Animal parents: from self sacrifice to murder

In the animal kingdom, reproduction is a vast and interesting topic with many different methods having evolved.  Take for example the frog mums who let tadpoles develop in their tummy and then have to regurgitate them.  Or any one of the marsupials who give birth to jellybean sized young who then have to struggle across mum to find her pouch where lies safety and food.  I’ve written before about kangaroos and how females are essentially a baby making conveyor belt with young at various stages ‘on the go’.

Birth might sound difficult for the kangaroo but I’m betting the hyena is looking on wistfully… Female hyenas experience horrific births.  Their birth canal is a funny shape, it’s longer than most similar sized mammals and the umbilical cord is short.  This means there is a higher risk of asphyxiation, but it gets worse.  The baby’s head is too big to pass through the clitoris (hyenas have an unusual genital makeup and urination, fertilisation and birthing are all carried out through the clitoris) so when a mother gives birth, the clitoris tears.  Not just painful, this can be deadly, with estimates of over 10% of females dying the first time they give birth and more than half of cubs being stillborn.  Things don’t get much better for those cubs that survive either… they tend to arrive in litters of two and the one that is born first tends to kill the second within minutes of birth.

Not necessarily a difficult birth, but the frilled shark has to suffer pregnancy for over three years…  The babies grow a frustrating ½ inch per month and don’t emerge into the water until they reach 1 ½ to 2 feet long…

On land, the longest pregnancy falls to elephants who have to endure almost two years of pregnancy before a baby pops out but thankfully, once little ellie has arrived, the whole herd play a role in raising it.  Similarly, sea lions have collective arrangements with a nursery so they can drop off the pups and then head out to feed.  This rota system works well for sea lions but this communal approach isn’t the case for all animals.  In many species, mum and dad don’t actually engage in parenting and in others, the burden falls on just one parent.  And in some cases, this burden can literally kill mum.

Self sacrificing parents include octopus mums who guard their eggs for several months, starving during this time as they can’t leave them.  Once they hatch, the mother dies.  As sad as this is, it pales in comparison to the desert spider.  When the female desert spider lays an egg sac, her insides start to liquefy.  Once her babies hatch, she regurgitates her innards for her young to eat and nine days later, only a husk remains.

When desert spider lays an egg sac, her tissues start to degrade until the spiderlings hatch. Once this happens, she regurgitates her own liquefied insides for the babies to eat.  9 days later they finish up her innards and then head off into the world, leaving her husk behind…

For orangutans the substantial workload falls to mum who has to spend 8 years raising her babies, longer than any other animal single parent.

Whilst pregnancy and childrearing might be tough for mum, not all dads are hands off.  Indeed, in some cases, its only the male who’s involved in child rearing – the male rhea receives eggs from various females to incubate and rear and the same is true for the cassowary.

Indeed, this system – where the males look after the young from several females, and females spread their brood between several males – is common, especially among fish.
– Olivia Judson

Childcare arrangements vary throughout the natural world with some parents having no involvement, some species specialising in single parenthood and others working together to raise their children.  The type of gestation affects the possible roles for parents.  In mammals for example, where the fetus develops in the womb, there isn’t a lot that the males can do.  For birds however, dad can sit on the eggs and provide food for the chicks just as well as mum can.

Looking at a couple of egg examples, we can see there are different levels of involvement and different roles the parents can play.  The spraying characid is a fish that lays its eggs out of water – the female leaps out of water and lays eggs, then the male leaps out and fertilises them, an act which is repeated until about 300 eggs have been laid.  For the next three days, dad has to stay with them and splash the eggs with his tail to keep them from drying out.

For some leeches, parenting is the basic guarding eggs from predators but for African leeches, a kangaroo style approach has been adopted and they carry their young in a pouch, and for another type of leech, the young are glued to their parents tummy.

But moving onto mammals, we find the Dayak fruit bat where both mum and dad produce milk, taking shared responsibility for nursing their young.  Djungarian hamster males are also devoted to their babies.  They “forage for seeds which they stuff into their pouches in their cheeks; on arriving back at the burrow, they unload their cargo by pushing on the pouches with their forepaws so that seeds stream forth” (Judson).  In addition to finding the food, the males help in the birth process, acting as a midwife and helping the pups out.  They also open their airways and lick them clean, even going so far as to eat the placenta.  Male marmosets also carry out a similar role and will go on to play an active role in childrearing.

Hornbills are another devoted parent.  The female climbs into a nest in a tree and seals up the entrance so that there is only space for her beak.  She is then reliant on her partner to bring her food whilst she incubates the chicks.  Once they are born, the father must bring food for the whole family until it is time for them to emerge.  Overall, the female spends as much as 137 days cooped up in the nest.

But there’s always two sides to a story…  And on the flip side to these dedicated parents, we find infanticide.

In many species where fatherhood is clear, males will kill offspring that is not there.  Infanticide gets pesky children out of the way so that dad doesn’t have to spend resources, time and energy on raising them.  They also do this because without children around, the females get in season and thus he can get her pregnant and have children of his own.  Squirrels, wolves and primates are some of the creatures that engage in this behaviour and about 34% of gorilla infant deaths and 64% of languar infant deaths are down to infanticide (Bondar).

In species which are particularly prone to infanticide, females have evolved a number of countermeasures such as keeping babies in burrows or pouches so that males can’t get to them but there are times when even mum can’t keep their baby alive.

“In rodents, an increased incidence of infanticide is observed for males during periods of food deprivation, and for females during periods of lactation (which confers high energetic demands).”
– Carin Bondar

In coot and moorhen families, who have a large number of chicks at once, parents tend to feed the closest mouth, but if one chick becomes particularly demanding, the parents will try and discourage it by picking it up and shaking it, sometimes killing it.

In some animals, a male having a mistress can lead to the death of the children, the ultimate in wicked stepmothers!  The mistress will often murder the wife’s children and if the opportunity arises, vice versa.

“In both the house sparrow and the great reed warbler, for example, a male with two mates will help only the female whose clutch hatches first, so to ensure herself of male assistance, a savvy mistress will smash all the wife’s eggs.”
– Olivia Judson

Murder isn’t only a risk that comes from your parents; the sand shark practices intrauterine cannibalism, the biggest fetus gobbles up its embryonic siblings whilst in the womb. Whilst an extreme example, siblingcide is not uncommon in the animal kingdom.  In many invertebrates, cannibalism is the way to get rid of your pesky brothers and sisters and thus not only do you get a good meal, you also guarantee increased access to resources going forward.  Whilst not so extreme, eagles and hyenas also kill their siblings, although they wait until after birth.

Of course there are many other interesting births and parenting techniques in the animal kingdom and I could never do any more than scrape the surface here but if these exmaples have whet your appetite, try checking out some of the links below and look into seahorses, that well known fully involved dad!

Suggested reading:

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Wren

“Tiny, plump bird, mainly russet-brown with a pale breast.  It is constantly on the move and has a very loud trilling song that is heard throughout the year.”
– Peter Tate

Whilst today we tend to think of the robin as Britain’s favourite bird, the wren is a stronger contender for the title.  They were found on farthings, featured on stamps, and as we’ll see there’s a range of folklore about them.  But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the wren itself.

They are very helpful to us as they eat insects and spiders, and their small size allows them into little cracks and crevices that other birds can’t get to.  In winter, food is scarcer, possibly hidden under heaps of snow or frozen soil.  Because of their size, they are vulnerable to the cold and combat this by huddling together and becoming more friendly as the weather turns.  This increased sociability is important as a cold winter can kill anything from a quarter to three quarters of the population.  However, when times are better, males are territorial and defend their patch from other males.  There is a season for coming together and a season for putting yourself first.

Despite being one of the UK’s most widespread birds, found almost everywhere except the most remote or highest parts of the country, it is more often heard rather than seen.  There is an invisibility here, an ability to slip between worlds that reminds me of shamans.

Little Jenny wren, small and inconspicuous, has a surprisingly powerful voice.  This is because they have an organ called a syrinx with a resonating chamber and can make use of virtually all of the air in their lungs.

I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song.

“He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears.””
Jay Griffiths

One lesson of the wren, is that your voice is much more powerful than you think, speak up, sing loudly, don’t let your (perceived) smallness stop you.  What you have to say matters, it will make a difference.

“even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.”
– Ussher & Warren (1900)

There may also be a message here around focusing on what you hear, not what you see.  I’ve mentioned our vision-centricness before and how important it can be to tune into all our senses.  Play some music, light a candle, whatever it is that helps you connect to yourself and feel grounded.

Once lucky enough to have seen off other males and found a female to mate with, the male wren presents the female with a choice of nests.  She selects her preferred one and lines it with feathers.  Once the little eggs are hatched, both parents take a role in feeding the chicks.  It was this cooperative behaviour that led older societies to associate the wren with sharing the work load.  Today it may be a reminder not to get stuck into gendered ideas of who should do what household tasks.  Share the work and play to your strengths, even if they aren’t what stereotypes suggest you should be doing.

A Wren’s Nest by William Wordsworth starts with a beautiful stanza describing the wren’s nest, a place of comfort and of safety, snug and cosy.  The protective feeling of being wrapped up warm in blankets.

AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren’s
In snugness may compare.

Much of what I read about the wren, and know from my own observations, suggests a delight in the seemingly ordinary, an enchantment with life, an enthusiasm and a joy that comes just from being in the world.  This is definitely something we can all learn from.  What brings you alive?  What makes your heart sing?  What feeds your soul? What nourishes your heart?

When it comes to folklore, the best place to start is the name.  The latin name is Troglodtyes Troglodyes and means cave dweller whilst the word wren comes from the anglo saxon word wrœnno which means lascivious.

A common, much repeated piece of wren folklore is about the king or queen of the birds.  A Scottish tale of the eagle and the wren involves all the birds gathering and deciding they wanted a queen, but it was impossible to decide on who.  Some wanted eagle, others wanted wren and eventually wren suggested a test to decide the matter, whichever of the them could fly the highest would be queen.  Everyone was sick of talking about it so agreed, even though it seemed an odd suggestion from little wren.  Both birds took to the air.  When wren had got as high up as her little wings could take her, she landed very softly on eagles back.  Eagle continued to fly higher and higher until she could go no higher.  When she returned to the ground, the birds declared that eagle would be their queen as she flew the highest.  The wren poked her head out of eagle’s feathers and said that no, it should be her because when eagle could fly no more, she had flapped off eagles back and thus had flown higher.  Whilst I feel like this was a great case of intellect over physical size, the other birds didn’t agree and said that eagle was their queen.  Similar tales are found around the world, including Ireland and a version from Zulu lore.  Some versions centre around finding a king but I like the idea of the wren as queen better!

“The robin red breast and the wren, Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”

The wren as queen is also echoed in the idea of the robin and wren as god’s birds.  Traditionally, the wren has been seen as the wife of the robin and where robin is said to have brought fire to the land, the wren is said to have brought water.  Because of this duality, you might want to consider the robin as well.

In Scotland the wren is called ‘The Lady of Heaven’s hen’ and if maltreated cows milk would be stained with blood. Similarly, French peasants supposedly called it poulette de Dieu, or god’s chicken, and thought that the wren was at the stable when Jesus was born and had covered him in moss and feathers.

Other beliefs around this little bird include it being lucky if a wren’s feather falls on you, if you hear one singing it’s a sign of good fortune and it was thought that wren feathers would protect you against various perils, especially if you were at sea.

Unfortunately, other stories around the wren and the sea aren’t so positive, at least not for the wren herself.  It was thought that a sea sprite haunted shoals of herring and could conjure up storms before flying away in the form of a wren.  Obviously, this didn’t make the wren popular among some fisherfolk…  In fact, Manx fishermen took dead wrens to sea with them as protection from the storms.

They may also have been concerned because of a story from the Isle of Man about a fairy, who was really a siren, that so beautiful and had such a lovely voice that she lured and charmed many men, drowning them.  Eventually a brave knight was able to withstand her and tried to destroy her but she escaped in the form of a wren.  After this, she was condemned to appear in this form each year until a mortal could succeed in killing her.

This led to the strange annual practice of hunting the wren, a tradition associated with St Stephens day.  A wren was killed, hung on a pole and carried in procession.  everyone who gave the bearers money got a feather for protection.  This was carried out beyond the Isle of Man and we have an associated rhyme which comes from Ireland:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephens Day was caught in the furze
Come, give us a bumper, or give us a cake
Or give us a copper, for charity’s sake

Despite, or because of, this idea of the wren as powerful and destructive, we have superstitions which protect the wren.  In England, to kill a wren, or to disturb its nest would mean you’d have bad fortune by the end of the year.  If you tried to steal wren’s eggs or chicks, your home would be struck by lightening.  The latter is explained by one blogger as being because the wren was sacred to the thunder god Taranis who used lightning as a weapon for protection.  It was also said the wren was sacred to Taliesin, the great bard from welsh mythology, quite possibly because of the wren’s beautiful song which, like the nightingale, inspired poets and musicians across time.

Another illustration of the wren’s power is seen when the evil forces of the deep dark cold days of winter are appeased by a sacrificed wren.  You really shouldn’t go overlooking something or someone just because of their size.  If this little bird can summon storms and banish winter, what can you do?

Canary

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about canaries…  As a pet bird, much of what I found out about them was related to breeding and pet keeping…And whilst I love the animal allies deck, this card feels a bit out of place to me although that could be because I’m living in the UK and the creator is over in America, maybe it makes more sense over the water…  As such, this post is going to be considerably shorter than the rest.  If you have ideas and suggestions about how else I could feel into this, please comment!

Anyway, being a bird, the canary is associated with air and flight and freedom and the air suit in tarot is about the mind and communication so I’m going to lean into the idea of the song with this card.  In this way, I am reminded of the nightingale card from the wild unknown deck.

According to that font of knowledge that is Wikipedia, Canary originally referred to the island of Gran Canaria on the west coast of Africa, and the group of surrounding islands.  Just in case you wanted to unpick that particular chicken and egg scenario.

Canaries are small birds which are apparently very active and very sweet.  The males sing beautiful songs and remind us of the healing power of both singing and of music.  Speak and sing your truth, use your words to soothe and comfort.  Express yourself!

The other canary I’m familiar with is the canary in the coalmine, an advance warning of approaching disaster.  Only you know the circumstances of your life, listen to your gut and feel into what the canary has to tell you – is it here to promote healing or to foretell doom?

The symbology of yellow feels important here, not least because otherwise I’m feeling a bit stuck with this card… Yellow is the colour of the sun, of nourishment, of energy and warmth.  It is attention grabbing and colour psychology says that it makes us feel hopeful.

But yellow is contrary.  It is associated with cowardice in some parts of the world and courage in others.  It is used as a symbol of life but was also used as a marker of potential death in WW2 in the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear.  Yellow is said to bring mental clarity but also agitation and anxiety.

This contrariness reflects the difference between the canary that sings for joy and the canary that no longer sings because they have been poisoned in the mine…

And I’m sorry, but for now, that’s all I have on this little yellow bird..  Please comment if you have anything to add!

Swallow

This post is referring mostly to barn swallows which are just called swallows in the UK.  There are a number of swallow species which are closely related to martins and in some cases, especially when it comes to myth and folklore, the names are used interchangeably.

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“a most inoffensive, harmless, entertaining, social, and useful tribe of birds: they touch no fruit in our gardens, delight in attaching themselves to our houses; amuse us with their migrations, songs and marvellous agility; and clear out outlets from the annoyance of gnats and other troublesome insects.”
– Gilbert White

It would be quite easy to leave the summing up of swallows to White but I won’t!  The reason I’m looking at swallows today is that I’m getting my swallow tattoo this week!

Swallows live alongside us, having moved with us from caves to houses.  They amuse us, they coexist with us though our ups and downs, they share our lives and capture the insects we consider pests.  They were considered sacred to our gods, bringers of luck and are tied to a number of superstitions.  We often revere them, treating them with the respect that comes from the intimacy of living so close.

In many parts of the world swallows are encouraged to live alongside us, enticing them by providing nesting places, and unlike many other birds, there is no significant attempt to kerb their freedom with cages; using the carrot not the stick to encourage their companionship.  This is a good time to reflect on relationships you have and relationships you are kindling, are you using treats or threats to get the outcome you want?

At home in the air, swallows are incredibly manoeuvrable, twisting and turning as they use the sky as a stage for their acrobatics.  Streamlined and aerodynamically efficient, they spend very little time on the ground which led to the belief that they didn’t have feet.

“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings”
– Shakespeare

Sometimes in life we are busy flitting from place to place or task to task and need to slow down however the swallow also brings with it an ability to switch from directions quickly and deal with changes well.  Perhaps this is a suggestion that you move and dance and twirl and spin and do cartwheels if it’s possible.  This kind of action and activity can get you out of your head and into your body.

They spend so much time in the air because they chase insects as they fly from flower to flower.  It is this insect based diet that makes them vulnerable or sensitive to changes in weather and climate.  Insects are less active when it’s cold or wet and so swallows find hunting much harder in these conditions.  Prolonged cold or rain can result in large numbers of swallows dying.  This is a key reason why swallows migrate hundreds of miles – swallows in the UK taking the epic journey to southern Africa, only to return again in Spring.

Aside: It’s probably due to a very sudden drop in sunlight that we’ve just experienced, but this is putting me in mind of Seasonal Affective Disorder and is a timely reminder to myself to start putting things in place to manage my mood for the coming winter.

Migration was not understood especially well until fairly recently.  In the 6th century BC it was said they headed to Egypt or hibernated.  A strange belief that took hold around the same time was the idea that they hibernated at the bottom of lakes and ponds, eye witness accounts were collected but experiments didn’t confirm this.  By the early 1700s the Royal Society amongst others claimed that they headed off to the moon for the winter.  As more and more people began travelling and saw swallows during the winter, the idea of migration became more reasonable.  Interestingly, Angela Turner writes of reactions to this:

“How could such small birds, especially youngsters barely out of the nest, find their way and fly to such distant places?  The idea that swallows and martins would just leave their home at the onset of cold weather also did not fit well with the concept of a well-ordered natural world created by God.  Surely God would make better provision for his creatures?”

These intrepid explorers make huge journeys every spring and autumn making them dedicated travellers.  It also emphasises their freedom, a quality admired by humans and perhaps your need for movement goes beyond cartwheels and requires trips further afield.  This kind of journeying could also be less literal, perhaps an inner journey or venturing in seek of knowledge.  Similarly, it may be about moving a paintbrush around more freely or taking a freestyle dance class instead of your usual tap class.

Following winter in africa, swallows head back north in time for spring, associating them with fertility and new life.  As we’ve seen with so many other birds and animals, this also ties them to death and rebirth.  Spring is often considered a time for renewal and this may be a good time to start a new project or come to terms with some kind of loss and move on.

Swallows usually return to the same nests but for younger birds, it is necessary to first find a mate.  Once you’ve got a partner, you then work together to built a nest out of mud mixed with straw.  This team work continues once the chicks are born and led to swallows being held up as icons of fidelity, of marital harmony and devoted parents.

“All the summer long is the swallow a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection; for, from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground.”
– Gilbert White, 1789

As well as taking a look at your own relationships, the swallow may be inviting you to think about how you can or do work to have to maintain harmony within them.  Relationships are not easy and, as with the swallow, they work better when all parties are contributing.

It is considered good luck to have these birds living in your home and they have also been used to get rid of bad luck, such as in ancient Greece where women could get rid of bad luck by catching a swallow, dabbing oil on it and then releasing it.  Like many good luck creatures, harming swallows would cause bad luck or misfortune.

“The robin and the red breast,
The martin and the swallow;
If ye touch one o’ their eggs,
Bad luck will surely follow”
– Medieval rhyme

If you killed or harmed a swallow the consequences could include cows going lame, stopping milk production, crops being ruined or deaths in the family.  Other less lucky beliefs include the Irish belief that if a swallow uses your hair to line its nest, you’ll have headaches all summer.  In a part of Scotland, a swallow flying under your arm would leave the arm paralysed.  In parts of England, swallows perching on a church roof in the autumn were said to be decided who would die over the winter.

With that in mind, the fashion industry in the nineteenth century probably had a lot of bad luck as it was popular to wear dresses and hats decorated in feathers and even stuffed birds…  This meant that millions of birds, including swallows, were killed for the clothing industry every year.  It was this trade and wasteful killing that would lead to the creation of what would become the RSPB.  In February 1889 a group of women near Manchester started a campaign against the killing of birds for fashion and worked to change attitudes about birds, encouraging a move from shooting to learning and protecting them.  Definitely ask yourself the impact that beautifying yourself is having on others.  It might be that your clothes are made in sweatshops or your make up is tested on animals and I am by no means perfect when it comes to these things but maybe just make one small decision to make things a little less harmful.

As a sentinel species, swallows are helpful in assessing the effect of pollution and climate change over time.  At Chernobyl, swallows have been affected by the radiation and whilst background levels have declined, the impact on the swallows is still visible in their deformed bills and feet, their bent tails, their abnormal colouring and reduced reproductive success.  What ill-health or situation is the swallow trying to alert you to?  Watch out for warnings in the coming days.

In terms of climate change, swallows are used in phenology, a tracking of seasonal changes through the activity of animals like swallows.  The arrival date of the swallow in the UK in spring and the last date they are seen in autumn are affected by temperature which dictates the availability of insects.  Having said that, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “one swallow doesn’t make a spring” which dates back to ancient Greece and Aristotle: “To be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day”.

In many cultures, swallows are seen as good luck tokens but also as being able to predict natural or divine events such as flooding, thunder and lightening.

“When the swallow flieth high,
then the weather’s always dry;
But when she lowly skims the plain
Ere the morrow there’ll be rain.”
– Northumberland rhyme

This belief goes further that just prediction with some people praying to swallows for rain eg in china where throwing stones at swallows was done to get the attention of the gods.  As well as predicting immediate weather, they were thought to predict the season’s weather and where they nested would indicate this.

Able to fly freely around the skies takes them closer to the gods and then, as they return to our houses, we find the divine and the mundane linked.  This led them to be associated with household deities and, in different cultures, they have been asked to bring fertility to the women in the home and to bless marriages and births.  Like with other birds, we also see them as being messengers of gods.

The link with spring, the renewal of life and their devoted parenting connected them with mother and fertility goddesses such as Isis and Ishtar.  In Egypt, where they remained all year, they were associated not with spring but with the sun and sun god Ra.  A particular spell could transform the dead into swallows and in that form they could freely enter the underworld.  This link between swallow and death is seen elsewhere such as in Ukraine where it was said dead children return to their parents as swallows to console them and an Inuit tale that says swallows were once children who are playing at building igloos but using mud not ice.

Dreaming about swallows is a sign of a good marriage and a faithful bride.  This can also be seen in heraldry where a swallow’s nest means that the man of the house won’t be cuckolded.  This association with love was embodied in other traditions such as seeing one swallow foretelling marriage but two being a sign that you’ll remain single.

Although, on the whole, swallows are see in a good light – being faithful and committed partners and parents – their habit of abandoning their nest is seen as fickle and disloyal, and leaving their human flat mates has led to their reputation as false friends.  They’ve also been portrayed as carefree, frivolous and proud.  The latter is captured in one of Aesop’s fables where a raven and swallow are arguing about who is most beautiful.  The raven tells the swallow that her beauty is only seen in spring and can’t withstand the cold of winter whereas the raven’s feathers are able to keep him warm all year round.  The moral being that inner strength is better than surface beauty.  Said raven obviously didn’t realise that the swallow flies for hundreds of miles and so has a lot of inner strength and resilience as well…  For the purposes of oracle cards however, I think this is probably a nudge to look below the surface.

The chattery song of the swallow has meant they’ve been seen as gossips and pratterlers but also as giving good advice.  That said, because of the tendency to being talkative, the swallows advice may not be wanted, don’t go telling other people what to do if they aren’t interested, it’s just annoying!

Turning from religion and folklore to medicine, swallows were thought to be a cure for epilepsy, sight problems, fevers and rabies.  Swallow hearts could improve memory, their blood was used for unwanted hair growth and the ashes of their bill were mixed with myrrh and sprinkled on alcohol to prevent drunkenness – perhaps a medicine that worked by putting the drinker off drinking the alcohol?  Many other remedies can be found but I’d not suggest trying any of them…  On the whole the swallow seems to have been a bit of a cure all… It was also thought that parent swallows medicated their babies with greater celandine, also called swallows herb.  Celandine was, as such, used in eye lotions but also for toothaches and to bring good fortune – I’ll be doing a post on greater celandine soon!

But returning to my point about tattoos, why do all those sailors have swallow tattoos?  Swallows aren’t sea birds after all… well, how astute of you and fear not, I have the answer.  Because they were seen to always return to the same nest, they were seen as able to ensure that the sailors too would return home safely.

I hope you too return to a place, physically and emotionally, where you feel at home.

My birds

Invisible birds chirrup and chirp
Through the window
To where I lie in my bed.

Outside the spare room, I note
The fence pigeons are back
From their winter reprieve.

I missed the cocksure robin
Bobbing in the yard;
I was sick. I miss him.

A blackbird couple builds a nest
In a vent I can see from the kitchen,
When my eyes are good.

There is life outside.
Incongruent to my grief,
My birds sing on.

 

British Sea Birds

“Our coasts play host to some of the biggest and best seabird colonies in the world.”
RSPB

Sea gulls

Perhaps the most iconic sea bird, in the UK anyway, is the seagull.  Actually, there isn’t such a thing as a seagull, it tends to be a term used informally to describe a number of species which include the common gull and herring gull.

Whilst gulls are clearly associated with the sea, they do thrive in cities as well.  The built up concrete jungles we have created work much like artificial cliffs and the conveniently close landfill sites provide them with a nice array of food.  Not that gulls are particularly fussy about what they eat.  However, they are often unwelcome visitors to our towns, creating noise and mess and apparently attacking people and pets.  They are certainly a controversial bird but they do keep rats at bay and what would a day at the seaside be without the calls of a gull overhead.

If you think of gulls from a gull perspective, they are doing a great job at what they do.  They are highly adaptable, competitive, they seize opportunities (or chips) and those attacks you hear of, that’s parent gulls defending their family.  And just in case their loud cries aren’t enough of a warning, you’ll want to leave nesting gulls alone as they are protected by law.

They have a bad reputation in our society today but this hasn’t always been the case.  For example, Manannan Mac Lir is a celtic god who often appears in the form of a seagull.  Gulls can also help sailors by foretelling storms.  It was first recorded in 1BC that when they were unusually active and noisy a storm was coming. And whilst gulls are said to predict death it is also believed that they can save sailors from danger.

Another popular belief is that gulls are the souls of sailors who died at sea.  The same is said of many sea birds including albatrosses and storm petrels who have been thought to embody the souls of cruel captains who were condemned to eternity flying over the seas.

The canary on the cliff face

Almost ten years ago, a Radio 4 programme discussed declining sea bird numbers and what this means for the health of the sea.  Sea birds are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, alerting us to potential issues in the sea.  They are messengers from the vast oceans bringing back warnings and the songs they are singing are not good.

Populations have fallen dramatically and experts are attributing this to the warming UK waters.  This in turn impacts on the amount of zooplankton which impacts on everything further up the food chain.  For our UK sea birds, this means sand eels, a critically important food source, have disappeared from some parts of the Atlantic and North Sea.  Less food available inevitably means starvation, death of individuals and plummeting species numbers.

Our sea birds also feel the impact of overfishing, oil spills, pollution and habitat reduction and fragmentation.  They are being attacked on all sides and if we don’t listen to their cries for help, more and more will at threat of extinction.

Can you imagine the British sea side without the ka-ka-ka-ka-kaows of the gulls?