Sparrows

There’s a chi chi chi back and forth between me and her – my nestling – and our parents.  Within a chaos of other marco polo calls, we hear our own, our kin.  We call as easy as we breathe, and we hear it just as clearly.  It’s as though there is a thread, running from my heart, to my parents, and their returning calls are like a gentle tug on it.

Male sparrow on the fence next to a fledgling. A second fledgling is skipping along the top of the fence.

The line of the fence top is perfect for testing the not yet entirely reliable hops and skips and jumps.  We chase each other playfully in the sun. 

Freeze!

I quickly tilt my head, eye to the sky.  Is this shadow a friend, a foe, or apathetic to my existence? 

I crouch. Breast pressed into the wood.

Then I rise in relief and shake out my feathers.  My parents aren’t concerned, not an enemy then.


I extend my wings in a stretch, scratch a claw to my neck and fly down to the ground.  Pausing on landing, I look around with wary curiosity, the way I was taught.  Eyes alert, head tilting, twisting.

Underclaw, the soil is soft and flattened leaves criss cross each other, weaving textures.

In the shelter of the fence, amongst the tall stems, I peck at scraps, dropped from the wire enclosure that I’ve yet to figure out.  It’s a mystery to me how you stick the landing on the thin metal branch and then perch with the perfect balance and then you have to lean and peck.

Later, back on the fence, the two of us wiggle impatiently.  My tiny claws dig into the wood, like grappling hooks, and I peer over the edge to watch.  He  lands, perches, balances, leans and pecks with expertise.

As we wait, our wings flutter uncontrollably and we squeak and squark with anticipation, telling him to hurry, hurry!

And then he comes!

Male sparrow going to feed fledgling who's beak is wide open.

Our mouths are as open as beaks will allow and dad slips his into mine and leaves behind a seed.  Then it’s her turn, then mine and we hop and jump and clamour for it to be our own turn again.

Male sparrow feeds fledglings on the fence

A blackbird trills, a woodpigeon cu-coo-cus and there’s a clattering chatter of other sparrow families; chirrups, cheeps, chirps and churrs.

A pair of shadows slide across the courtyard and all the calls stop.  The caws of the black demons fill the, now empty, air. 

A few sparrows call boldly, distracting the crows away from their vulnerable chicks.  But the devilish claws are filled with something that seems more interesting than a tiny, fluff ball chick.

Later, dad lands on the fence again and we flee to his side with hopeful shrieks, to no avail.

The dawn chorus, and pain

It’s 4.15am and I am in so much pain that I am nearly in tears – something that takes a lot for a pro like me.  As I’m slowly breathing in and out, I hear a bird.  Closing my eyes against the pain, I focus on the melody.  Phrases repeat and change and reappear making a tune that feels slightly off familiar.

This time of morning is one I know well.  It is my secret segment of the day.  A rare alone time.  Often, I read to distract from the pain, or listen to an audiobook but now, as dawn edges into the night, I find myself smiling.  This in-between becomes my own special moment, a time when the birds are serenading me alone.  Sharing their wisdom for the day ahead.  In those notes, I hear hope, even knowing that they may well be territorial shouts from male to male.


Another morning, another 4am, another bird call; a song thrush this time.  A song, then a space.  A space filled with hope.  Another call, another wait, no reply. But it’s early in the season, there’s still time for a female to hear and accept the invitation.

I wonder who else hears the songs, perhaps a fox, or a hedgehog?  I know there are bats nearby.  I have seen them at dusk swooping under a bridge and diving for insects over the lake in the park.  They are most likely Pipistrelles; flitting across grey-black night.  Perhaps other creatures stir in the night with me, eyes half open, ears filling with the music of the dawn.


There have been so many early mornings when the birds have been my comfort, my companions.  Unable to sleep, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing tweets and calls and song, and they have, and continue, to offer me solace in my pain.

House Sparrow Photos!

Photo heavy post ahead!

I have loved hearing and watching the house sparrows that visit my feeder and obviously it’s the time of year for chicks. I have been trying to get pictures of them, and the starlings, feeding their young but every time something has interfered. I had pretty much given up when I got these images! These are just a select few, if you are as sparrow obsessed as I am, check out my flickr album for more!

The first few pictures are of a male House Sparrow feeding his fledglings and then a couple of him all fluffed up, which is so cute!

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Bird song and coronavirus

Some evenings the bird chatter – the kaa ka kas, the pep pip pips, the alarm calls- grate on me.  During the day I love hearing them and it grates on me that it grates on me and thus a vicious cycle spins on.

This is a new thing.  Normally I love hearing the birds as I settle into bed so I wanted to interrogate this, to try and understand what is going on.

My initial thoughts were about time of day; come evening, I am much more tired, and right now I am more likely to be fed up and despondent by the time I get into bed.  This is also the first time I am really alone in the day and I sink into my subconscious whirlings.  I don’t feel naturally aligned with appreciation, appreciation of anything, at this time of day.

I spend the day noticing and loving but by night I need distraction – tv, film, reading – something I can escape into.  And whilst the birds are incredible, they are inevitably out there in the world, right now.  And my mind will not let me forget that I am not, and will not let me forget that I am hearing them so much clearer because of the global pandemic. 

The birds do not give me the escape I need in this phase of my daily cycle.  Their caws and cacks instead pull me away from the fantasy world I plunge into and remind me that my escape is just an illusion.  That however hard I try, I am still living in a world with a virus that could kill me and the people I love.  A virus that has already killed. 

I am still living in a world where the reckless acts of strangers ignoring the rules could turn out to kill.  They could be carrying it, walking bombs waiting to be detonated.  I am still living in a world where disabled people are being devalued repeatedly in clumsy attempts to get through this crisis, where we are told we may not get the care we need to stay alive (1). And that now that able bodied people are stuck home too, suddenly technology can be used to meet up, to do courses. to offer talks online.  And suddenly working from home is perfectly possible.

The calls of the blackbird on the roof pulls me back into a world where people with a week or two of being stuck home under their belt, are suddenly experts on loving nature from home.  Despite their daily walks, possibly through countryside and woodland, and their good sized garden, they speak with the authority of a housebound disabled person who has lived this for years.  Our voices, those with lived experiences and expertise, are still not heard.  We are shouting and going unnoticed because we are disposable, literally right now.  Worthless.  Valueless. (2) 

I have shed many shackles since becoming disabled; the idea that my value is about my economic contribution and my productivity; that my self worth is tied to doing… Is the evening bird song grating against another shackle?  One where I cannot be a nature lover, or a nature writer, if I cannot always appreciate it and embrace it?(3)

The nightly scrabble and scramble of starlings on the feeder doesn’t seem as endearing as it did hours before.  And all that has changed is me.  I have moved through my day, and now I want to tune out the world, and all the noise that tries to tell me I am unimportant.  When the messages scream so loudly, so constantly, they cannot help but echo and reverberate around my soul.

By the time I get into bed, I need to escape.  I need to live in a different world or a different time.  And those birds that I love so deeply and dearly, peck through the bubble I am trying to build.

Come the dawn chorus, I am back to noticing, caring, loving and appreciating.

Notes

(1) A recent RIDC survey found 50% of people with care support needs are no longer receiving health or personal care visits to their home. Disabled people left off coronavirus vulnerable people list go without food. Ministers warned coronavirus bill threatens services for disabled people.

(2) ‘I feel like I don’t count,’ says man with MND. Disabled people ‘forgotten’ by government strategy.

(3) This already feels a harder label to claim with the ableism within the environmental movements and the wilderness ideal excluding disabled people

Nature writing

At the moment, I am finding it hard to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I have many fragments of writing, notes scribbled on scraps of paper but I find myself unable to connect them cohesively. I know this will pass but in the meantime I thought an easy to write post would be a list of nature writing books and articles.

What are you reading and enjoying at the moment?

Edited to add… if that’s not enough reading for you, check out Katherine Hauswirths list

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)

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