to further complicate matters, some Americans have thought of the virtuoso mockingbird as a “nightingale” (12). Interestingly, seventeenth-century English ornithologist Francis Willughby even refers to the cardinal as a “Virginian Nightingale” in his Ornithologiae libri tres (13).

Some Simple Solutions

One can easily see that a nightingale is not always the same nightingale another person may have in mind! Location, of course, dictates language, but less so when global communication is at stake. For worldwide conversations, relying on common names can be problematic. But what’s one to do, outside of learning the Latin-based scientific nomenclature? Well, one helpful approach entails cultivating an awareness of possible discrepancies in usage when looking back at historical documents, literature, art, and the like. This method particularly seems feasible for dealing with past occurrences in writings.

For present-day usage, many people, especially scientists, have introduced another solution. To help thwart the confusion that has arisen due to such nomenclature issues, the International Ornithologists’ Union has established a standard set of common English names for all birds (14). This group’s recommendations ensure that no two birds end up sharing the same name. Overall, the uniform standards are helpful. I’m still acclimating myself to the guidelines, a few of which I may continue to skip (e.g., capitalizing names). Nevertheless, at least there’s some clarity available when attempting to speak about two different birds with the same common moniker.

Next week, we will look a little bit deeper at bird names, exploring some of their more unusual and humorous aspects.

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 212-214.
  2. Wells, D. p. xiv of introduction.
  3. Clare, J. “The Yellowhammer’s Nest.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179904.
  4. Smith, C.A. “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest.” PoemHunter.com: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/boys-rob-a-yellow-hammer-s-nest/.
  5. Wells, D. p. 72.
  6. “Official Symbols and Emblems of Alabama: State Bird of Alabama.” Alabama Dept. of Archives and History: http://www.archives.state.al.us/emblems/st_bird.html.
  7. Wells, D. pp. 12-14, 156-157, 263-266.
  8. Keats, J. “Ode to a Nightingale.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173744.
  9. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Stevens, J. (translator). New York: Weatherhill, Inc. 2004. p. 40.
  10. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 49.
  11. Wells, D. p. 151.
  12. Wells, D. pp. 147, 150.
  13. Page, J. and Morton, E.S. Lords of the Air. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1989. p. 49.
  14. Gill, F. and Donsker D. (Editors). 2014. IOC World Bird List (v 4.4). doi: 10.14344/IOC.ML.4.4.: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.

Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

UnderwaterSwallows_web

Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming.” This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite far fetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1–6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39:26–30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “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.
  3. 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/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”

How Come Crows and Ravens are Black?

crowheron_JustSo

Why do swallows have forked tails and herons have bent necks? Why do robins have red breasts? And why are crows and ravens black? For the simple, unscientific answers to such questions, one doesn’t have to look far. Folklore offers some interesting answers.

Such stories are sometimes referred to as etiological myths. They’re common in many cultures, and are often referred to as “just-so” or pourquoi (French for “why”) stories. The famous British author and poet Rudyard Kipling actually published a book in 1902 called Just So Stories for Little Children that offers responses on an assortment of things, including the origins of the leopard’s spots and the camel’s hump. You’ve probably heard of such explanations. Well, similar tales also exist throughout the world to account for the characteristics of certain birds.

So why exactly does the swallow have a forked tale? Well, according to a Palestinian folktale, the bird narrowly escaped from the striking serpent’s bite, losing part of its tail feathers (1). For the Buriat, those feathers were detached by an arrow flung by the sky god Tengri (2). Also, in a similar story from Namibia, Africa, the heron managed to evade an attacking jackal, but the incident left the bird with a crooked neck (3). Somehow, these traits, through a kind of unnatural selection, apparently have been passed down ever since.

Many “just-so” stories account for the color of a particular bird’s feathers. The Pima have a legend that relates how the bluebird bathed in a lake for several mornings, eventually shedding its unattractive feathers and growing beautiful blue ones in their place (4, 5). The Cherokee have a similar story about a “magic red pool” that transformed the cardinal, thought to be originally brown (6). A darker tale from Wales reports that the European robin got its red breast—burned from hellfire—while compassionately tending to the damned (7).

Fire does seem to play a role in lots of these etiological accounts. According to the Brule Sioux, crows were originally white, and owe their black plumage to a charring incident involving an angry council of Native American hunters and their campfire (8). The idea of soot, ash, or smoke being responsible for a bird’s color is remarkably widespread, too, ranging from an old account in Brescia, Italy, of blackbirds in chimneys to the Cherokee’s story about ravens transformed inside a hollow tree struck by lightning (9).

Tales like these indicate how the human mind can easily misconstrue aspects of biological development and/or evolution. Perhaps one of the strangest cases involving such misunderstandings, though, arose centuries ago. We will look next week at the bird some people thought was a fish.

Sources:

  1. McNamee, G. (editor). The Serpent’s Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2000. pp. 52–54.
  2. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 139.
  3. Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 38.
  4. Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. (editors). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. pp. 346–347.
  5. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (first edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  6. Martin, L.C. p. 23.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., UK: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 51.
  8. Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. pp. 395–396.
  9. Tate, P. pp. 1, 116.