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

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

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

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

What’s in a name?

“the heron has had more than 30 local names in Britain, including hegrie (Shetland), moll hern (Midlands), frank (from the bird’s call – Suffolk), longie crane (Pembroke). Dandelion has at least 50, including clocks and watches, conquer more, devil’s milk plant (from its white latex), four o’clock, golden suns, lion’s teeth, piss-a-bed (the leaves are a renowned diuretic), priest’s crown, wet-weed, wishes.”
Richard Mabey

There is a wonderful, poetic beauty in many folk names that our scientific or proper names miss.  Folk names also give us a glimpse into history, into how the people who named them saw the world.

“Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people. They log resemblances, uses, sounds, mythic associations, smells, seasonal appearances, kids’ games, superstitions, habitats. They’re witty, concise, evocative, sometimes even satirical.”
– Mabey

There are in fact so many wonderful names that Michel Desfayes, in his A Thesaurus of Bird Names, lists more than 100,000 European folk names.  And that is for birds alone.  And taking my lead from Desfayes, today I will just be looking at birds.

The world we enter when we look back at names is one with a more intimate connection to the world, to other living beings and through those names, we can see respect, reverence and frustration.  Through names, we see species through the eyes of our ancestors.

Birds are often named for their song, their habitat or their appearance, both the colloquial name and the more official names.  The latter category also often includes birds which are named after a specific person, such as Montagu’s harrier.

To explore folk names, let’s start with the Stonechat.  They have a myriad of names, many include reference to where the bird is found, some to it’s voice, some to appearance, others to it’s behaviour.  The Stonechat is associated with gorse and we find this reflected in folk names such as gorse-bird, gorse-linnet, gorse-chat and gorse-jack.

If we look to the Willow Warbler, we find 31 names containing nest references eg grass wren, ground-oven, ground featherpoke.  In terms of names which refer to their song, we have sweet-billy with sweet suggesting their ‘soo-weet’ call.  Other names include diminutive terms such as the Irish name sally-wren with wren often used in species which are not wrens, but rather to indicate a small bird, in the same way that the suffix -ling is often used. 

“sally-wren is special in combining both a female name, a reference to the habitat or context of willow (as in the various references to Sally or Salley Gardens in Northern Ireland and Ireland, respectively, and of course Salix – the willow), and to sallying (a word from a French root), the behaviour of flaying out after and insect and returning to the same perch or a nearby one.”
– Andrew Gosler, British Wildlife, August 2019

We have seen the use of human names in sally-wren, and I’m sure you are familiar with jenny-wren, but other names for the Wren include kitty-wren, katie-wren, jenny-squit, joey-cutty and kitty-tope.  For the Dunnock, we have hedge-betty and billy hedge-sparrow.  For the Great Tit, we have tommy-tit and so on.  Gosler states that this is a ‘significant indicator of the nature of human relationships with these birds in the past’.  Pre 1950ish, calling someone by their first name was a sign of familiarity and would be used for close friends and family members, as well as children.  Using human names for birds makes them easier to remember as they are already familiar words and makes the birds seem like an extension of the family and thus part of the circle of those we care for.

As well as references to general habitat, some birds have folk names that refer to where they build their nests, information which would have been very helpful for egg collectors – something we have a lot less need to know these days.  Another wonderful example that illustrates the interconnection between human lives and birds comes from the Corn Bunting whose eggs have markings like a child’s scrawl and who has names such as scribble bunting, scribbling school master and writing master. 

Names matter, not only because they provide information, but also because they are not necessarily neutral.  For example, Dunnocks were once Hedge-sparrows but sparrows have been a bit of a pest over human history.  In 1951, Max Nicholson called for name changes for a few birds, including the Dunnock:

“Dunnocks do no harm to us, but haqve in return been exposed to the undeserved insult and injury of being miscalled hedge-sparrows by people too stupid to see the absurdity of such a name.”

We can also turn to names to think about changing human culture and technology.  For example, many folk names refer to the sound of a bird through onomatopoeia because you can often hear but not see a bird.  Additionally, specific features were harder to identify before telescopes and binoculars were readily available. 

Whilst some bird songs lend themselves well to onomatopoeic names, others have melodies that are more complicated and are harder to condense into a human word or two.  This is why we have the cuckoo and chiffchaff, but don’t for example refer to the nightingale onomatopoeically.

When it comes to appearance, over 130 official British bird names refer to colour, with red and black being the most prominent; redstart, red grouse, redwing, blackbird, blackcap…  This might sound a sensible way of naming but it doesn’t allow for sex differences… the female blackbird being brown is an obvious example of this but there are others.

Whilst this is all very interesting, you may be wondering whether it matters?  Well, apparently research suggests that children can learn about nature when it is culturally contextualised.  Gosler refers to teaching students about the folk name yaffle for the Green Woodpecker, named for its call, and the success that this has as it ‘can catch in the mind more readily’ that the official name.

None of this is to say that folk names are superior to official names, or vice versa, but to highlight that both that their own function and their own virtues.  Scientific names allow for precise communication, including that across language barriers and over different geographic areas, without confusion. 

“They are a universal currency across cultures and languages, providing consistent names for both familiar organisms and those organisms that neither have a common name nor ever will.  Without Latin names, chaos would rule the science of biology”
– John Wright

As a bit of an aside, if you happen to know Latin or Greek, you can take a stab at working out what species is being referred to by a scientific name.  For example, take Somateria mollissima aka the eider duck.  We have soma meaning body, erion for wool, mollis is soft and issima as a word ending means very.  So, it is the ‘thing with very soft body wool’!  Whilst translating scientific names can be a fun puzzle resulting in, sometimes, poetic descriptions, they aren’t easy to remember, recall or even spell…

Whilst referring to plants, this extract from an article highlights an important point about the closeness of folk names in comparison to scientific names:

“Scientific terms in Greek and Latin, often disconnected from a local environment, aren’t always informative to the average person. Poison oak, for example, is a name that asks you beware of a plant with oak-like leaves. These folk names may often contain valuable descriptive knowledge that, given the vast variety of plants not yet fully classified, may not be available anywhere else but from the local people who live in that environment.
How Language and Climate Change Connect

Of course, nothing in language is static, and we can create our own traditions, especially if doing so helps us connect with the world around us more intimately.  Knowing the ‘correct’ name is not always important.  For inspiration, you can turn to A. F. Harold’s poem ‘Among The Ornithologists’:

“This one I’ll call the Fifth Day of Christmas Bird for its eye’s gold ring,
Here’s the Nervous Bugger who’s always a step ahead, twittering…
… A Single Drop of Blood in the Darkest Night Bird paddles out of a dream…”

(I couldn’t find a link to the full poem, so you’ve just got an extract.  It’s found in Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, by Stephen Moss)

Links

Blue footed booby

When it comes to the blue-footed booby, magic lies in their feet, in their – unsurprisingly – bright blue feet!  They are a comical looking seabird which have long, brown wings and white plumage as well as a blue bill.

When it comes to pairing up, it’s all about those feet and the bluer the better as it’s a hard colour for them to make so it’s an indication of how healthy the suitor is.  To make sure the girl you’re wooing knows how blue your feet are, you will engage in a mating dance which is all about showing her your magic.  Show your feet, bow long, wings out, give her a gift and show off your feet!  If it’s going well, you might both dance; mirroring each other helps to form a partnership.  Even though you no longer build nests out of twigs, you’ll then try to impress her with your nest building skills and may offer her pieces of nest building material.  If all of this goes your way, you’ll continue your courtship display even after you’ve mated but be warned, your girl isn’t just yours – when you’re away, she’ll flirt with your neighbours.

About half of blue footed boobies have extra relationships but whilst sexual monogamy doesn’t seem important, they are socially monogamous and will raise their family together.  Creating a successful family unit, in partnership, is more important to them than any extra marital affairs.  This might be a call to consider your own views on social and sexual monogamy.  They are not always united, for some people social monogamy might be more important than sexual monogamy but your feelings will be mingled with your feelings about sex and relationships.  This is a good time to remind yourself that different people have different sex drives and different sexual interests and being in a great relationship with someone doesn’t mean that those will automatically match.  Talk about what you consider to be cheating, talk to your partner(s) about your relationships and expectations.

Once they’ve mated, a female will lay her eggs in a shallow depression on flat ground and they like to have plenty of room between their nest and those of others in the colony.  This makes me think of new parents and interfering relatives who all feel like they know best and who crowd in around the mum with no respect for her boundaries…   They also surround their nesting area with guano, just to really get the message across.  I’m not going to suggest you go that far, but if the blue footed booby has entered your life, it might be worth reinforcing your own boundaries.

As the female blue footed booby doesn’t have brooding patches like most birds, she’ll use her webbed feet to incubate her clutch.  When they begin to hatch, she’ll support the eggs on top of her feet and the young will stay there for a month.  Both parents will feed the chicks.  It’s been discovered that the key to a long term relationship is the equal sharing of nest duties, year after year.  Something I’m sure many women around the world would raise a glass to!  In terms of breeding success, young seem to have the best chance in life when one parent is young and the older is old so if you’re looking for your own long term partner, maybe through the idea of ‘age appropriate’ out of the window!  With the caveat that we should still abide by laws of consent and so on…

They are named, clearly, for their blue feet but the word booby comes from Spanish sailors who thought that the way they walked meant they were stupid or foolish.  Despite their clumsiness on land, they are agile in the air and great underwater – judge someone by their skills in their preferred environment.

People don’t always think these birds are real, and certainly their feet can look photoshopped, additionally, the majority of the population is found in the Galapagos Islands – far from most people’s eyes.  It is also probably because of this that I struggled to find much symbolism related to the blue footed booby.  Generally, when I’m researching animals, I will at least find some cultural or symbolic meaning from their natural homeland, but I really struggled with this bird…

There is clearly importance in paying attention to foot health, to communicating through your body and in reflecting on your relationship models.  They are confident and don’t let their comical walk bring them down and that is a lesson we all need reminding of from time to time.  In fact what makes them seem odd and awkward is actually one of their greatest assets and one they have decided to make the most.

Apparently they are symbols of fearlessness but as their main predators are sharks, and humans, I wonder about this.  It’s easy to be fearless when you’ve rarely needed to be afraid…

“The blue footed booby is also a symbol of creativity and dreaming. It might be time to take that dream and make it a reality. The booby is telling you to keep in touch with your creative side. Anything is possible, as long as you can imagine it. Use your creativity to make it happen.”
Free Spirit Meg

As they are agile in water, an element which is associated with emotions, they are able to dive deep into their inner world and are comfortable at navigating their feelings.  So often, so many of us push our feelings down or try to turn them off but that will backfire at some point.  Instead, the booby suggests we get to know our feelings, we feel them and we let them go.

As I couldn’t find out very much about the blue-footed booby, I thought I’d turn briefly to the symbolism of the colour blue.

Blue is said to symbolise trust, loyalty and confidence – all aspects that we’ve seen, to different degrees, when we’ve looked at the booby.  It is a calming colour that apparently slows down the human metabolism and it associated with cleanliness and purity.

“Blue represents both the sky and the sea, and is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration, and sensitivity. Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven, and intelligence.”
Bourn Creative

As there are so many different shades of blue, it can have contradictory meanings dependant on the specific colour.  Light blues are associated with health, healing and tranquillity whereas dark blue is associated with knowledge, power and seriousness.

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Flamingos

The flamingo is iconic, highly recognisable and charismatic with its bright cheerful plumage, crooked, spindly legs and that quintessential pose.  These birds of light, with their fiery feathers, naturally occur on five of the seven continents and their name is derived from flame.  I find this interesting – a bird that is often seen as comical is actually incredibly powerful and that is a theme we will come across again as we look into the flamingo in more depth.  There is much more to them that the tropical, amusing symbol of fun.

A key distinguishing feature of these birds is their colour which is due to their diet.  They eat organisms which contain carotenoids which in turn create the shades of pink that the flamingo is known for.  Their babies aren’t pink, in fact they don’t get their bright colouring until they are between two and four years old.  Whilst you might covet a beautiful flamingo feather, you will be disappointed, once shed, they quickly lose their colour.  Not all that glitters is gold.

The flamboyant colour is used to attract mates and not just because it’s striking, but also because it’s a signal that the individual is able to locate great sources of food and is in good health.  Perhaps your own body is trying to communicate with you about your health – when we are stressed or under the weather, there are signs of this that we can see; poor skin, hair loss, nails breaking…

In addition to the plumage, the pose of the flamingo is a key part of the iconic look.  They stand on one leg because it’s easier than standing on two.  Maintaining their one-legged stance has been proven to require very little muscular involvement whereas two legs means balancing which works their muscles harder.  In fact, it is so easy, that even dead flamingos can stand on one leg!  To us it might seem obvious that standing on two legs would be more efficient than one but perhaps this is a call to consider whether we are doing things in our life in the most energy saving ways.  This puts me in mind of the tips and tricks that help those of us with pain and fatigue use to maximise what we can do, eg using a basket to carry things from room to room instead of making multiple trips.

Flamingos also use large flocks to live efficiently.  There is safety in numbers and it means you can spend more time feeding and less time being alert to danger.  The flocks also mean that they can create calm patches in the group, protected from the wind.  To promote group cohesiveness, they will use ritualised movements.  They also use ritualised displays to stimulate hormone production and hence to promote breeding amongst the flock.

They also use vocalisations and posturing to communicate within the group.  When it comes to attracting a mate, flamingos make use of fancy footwork to find a partner.  They take part in a group dance, moving and displaying as a unit.  Typically the oldest or tallest males will start the process and then the rest of the flock – male and females – will join in.  There are nine signature moves which are designed to show off what a great partner they will make.  If a female is impressed by a male then they will mate for life.  This seems like a lot of work but sometimes you need to make a song and a dance about finding a great flamingo to share your life with, or if humans are more your type, then think friends and partners.

It’s also worth celebrating because flamingos breeding isn’t all that easy… there is a narrow range of conditions which are conducive to breeding:

“If there is too little rain, there may not be enough mud to build nests or enough food resources to feed both adults and their chicks.  If there is too much rain, nests can be flooded or washed away, and the diluted standing water supply may no longer be saline enough to support the flamingo’s preferred prey species.  Additionally, flamingos are unwilling to breed unless their flocks obtain a critical mass.”
– Kight

If they manage to produce offspring then the adults (both male and female) provide the chicks with a red substance that is high in fat and high in protein.  This is similar to the milk produced by mammals and also occurs in pigeons and emperor penguins.  They feed this way every 45-90 minutes for the first week and then it gets less regular as the chicks get older.  In sharing this substance, the adults lose some of their pinkness.

So far, everything we’ve seen feeds into the narrative of the flamingo as being soft, gentle and delicate, however this is not the case.  They can cope with incredibly tough, savage conditions.  This includes high altitude wetlands where their legs freeze as the water they stand in turns to ice, only melting when the sun rises.  They can live in very salty, caustic water that would damage human skin and are able to do this because their legs are covered in keratin scales.  They can drink water that is almost boiling and is so hot that they have to hop from foot to foot.

Whilst earlier I said that maybe the flamingo was here to ask you to reflect on what your appearance is telling you about your inner world, it may also be here to remind you not to judge a book by it’s cover.  Yes, the flamingo may look dainty and fragile, but it is extraordinarily tough too!

“Because so few animals can tolerate extremely salty environments or figure out how to collect the tiny particles of food available there, flamingos have been able to exploit this niche virtually uncontested.”
– Kight

Despite being able to tolerate these intense conditions, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation so often find themselves having to move habitat.  Somehow, possibly to do with barometric pressure, they are able to identify where to move onto with reasonable success.  For example, in Africa, flamingos rely on lakes which are prone to drying out and in Namibia, greater flamingos have seemingly known when rain is due 500km away…

Turning to the symbolism of the flamingo, we find them often used to signify silliness, fun and as a nod to holidays and warm, tropical places.  They have also been an icon of cheesy campness and were used by gay men in the 1960s to advertise their sexual orientation.

For the ancient Egyptians, the silhouette of the flamingo was used to represent the bird itself, the colour red and also the reincarnation of the sun god, Ra.  In ancient Rome it was said that eating flamingos would help in all diseases as well as helping to maintain health.

“Old Islamic texts also indicate that Muslims used flamingos in a variety of medical contexts; sore joints, for instance, were sometimes treated by flamingo-fat ointment or by plasters containing, essentially, liquefied flamingos (obtained by boiling the birds whole for long periods of time), while ear troubles could be cured by the application of pastes made from flamingo tongues.”
– Kight

But perhaps the most striking use of the flamingo was in association with the phoenix.

“Flamingos are regarded as the embodiment of the firebird Phoenix.  This is reflected in its scientific name – the Phoenicopteridae, the Phoenix-winged… The motif of the Phoenix and its descendants embodies the dreams of the people.  In the various cultures and religions, the Phoenix-like birds symbolize rebirth and resilience.”
– Lesser Flamingos: Descendants of Phoenix, Lothar Krienitz

Perhaps the flamingos’ tendency towards large flocks, moving location and ability to survive harsh, seemingly uninhabitable conditions added to their mystic and wonder, seeming to appear out of nowhere, en masse.

“Descriptions of the phoenix’s self-(re)generation call to mind the beliefs of some East African native peoples who used to think that flamingos emerged from the salt pans fully formed”
– Kight

“Like the mythical phoenix for which phoenicopters may have been an inspiration, flamingos have been reincarnated, time and again, in the human consciousness: as a delicious indulgence, a mascot to rally behind, an embodiment of poor taste, and, now, an emblem of awareness of many groups in need – including, sadly, some of the pink birds themselves.  Thanks to their unusual and unique physical attributes, flamingos have always caught our attention and have never failed to impress.  Although they may look delicate and slight, these deceptively hearty birds manage to survive in some of the harshest habitats on earth, and have been doing so for millions of years.”
– Kight

The flamingo puts me in mind of this quote, attributed to Winnie the Pooh:

“You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think.”

Do not let the world underestimate you.  You are tough, you are strong and you are a survivor.

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