Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will’s are not a bird I know about.  As in I hadn’t even heard about them until I got this tarot deck.  So this will not be as detailed as some of my other posts. 

They are also known by the name ‘goat sucker’ and they owe this strange association to Aristotle who reported that they fly to the udders of she goats and sucks on them…  But now to some more accurate information…

Whip-poor-wills are nocturnal and tend to be solitary, although they might form small flocks during migration.  They are thought to be monogamous but little is known about their courtship displays.  What is known is that females try to get the attention of the male by strutting on the ground, head lowered and wings and tail outspread.  If interested, the male responds by approaching the female and undulating his body.  He might circle her and she’ll respond by undulating her body and quivering her wings. 

Assuming courtship is successful, they breed twice a year, laying their eggs on the ground.  Their reproductive cycles are synchronised with the moon cycles so that when the young hatch, there is better light to forage for food to feed them.

Night is normally associated with mystery and things which are difficult to define, but the link with the moon light here suggests that you’re going to get a bit of clarity.

Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, when one parent is off foraging, the other is protecting the nest.  Having nests on the ground means the eggs and young are vulnerable to predators, including skunks, raccoons and snakes.  To protect them, adults will perform the ‘broken wing’ display; they fake an injury in full view of the predator to divert their attention.  You may need to sacrifice yourself for your children, or creations.

As well as being nocturnal, they are masters of camouflage but being invisible doesn’t mean you aren’t noticed.  The Animal Totem Tarot book says that the Whip-poor-will loves the sound of its own voice and their species name, vociferous, means voice carrying, or noisy.  As nocturnal birds, their voice likely seems louder as it has less competition and may infer with sleep.  They tend to be heard rather than seen, making them seem mysterious and its haunting song has inspired folk beliefs. Like many night birds, their call is said to be associated with death or some other kind of doom, including warning of storms.  This all highlights the power of your voice right now.  What should you be speaking up about right now?

As well as being omens of death, there are a number of other beliefs surrounding this bird. To rid yourself of a bad back, you could try doing somersaults in time with their calls… I do have questions about whether you can somersault with a bad back but as I’m also unlikely to hear one, I won’t be able to test this theory. 

A single woman hearing her first whip-poor-will of the spring would remain single for the year, unless she made a wish on the first call.  If she kept her wish secret, she’d would be married.

The Ute people believe that the whip-poor-will is a god of the night and created the moon from a frog and the Mohegan tribe believe that makiwasug – magical little people – would take the form of whip-poor-wills to travel through the forest at night.

Most nocturnal birds become cast as harbingers of death or illness but I feel the link with the light of the moon should bring some hope to anyone who’s drawn this card. There is a glimmer in the darkness and confusion, lean into it.

Reading

Animal Diversity Web

IUCN Red List – Eastern Whip-poor-will

IUCN Red List – Mexican Whip-poor-will

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, by Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor

Bobcat

Before I delve into the world of the bobcat, I wanted to say that with coronavirus and lock downs and self isolation, it is a strange time. If you would like me to look at an animal that has come into your life recently, please drop me and email and I will see what I can do. Sometimes we need to hear the teachings of our fellow creatures and right now feels especially like one of those times.

But back to the bobcat…

Vision is fluid and the eyes tend to lie.  This means that what some see as restrictive and abusive, others see as liberating and freeing.  It really does depend on whose eyes you are looking through”
Animal totem tarot

In the Animal Totem Tarot deck, the bobcat features on the devil card which also ties into the idea of perspective. Depending on how you see things, the devil can be shackling, or liberating and further, it can represent someone who is unshackled and yet is chained because they think they are.

They are obviously feline creatures, and they have – as you’d expect – a short bobbed tail.  This has a white end with a black tip and is held up in the dark so that kits can follow mum.  They also have tufts of hair on their ears that are used like whiskers, and ruffs of fur on the side of the face akin to sideburns! 

Bobcats are found in south eastern USA and whilst they are rural creatures, they are becoming more habituated to urban and suburban landscapes.  They tend to be found in areas with cover for them to slip through, such as forests and brushland, and will sleep in hidden dens, often made in hollow trees, thickets and rocky crevices.

Some people see them as invading the urban landscape, but in reality, we invaded their homeland – there are multiple versions of truth, again we still the theme of perspective.  Sticking with this, bobcats are nocturnal which brings in ideas about night and the moon and they in turn give us mystery and things not being very clear.  The darkness can trick you, making you think you see things that aren’t there and hiding the things that are.  The moon in tarot is all about the subconscious, illusions and dreams.  There is distortion and magic and mystery. 

However, as bobcats have excellent hearing and vision, we could read this as a creature who can help us see into and navigate through the confusion of the darkness and the night.  Perhaps the bobcat is here to be a guide for you.

Bobcats are solitary cats, that only really interact for mating.  They want to be left to do their own thing and to enjoy their own company and are here to remind you that sometimes, you need this time and space too.  When it comes to reproducing, males and females come together for a brief time, just long enough for courtship and copulation.  The female will then be left alone to raise the young.  It takes almost a year to get them to the point where they can go off on their own, and a key part of being able to leave the nest is about being able to hunt successfully. 

Bobcats are well camouflaged and this helps them to slip through the environment unseen, further they are quiet, near silent as they stealthily hunt out prey.  One way they reduce noise is by putting their back feet in the footprints of the front paws, apparently all cats do this, cat owners let me know!  They are known to perch in rocky alcoves waiting for the right moment to pounce and have been described as spring loaded predators.  This puts me in mind of seizing the opportunity.  Related to this, they are what are called opportunists when it comes to diet.  But as well as jumping on opportunities, they are patient, waiting for the right opportunity, not just grabbing at whatever comes to hand.  Be selective, be patient and then go for it.

When I was researching the bobcat, the idea of secrets came up repeatedly with the view that they are inscrutable and cannot be coerced into revealing their secrets.  They are sometimes considered to be keepers of occult knowledge and guardians of secrets.  Perhaps because of the solitary lifestyle, people feel that they can share this information with the bobcat and it will not be shared with anyone else. 

Their night vision means they are said to be able to see into the future, to have profound insight and are able to look within people to their souls.  This may be a time when you can see what others are trying to keep hidden from you.  Trust your gut right now if secrets are involved.  Also remember that with the night comes our subconscious and sometimes we are hiding secrets from ourselves.  If that might be the case right now, it might be time to try and uncover them, you are allowed to know these secrets and sometimes, not always, it can be helpful to tap into our inner world.

Naturally, a lot of folklore around the bobcat comes from Native Americans.

“The Lakota held cats in fear and awe.  They believed that to kill or mutilate any kind of cat – mountain lion, bobcat or even the plain old domestic tabby – carried a curse.  The culprit would have terrible things happen to him.  Therefore, they avoided cats.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer

In some mythology, the bobcat is twinned with the coyote to represent duality.  Another tale explains how the bobcat got its spots.  After getting trapped in a tree rabbit persuades bobcat to build a fire but the embers end up scattered on the bobcat’s fur and the spots it wears today are the singe marks.  Another story explains the bobbed tail.

Their excellent hunting skills are admired by some groups but for others, the bobcat plays a negative role, being cast as greedy, selfish and disregarding social rules.

Ultimately, it feels as though the bobcat is here to help us see into the darkness and the night, and to remind us that there are many perspectives and truths and to look at things from all angles.

Links:

Animal Diversity Web

IUCN Red List

National Geographic

Aunty Flo

Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer

Roadrunner

“If I show myself to you it is only because I want you to see me.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some sort of long-term thing.  I am mere here to show you what you have been missing while your head is constantly facing the ground.  I am here to remind you that once in a while you need to raise your head and take a good hard look at what is around you.”
– Animal totem tarot

There are two types of roadrunner, the greater and the lesser and for the purposes of this post, I will be thinking about them both here and if I’m not specific, then it’s either because my source is unclear about which or the information is relevant to both.  This may not be what everyone would do but I have never seen a roadrunner and researching them has proven to confuse the two.  From what I can tell, they are fairly similar.  They live in different areas, with a small overlap and the Lesser is smaller with slightly different plumage. 

Both the Lesser and Greater Roadrunners are opportunistic predators that eat a wide array of prey including grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, small reptiles and frogs.  The Greater at least beats their larger prey, such as snakes and small birds, on the ground to disarticulate the skeleton, allowing them to swallow it whole.  Take advantage of what is around you, leap on the opportunities you can see.  As you will see, this bird is about action, not reflection.  If you’re familiar with the astrological elements, think fire not air, impulse not thinking.

The Lesser Roadrunner can run up to 20 miles per hour and this is how it moves around most of the time.  Running allows them to use the open roads as racetracks for chasing insects and lizards.  They are also highly manoeuvrable on the ground allowing for quick changes in direction.  This makes them appear as if they are here one minute and gone the next.  They are a flash on the edge of your awareness.  This could be an idea, a thought, an insight and knowing they’re coming, be alert to them.  Pay attention, these flashes are key right now.

Roadrunners can fly but only do so when absolutely necessary – again this is not a bird we associate with air, it had much more earthy, grounded energy.  The roadrunner is here to push you into practical action.

Because of their chosen habitat, they have to face vast variations in temperatures.  Overnight, they lower their body temperature slightly and go into a slight state of torpor in order to conserve energy.  Come early morning, they will then sunbathe – they will position their scapular feathers and expose their black skin which can then absorb sunlight and warm their body.  Of course, they then also have to face the scorching heat of the day.  They halve their activity during midday in order to survive in such a variable climate.   Along with being opportunistic, the roadrunner is adaptable and these traits help it to succeed in harsh environments.

A wonderful fact about roadrunners is that they leave behind a distinct ‘X’ track mark, making them appear as though they are travelling in both directions and it was said that this throws off malignant spirits.  It also looks like they are leaving a trail of kisses in their wake!

Roadrunners are monogamous, mate for life and (at least the greater ones) defend a large territory.  For the greater roadrunner, bonds are renewed each spring and summer through a series of elaborate display.  The male will bow and prance, wag his tail and offer the female nesting materials and food.  Both parents will help to build a nest with the male collecting the materials – sticks, grass, feathers and sometimes snakeskin and cow manure – and the female doing most of the construction.  Nests are built a few feet off the ground, in a bush or low tree and those of the lesser roadrunners are smaller, but stronger and more compact than nests of the greater roadrunner.  Mum and dad will incubate the eggs and once hatched, will feed and protect the chicks.

The Greater Roadrunner has many names, including Snake Killer and Medicine Bird which gives us some insight into how they have been viewed.  There was a belief that they could protect against evil spirits and their feathers were used to decorate cradleboards which would offer the baby spiritual protection.  For some tribes it was good luck to see one and for others they were seen as sacred, revered for their speed and bravery.  For most Mexican Indian tribes, roadrunner meat was used as a folk remedy to cure illness and to boost strength and stamina.

There is a Mayan story about how the king of the birds was chosen explains the roadrunners drab colouring.  Originally roadrunner was a beauty, covered in magnificent feathers and very impressive with emerald green wings and a long shimmering tail.  Quetzal however was dull but had a brilliant mind and wanted to be king.  But because of his appearance couldn’t convince the other birds that he was right for the job.  He persuaded roadrunner to lend him his plumage, just for a little while so he could impress the others.  He was declared king but once he was crowned he became very busy and forgot that he was supposed to return the feathers to roadrunner.  The other birds realised roadrunner was missing and organised a search.  He was found featherless, cold and hungry.  When all the birds heard what had happened, they each gave roadrunner one of their feathers.  Today, roadrunner still wears a strange mix of feathers and runs around calling ‘puhuy?’, meaning ‘where is he?’.

Reading

Animal Diversity Web – Greater Roadrunner
Animal Diversity Web – Lesser Roadrunner
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Greater Roadrunner
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Lesser Roadrunner

Ring tailed lemur

“Are you ready to stand in the full light of your own magnificence?”
– Animal totem tarot

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the ring tailed lemur takes centre stage on the sun card which is an excellent choice as not only are they the only type of lemur that is not nocturnal, they actively embrace the sun.  They bask in the sun, in a lotus position, to warm their body’s as they have low metabolisms.  This relationship with the sun and light is important to consider if the ring tailed lemur has come into your life.  How do you feel about the spotlight?  Are you harnessing the sun for healing?  Are you honouring that which gives life and warmth?  All life ultimately comes from the sun but it also has destructive power.  It can cause harm and set fires, like everything it’s about balance.  If you find the right balance, you can benefit from the sun’s illumination but too much and you can with devastation. 

Ring tailed lemurs also spend more time on the ground that other types of lemurs, possibly meaning they are more connected with the earth element than the air element.  The ring tailed lemur stands apart from other lemurs and remind us that we too can, and should, stand out from the crowd and be true to who we are.  Step out into the sun and let it light up the wonderful being that is you!

They hang out troops which can have as many as 30 members and which has a hierarchical structure.  Females are dominant over males – so the lowest ranking female is still higher up in the social order than the highest ranking males.

Generally, females will have one baby at a time and are solely responsible for its care, with males doing very little.  For the first couple of weeks of life, they will ride on their mum’s belly, then they will ride on mum’s back and begin exploring their world.  Weaning begins at 8 weeks old and lasts until they are 5 months old.  There is a high infant mortality rate with 30 to 50% of babies not making it through the first year of life. 

Tactile communication between mum and baby is important and helps with bonding.  Outside of that relationship, ring tailed lemurs have a complex range of communication including body language, facial expressions and vocalisations.  They use scent marking and will engage in stink battles where secretions from scent glands are rubbed on their tail and then wafted at the opposition.  Males will also do this during mating season to establish who is the strongest male. 

Their social nature and wide array of communication techniques means friends and family are important and if you have pulled the ring tailed lemur card, it could be trying to encourage you to socialise.  Spend time with others and lean into the extroverted part of yourself right now.

The troop will have a home range of 1000 metres and will slowly meander throughout the day looking for food.  On the diet is pretty much whatever is available, including fruits, leaves, spiders, chameleons and insects.  The most important food however is the fruit from the tamarind tree.  For water, an important source comes from the morning fog condensing on leaves which sounds so poetic!

Ring tailed lemurs are curious and good-natured creatures who, despite having a small brain, have been shown to be intelligent.  They can organise sequences and understand basic arithmetic and something I read suggested they may be more intelligent that studies have shown because they likely have an intelligence that shines in a group setting, rather than as individuals in labs.  Its important to remember that there are different kinds of intellect which shine in different settings. 

The iconic ringed tail is arguably their most striking feature, consisting of 13 alternating white and back bands and because of it’s importance to this animal I wanted to unpick some of the symbolism tied into the colours.  Whenever I have looked at black and white birds, I have found mythology and stories about a good, innocent bird, who either did something negative and got punished, or had a link with fire and got burnt.  There is clearly a message around balance here.  White is all about purity, light and virginity, whereas black is about power, depth and evil.  These two extremes can be overwhelming on their own, but slices of them interspersed with slices of the other gives a sense of equilibrium.  We all have different aspects of our personality and none of us are purely good or fully bad.  If there’s something you don’t like about yourself or others, try to look at the bigger picture and take the bad with the good.

Whilst we’re looking at their tails, it’s worth nothing that they hold them up, like a question mark, to make sure that no one in the troop gets lost – a bit like a tour guide holding up a flag! 

The etymology of the name lemur comes with a lovely myth:

“In the late 1500s, adventurers on a Portuguese expedition to the tangled forests of Madagascar were awakened from their sleep by haunting howls. From the darkness around their flickering campfires, the worried explorers saw shining eyes peering back at them. Some were convinced they belonged to the spirits of dead companions.

The light of the morning, however, revealed that the howling ghosts were in fact large-eyed, monkey-like creatures. The night’s scare still fresh in their minds, the explorers dubbed the exotic animals “lemurs,” coming from a Roman word meaning “spirits of the dead.””
Lemur Conservation Network

As lemurs are limited to Madagascar, that is where we find their mythology.  I tried to look into stories and beliefs specific to the ring tailed lemur but wasn’t very successful and as they are behaviourally different to their relatives, I wouldn’t want to infer ideas about the ring tailed lemur from lemurs in general.  In terms of the lemur in general, I found some stories that consider them sacred, and others that see them as evil and vengeful.  It’s further complicated by the aye-aye, a type of lemur, which has a lot of negative beliefs around it and which is often just referred to as a lemur in most of what I read.

Overall, the smile inducing ring tailed lemur speaks to us of socialising, of communicating, of balance and of the power of the sun.  And of course, the power of a female led society – step into the spot light and be your fantastic, powerful self!

Reading:

IUCN red list
Animal Diversity Web
National Geographic
Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Woodpecker

The woodpecker that you are familiar with will depend on where you live.  Different species live in different parts of the world, except for Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Madagascar and the extreme polar regions.  As such, the type of woodpecker you are more aware of will be geographically dependant and so I would encourage you look at the particular characteristics of the one local to you.  This is particularly important because any generalisation about woodpeckers will be followed by an exception.  For example, many are habitat specialists but some are opportunistic generalists, most live in forests and trees but some live on the ground, most are monogamous but others are gregarious and so on!

Aside: if you are using the animal totem tarot deck, the bird pictured is the pileated woodpecker

Every time I thought I found a generic woodpecker statement, I would quickly find an exception to the rule and this feels like a key message from the bird – nothing is black and white, there are always cases which don’t follow the rules and it is absolutely ok to be different. 

Obviously a key aspect of the woodpecker is their endless pecking and I’ll get into that in more detail below but first let’s have a look at a few characteristics of these birds.

Woodpeckers have unique behaviour and this in turn gives them a distinctive role in the ecosystems.  I have found them called keystone species, umbrella species and indicator species:

  • Keystone species – species who play a major role in an ecosystem, helping to preserve it and affecting and influencing other organisms that live within it.  For woodpeckers, this is by providing tree cavities which can then be as nests used by birds, bats, squirrels etc.  In fact some animals can’t survive without the woodpecker.
  • Umbrella species – species whose conservation can confer protection onto many other species.
  • Indicator species – species whose presence demonstrates the quality of the environment

They are clearly important to the world around them and have been called the carpenters of the forest, probably comparable only to the beaver in terms of exploiting the environment.  They are manipulating the physical environment to suit them and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to resourceful, adaptable behaviour. 

Most woodpeckers have four toes, arranged in such a way that helps them grasp branches and also lets them walk vertically up trees. They have long, narrow tongues – often three times the length of the bill – which are covered in backward facing barbs.  This, combined with sticky saliva, helps them to pull insects out of trees.

These are just a couple of illustrations of their excellent adaptations.  Others include their robust skeleton, their strong claws which act as crampons to help them cling to trees, stiff tail feathers which act as props to keep their bodies off the trees and also offer support.  They have a gland at the base of their skull which secretes fluid to trap wood dust.  They have narrow nostril slits, covered by bristles, to keep dust out.  They have a membrane which protects their eyes from dust, a tough skin to protect against splinters as well as the chemical spray and bites of ants.  Their heads are adapted to their drumming behaviour and offer protection against concussion and brain damage by absorbing the impact and their bill works a bit like a multipurpose tool.

If you wanted to design a creature fit for their lifestyle, I don’t think you’d get close to how well the woodpecker body works.  In fact, scientists and engineers are looking at the woodpecker, for example, to inform helmet design.

In terms of their pecking, this behaviour has a few functions.  They drum their bill on the tree to make holes to store acorns and nuts in.  They communicate through drumming, using it to warn of danger, as a threat, to communicate with rivals and potential mates.  It can be a deterrent and an invitation as well as a practical way of storing food.  Practical feels like a crucial word here, so much of what the woodpecker does feels incredibly practical. 

“People, ancient and modern, have been fascinated by the drumming of woodpeckers.  It has often been used as a symbol and looked upon as mysterious, as involving great power, sometimes supernatural strength, and associated with spirits and a call to arms. In some cultures, drumming woodpeckers heralded the onset of the rainy season or warned of approaching storms.”
– Gerald Gorman

The drumming ties the woodpecker to rhythm, primitive music and historically, drumming has been used in rituals and ceremonies around birth, death and marriage.  Drumming was also one of the first ways of communicating long distances. 

Tapping against the tree trunk was said to duplicate the heartbeat of mother earth and the idea of rhythms connects to the idea of cycles, and hence the feminine. This will also link with ideas around creation, procreation, life and birth.

If we look to myths and legends, we find that the woodpecker’s drumming was associated with thunder, and hence Thor, in Norse mythology.  For the Taino people, there was a sacred woodpecker who showed them how to tap and beat rhythms on primitive drums made from hollowed sections of logs.  Without a doubt, rhythm and drumming is crucial to understanding the woodpecker.

“[The woodpecker] has fulfilled a variety of roles, being symbolically associated with fertility, security, strength, prophecy, magic, medicine, rhythm, the weather, carpentry and as a guardian of trees and woodlands.  It has been a war-totem, a fire-bringer, a weather-forecaster and a boat-builder.”
– Gerald Gorman

They have an inconsistent role in folktales, sometimes they are crafty and wise but also naïve and foolish, generous but sometimes miserly, spiritual yet earthy, loyal and devoted but promiscuous, hero and villain, healer and creator but also destroyer, a good and bad omen.  They are a paradox.  For me this is about sitting with contradictions, making peace with conflicting feelings and ideas.  This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it can be very grounding to lean into that acceptance.  Their ability to walk up and down trees suggests ultimate balance so it may be that you are out of sync right now.

“They can walk places where others cannot follow.  These people can strike like lightning one minute and sit back and contemplate the breeze the next.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer

This quote might be about the walking up and down trees, but it could also be about the use of drums in shamanic practices designed to take the practitioner into the spirit world.

The woodpecker represents Silvanus and hence is associated with forests, trees and tree magic, but also regenerative and sexual magic.

“The woodpecker is integral to the natural heritage of our planet, but it is also part of our cultural heritage.  In many cultures it was regarded as the spirit or god of the ancient forest, but today we threaten the woodpecker by destroying those same forests.”
– Gerald Gorman

As well as sexuality, woodpeckers have been associated with light, fire, water, power and divination all of which are primal concerns which for me ties into the idea that primal drumming. 

A Lakota tale tells how the woodpecker taught a young man to carve a flute and he used it to woo the chief’s daughter.  For the Cherokee people, they were symbols of manhood and bravery.  A Mesopotamian myth had the woodpecker as the axe of Ishtar (a fertility goddess).  When roman legions were marching into battle, hearing a woodpecker was seen as a sign of victory and the direction of their flight was used by augers to predict the outcome of events.  These are all themes of love, sex and war and are reiterated by the woodpecker’s position as sacred to Ares, the god of war.

A couple of creation stories re-emphasise the link between the woodpecker and fertility and creation.  The Surui people have a story which tells that people were trapped inside a rock and none of the birds could break it open and set them free, but the woodpecker could.  In a myth from the Owambo people, people lived trapped inside a tree trunk and the woodpecker answered their cries for help and helped to free them.

We also find the woodpecker starring in a number of stories about fire, for example, a tale from Congo has a woodpecker pecking holes in the sky which became stars and a girl crawled through one and brought back fire. 

As well as fire, they are often found in tales about water such as those about floods and drought.  They were said to be able to forecast rain, sometimes summon it and because of the importance of rain to life, this ties back in again to the idea of fecundity, fertility and creation.  Folknames for the woodpecker also tie it to the rain; rain bird, rain fowl, wet bird, weather hatcher, weather cock, storm cock, storm mare, pouring bird, snowing bird and so on.

There was a sharp contrast between how woodpeckers were viewed in Christian and animistic societies.  We’ve already seen the association with life and birth and creation but for Christians, the woodpecker was seen as a heretic.  Their probing into trees was interpreted as a search for evil in the hearts of everyone and the damage they inflicted was likened to satan weakening the soul. 

In one story featuring Jesus, St Peter and an old lady, the latter was tuned turned into a woodpecker by god as a punishment for curiosity.  In another version, she was turned into a woodpecker because she wasn’t generous.  An Estonian legend says that when god created the world, he asked the birds to dig holes in the earth which would then fill with water and become rivers and lakes.  The woodpecker refused and his punishment was to spend eternity digging holes in trees. 

If you want to use the woodpecker for healing, then you might want to roast it to cure leprosy, dry the heart and set it in silver and gold to cure gout.  The bill was said to soothe toothache and their eggs to cure TB.  A red woodpecker feather in a child’s hair would ward off the evil eye and in France, eating the whole bird, feathers included, would protect against black magic.

Disclaimer, these may not be effective!

Reading

Woodpecker by Gerald Gorman
Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate
Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer

Ferrets

“We all have a sneaky side.  It is a necessary skill for our survival.  Whether you have to be the one who is sneaky, or be the one able to spot others in their sly ways, the art of deception is not to be taken for granted.  Smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand all have their place; the real trick is knowing when and where to use them”
– Animal totem tarot

Ferrets are a domesticated form of the European polecat and it’s likely that they have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years.  Historically they were used for hunting, and whilst they still are, they are more likely to be kept as pets these days.

Their name comes from the Latin furritus, meaning little thief as they like to steal small objects such as hen’s eggs.  Over time, their name has developed into a verb, as in to ferret out something.  This likely reflects their sneakiness and their ability to move in and out of tricky places.  They are adept at moving in tight, twisted burrows, can bend 180 degrees and can change direction very quickly.  They move seamlessly between overground and underground, making them masters of both realms.

Their spines are incredibly flexible and supple making ferrets seem long, floppy and melty.  This makes them adorable but also means they can slip and slide through tunnels like water.  But make not mistake, they use this ability to sneak up on prey with extreme stealth.  They are fast and efficient predators who can kill with a single, powerful bite.  This animal is all about fluidity and strength, flexibility and precision.  Slink stealthily and then attack!  Be the unsuspecting threat, take people unaware and make an impact!  The ferret’s presence goes unnoticed until the damage is done.  I’m not suggesting you go out and cause damage, but you can still shock and wow people and this has extra power if no one sees it coming.  Go out and be fierce!

Despite being powerful predators, ferrets have a wonderfully fun side.  I read something which described them as the clowns of the animal world.  They are funny, curious, mischievous and playful.  They are full of energy, they are trouble makers, escape artists and they are intelligent.  This inspires me to be more curious, more adventurous and more inquisitive.  They will literally tunnel into anything, but we can take this as a prompt to dig into a topic or get our teeth stuck into learning something.

Ferrets have a variety of body language in their repertoire including dancing when they are happy, wrestling which is usually a playful activity and their war dance.  This involves frenzied sideways hops, leaps and is not actually an incitation to war, but an invitation to play.  It often comes with a soft clucking noise and ferrets extend their communication options with an array of vocalisations.  They ‘dock’ or ‘cluck’ when excited, hiss when scared, squeak softly when upset and screech if they are afraid, in pain or angry.

As you might have gathered, ferrets are very high energy animals so it’s probably not surprising that they spend up to 20 hours a day asleep!  They are most active during dawn and dusk and when they are sleeping, it’s thought that they experience more REM sleep than a lot of other pets, meaning they are more likely to dream.  I wonder what ferrets dream about…

It wouldn’t be a blog post of mine without an animal sex fact.  In the case of the ferret, it’s that the male has a hooked penis.  Once he penetrates a female, they can’t separate until he releases her.

Since domesticated, ferrets have been bred for fur and hunting, also known as ferreting.  They were sent down holes to chase rodents, rabbits and moles out of their burrows.  In 1390 in England, a law was enacted limited the use of ferrets for hunting to the wealthy and high ranking families.

Other ways that we’ve used ferrets have also taken advantage of their ability to shimmy through tunnels.  For example, they’ve been used to run TV cables underground, to run through parts of planes for Boeing and apparently to clean steel pipes of a particle accelerator

As they have similar immune systems to us, they have been used in the development of vaccines and in testing flu medications.

And I can’t mention human ferret interactions without bringing your attention to ferret legging.  It was apparently a popular sport amongst coal miners in Yorkshire and involves putting ferrets down your trousers and seeing who can stand the longest. 

Ferrets are often vilified and underestimated, with people projecting ulterior motives onto them.  If you are able to ferret out secrets, you may find that people don’t like it.  They may feel vulnerable if you are able to see under the surface.  Of course this doesn’t mean you should turn off your empathy, but it’s just worth being aware of it.  If you are an empathetic person who can sense other people’s feelings, know that it might make some people feel unsettled.  Also, as a side note, if you are very empathetic, remember you can and should set boundaries, you don’t need to feel everyone else’s stuff!

The way ferrets slip and slide through the world means they have been associated with magic at times and were thought to be witch’s familiars.  Add to their stealth, the fact they are crepuscular, and you can also see why they have been associated with invisibility.

When it comes to mythology, there aren’t many ferret references that I could find, likely because they were domesticated animals, and because they overlap with weasels so it’s harder to find any stories or beliefs that are out there.  That said, I did find that their fur was attached to an eagle feather to give the skill of alertness and ability to elude capture in some native American tribes.  This comes from the ferret’s ability to move unseen, and to track and scout out enemies. 

Many myths and stories seek to explain why an animal has a particular characteristic and for the ferret, we have a Cree tale to account for why it seems to be nervous.  He is running and trembling because he is afraid he is being chased.  This would certainly account for the high energy bursts!

Reading

Wild Speak
Animal Diversity Web

Wilson’s Plover

“Decisions are not always easy to make, and it can be so easy to talk your self out of doing something you really want to do.  But ultimately, you need to make a decision.  Will you go with your gut or will you go with your head?  Everything looks so magical on the shoreline, yet you can’t stay in this inbetween place for long.  Things change quickly here and your time is limited.  There is no room for procrastination here.”
– Animal totem tarot

I find inbetween spaces fascinating, the edges of forests, twilight, shore lines, times and places which are not quite one thing or another.  The Wilson’s Plover is a coastal-obligate shorebird so this liminal space is essential to understanding this bird.  It’s also important to note that because of this, they are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

During twilight, another liminal space, they wander the shoreline in search of food.  The shoreline is a place with ever changing boundaries – high and low tide mean it grows and shrinks with the ebb and flow of the sea.  It’s a place where land and sea come together, dancing around each other in a way that gives both access to the same liminal space at different times.  From an elemental point of view, we are seeing the dance between the creative and emotional energy of the water and the practical and reliable energy of the earth.  Bringing these elements together in this cycle of give and take feels magical and makes the shore into a space for magic and manifestation. 

In terms of diet, they hunt fiddler crabs – watching for them and then running after them, lunging and extracting the meat with their strong bill.  They may do this as part of a loose flock, made up of several families.  They also eat other crustaceans, worms and insects.

Wilson’s Plovers nest either as isolated pairs or in loose colonies.  Their courtship involves males performing a ritual nest scraping display which involves them dropping their wings, pattering their feet and spreading and lowering their tails in front of females.  Once he has convinced her that she should mate with him, he makes several nest scrapes, often near some kind of conspicuous object such as driftwood or a clump of grass.  I wonder if this makes it easier to find, like an anchor in the landscape?

Whilst anchors are obviously used to keep boats in one place, I find myself returning to the idea of metaphorical anchors. Places, people, objects and ceremonies can help us feel anchored. It can be easy to feel like you’re drifting through life and many of us have lost the rituals that help to anchor us in time, for example religious celebrations.

“Our elders say that ceremony is the way we can ‘remember to remember’.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

Sometimes I will use a stone as an anchor, holding it, turning it over in my hand and keeping it in my pocket in case I need to return to something solid. You might find it helpful to keep something to hand that reminds you of what you are working towards. You might want to build in a Thursday night date night to help you stay anchored to your partner. Or perhaps you want to do something seasonal that helps you to mark the passing time in a conscious way.

Back to the Wilson’s Plover! Their nests are simple scrapes in the sand, with a sparse lining of pebbles, shell, grass and debris.  Once the female has selected one of nest sites, she will lay three eggs which she incubates at night and the male incubates during the day.  This continues for about 25 days.  Once hatched, both parents will tend to the chicks, although the chicks will feed themselves.  They tend to take their first flight around 21 days old and leave the nest soon after hatching.   

In case you were wondering, the Wilson in question here is Alexander Wilson who was a Scottish-American ornithologist and it was his friend George Ord who named the bird after him.

I realise this is considerably shorter than most of my animal spirit posts, and notably lacking in information around mythology and folklore.  Unfortunately, I really struggled to find out much factual information, let alone anything around the symbolism of the Wilson’s Plover… If you happen to know anything more about the Wilson’s Plover then please do share it in the comments below!

My main takeaways from the Wilson’s Plover are really about the magic shoreline and the value in not hanging around procrastinating.  As we saw in the quote from the animal totem tarot, there is no room for procrastination here.  The tide is rising and you need to make a decision before it engulfs you.  Similarly, the chicks don’t hang around long – they hatch and within the same moon cycle, are taking their first flight. 

As I’ve been researching – and failing to find much – I have been wondering why the creators of the animal totem tarot deck included this bird.  Most of the other cards are well known, well researched, well studied animals such as the chicken or the giraffe but the Wilson’s Plover seems to be a mystery.  There is something enigmatic about it and the same is true of liminal spaces and maybe this card is asking us to lean into the unknown, the mysterious and the unclear…

Reading:

All about birds
Audubon