Sea Birds – The Albatross

When I was in hospital, I listened to a few radio programmes including some about sea birds and sea creatures.  One of the shows, Natural Histories, had an episode about the albatross and I realised I didn’t know anything about them.  I knew about the poem and I have vague recollections of playing a piece of music about an albatross when I was about 9 or 10 but that was it.

Just in case you too are ignorant of the albatross, I have decided to dedicate a post to them.  Following which I will return to the cliffs of England and take a look at some of the species I am more familiar with.


There are a number of types of albatross but they are all fantastic flyers.  They use a technique called dynamic soaring which makes them very efficient in the air.  They use more energy to take off and land that they do to travel in the skies.  Their huge wings mean they can soar for days without flapping and glide for several hundred miles.  Masters of the air, these birds are rarely seen on land, coming down only to breed.

Magnificent, graceful and beautiful, they dwarf all other sea birds.  As huge, white, winged beings which can fly through storms with grace, they are, unsurprisingly, seen as angelic and heavenly.

The largest albatross, the wandering albatross, has a wing span of 3.5m and inspires awe and spiritual response.  Despite this, Coleridge portrayed it as a bird of ill omen in his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

These wanderers are long lived and they are survivors, battling storms and rough skies, putting an ominous slant on the idea of carrying an albatross around ones neck…  A burden which cannot be shaken.. Despite this, they are, as a species, struggling to survive…

We have used their feathers as signs of rank, in ceremonial dress and to endow boats with their dominion of the seas.  Their bones have allowed us to create beautiful music through flutes and to mark our own bodies with tattoos.  And yet, we also eat this magnificent creature, this celestial air god.  We let them suffer the consequences of our greed as they die from injury caused by industrial fishing.  They pay the price of our exploitation of the ocean.

Because albatrosses live in remote areas and spend so much of their lives in the air, it’s hard to know how many there actually are but a project has been set up to utilise high powered satellite images to count them.  At the time of the radio programme on the subject, they were having to be manually counted and this isn’t likely to be a possibility for other species, but the great size of these birds allows us to get a close look without disturbing them.

Despite the lack of numbers on the birds, scientists have noted a marked decline in numbers since the 1980s and all 22 species are considered to be threatened.

Until recently, seabirds have been able to safely assume that anything floating on the surface of the sea is edible.  This is no longer the case.  As I’m sure you’ve all heard, plastic in our oceans is posing a threat to all marine life, and by extension, to a lot of land life.  Dissecting sea birds has given scientists an idea of what is happening out at sea… for example polystyrene breaks up easily and the bits and pieces of, say, your takeaway cup, float to the surface and mix in with the food that seabirds eat. Balloons, the kind from your birthday party, can be swallowed, or the string can entangle a bird who will slowly starve to death.  They may suffocate or choke.  And chemicals leaching from our plastic can enter the body of sea birds (and other animals), causing illness and death.  An investigation looked at the stomach contents of albatross chicks and found identifiable plastic in the form of toothbrushes, golf balls, lighters and plastic toys alongside the microplastics.

The topic of pollution, plastics and human exploitation of, and disregard for, the sea is something that is likely to come up time and time again this month and it is not a blame filled tirade.  I use a lot of plastic myself but I think it’s important to do so whilst being aware of the potential consequences.  It’s easy to close our eyes and cover our ears and say we can’t do anything because the world is so big, we are so small and everyone’s doing it so why can’t we?  But as we’ll see in a couple of posts time, the price we will pay for that ignorance is high.



January’s reading 

A little late but if you’ve found the topic of birds interesting, do read on!

Online resources


Articles and papers:

Offline resources

Bird of the year, bird of the country and so on

“Their songs, nests, mysterious migrations, even just the act of flying, all enchant, taunt, intrigue and tell of another world, ancient, important, and proceeding by non-human rules and rhythms.  It is their capacity to connect, to capture our emotions, that helps make birds so enchanting.” 

New Scientist

I apologise for the terrible title, my brain is not up to scratch at the moment… 

We have all come across national birds, birds of the year and so forth.  I’m sure we’re all familiar with the use of the dodo as a mascot for Mauritius and the kiwi for New Zealand.  For Spain, 2018 is the year of the barn owl and in Australia, the magpie has just been voted bird of the year.

But why do we declare birds as icons of certain years or places?  Well, in some cases it’s to do with conservation.  In Spain, there has been a recent decline of 13% in barn owls and the species was chosen by the public to raise awareness of it’s plight.

If you take care of birds, you take care of the most important of the environmental problems in the world.
-Thomas Lovejoy

National Geographic and partners are going one step further and have declared 2018 to be not the year of a certain bird but the Year of the Bird:

“In 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from wanton killing*.  To celebrate the centennial, National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird.”

*Too late for poor Martha and her friends…

As part of this, there are new years resolutions you could make to ensure a more bird aware year and small actions you can take to #BirdYourWorld.  You might also want to take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch on 27 – 29 January 2018.

When it comes to nations, empires and rulers, the adoption of birds as emblems has a lot to do with the power that they convey.  They are used in coats of arms, seals and other prominent displays and of all the birds, the eagle has been especially popular.  Perhaps it is it’s size, it’s ability to fly so high and being virtually at the top of the food chain that has marked it out for this role.  Perhaps it is a sense of regalness that it engenders.  It is a symbol of strength, leadership and courage.  As king of the skies, it sees all and rules all.

Since 1782, the bald eagle has been used by the United States on it’s great seal. A choice which Benjamin Franklin apparently argued against, preferring the golden eagle or possibly even a turkey… Many other ideas were suggested including rattlesnakes and complicated scenes which don’t seem all that practical.

“He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to its nest the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little kingbird attacks him boldly. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem… For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Perhaps it is the depth of symbolism and folklore surrounding our feathered friends which means we chose them time after time to represent who we are, where we are and when we are.  But let us hope that doing so refreshes and rejuvenates interest in our flying neighbours and increases conservation efforts for them.

To end on a lighter note, if you were to chose a personal coat of arms or a seal, what bird would you chose?  I’m pondering ducks, I love them, but I also have a soft spot for puffins… And we’ve already seen how amazing crows and ravens are… Tough choice!

Bird brained: The intelligence of birds

For a long time, bird brained has been considered an insult, a way of saying someone is stupid, dim witted, silly.  And the view of birds has coincided with that until a recent deluge of scientific research suggested otherwise.

“There’s a kind of bird that creates colourful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later.  There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks.  There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past and plan for the future.”
– Jennifer Ackerman

In other words, birds are not as stupid as we’ve taken them for.  Don’t get me wrong, in any species, humans included, there is a range of what we call intelligence* and some birds are much cleverer than others.  And as the list of accomplishments above shows, birds, like humans, can be intelligent in a number of different ways.

If you haven’t come across this idea before, basically the theory goes that there are nine types of human intelligence and you can excel in one area and flop in another.  The areas are:

  • Naturalist (nature smart)
  • Musical (sound smart)
  • Logical-mathematical (number/reasoning smart)
  • Existential (life smart)
  • Interpersonal (people smart)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart)
  • Linguistic (word smart)
  • Intra-personal (self smart)
  • Spatial (picture smart)

So the bird that can move to music could be musically smart, the birds who can do maths might be logical-mathematical smart.  As a side note, it’s interesting to consider how you fit in.  If you aren’t good at the traditionally academic subjects it’s easy to think you aren’t particularly intelligent but you could be really good at interpersonal intelligence or bodily-kinesthetically.  In terms of birds, we have pigeons who aren’t very good at problem solving but they can remember different objects for long periods of time, they can tell the difference between pictures and they have excellent abilities when it comes to navigating the skies, even in unfamiliar places.

So, in what ways are birds intelligent?  Well, they can learn, solve problems and invent new solutions to old problems.  They can make and use tools and even use tools so they can reach the tool they actually need.  They can be socially intelligent, they can have excellent memories and they can find their way home even if they’re blown off course.

But not all birds can do these things.  And this will come to be important as humans continue to change the world.  Changing the environment will negatively impact on those birds who can’t change behaviour quickly, who can’t learn new ways of getting food etc.  They won’t be able to adapt to climate change and other issues affecting them and there is a high chance that these species will disappear.

Crows on the other hand, in particular New Caledonia crows, are amazing:

Aesop’s fable about the crow dropping stones into water is something which actually happens and we have numerous videos of corvids engaging in entertaining looking activities:

The snowboarding crow may well simply be playing, something which is shown to coincide with intellect with play often being considered a way of trying things out, testing curiosity.

Another form of intellect found in the corvid family is self awareness.  Magpies who see themselves in mirrors know that they are looking at themselves, something which requires high cognitive skills and is restricted to only a few animals.  But be careful, they can recognise individual humans as well.

An experiment was carried out with crows and they came to see the experimenter as a threat.  They would dive bomb him and harass him when they saw him.  But even more amazingly, nine years later, they still considered him a threat, even though it will have been a different cohort of crows.  They clearly have a way of communicating threats between themselves and even between generations.

We also see examples of birds which use bait to lure in the food they actually want, such as types of heron using insects to attract fish.  There is social intelligence and this can be seen in the activities of birds in different types of flocks and relationships and birds may even experience empathy although more research needs to be carried out.  Migration and the ability to navigate from unknown areas back to where you want to be is yet another skill which can involve and demonstrate intelligence and I’ll look more at that when I look at migration.

If you want to learn more about the types of bird intelligence as well as impact of brain size and structure then Jennifer Ackerman’s book is for you.  She also goes into detail about how the type of upbringing birds have may affect intelligence, generally finding that birds who are independent from birth start life with a bigger brain but it doesn’t develop as much after birth.  Birds who are nurtured and looked after by parents on the other hand start with smaller brains but they develop a lot more.  It’s all really interesting stuff, some of it may prove to be applicable to humans later down the line when more scientific study has been carried out.  Despite that she makes it all very easy to read and it was a book I didn’t want to put down.

Further information:

*a controversial word when applied to animals but I’m using it for this post.  A key issue is how do you define and measure intelligence.  IQ tests are ok for humans but even then they don’t necessarily reveal what you want to find out, how do you measure interpersonal intelligence in an IQ test for example.  Birds and other animals do show what looks like intelligence but it doesn’t always look like our own type of intelligence.

A little birdie told me: Birds and folklore part four

This will be my last post in my birds and folklore mini series, at least I think it will be… If something else catches my eye then who knows!  But my plan is to move on to other bird related topics after this.  For my final look at bird myths and beliefs I’m turning to the sister topics of birds as messengers and birds and gods.  The two ideas overlap a lot as we’ll see but we’ll set off on this journey by thinking about birds as gods.

Bird gods appear in a number of cultures including the Nekhbet, goddess of fertility in Egypt who appeared as a vulture, the eagle and the hummingbird both appear as sun gods in parts of the world and there is the Thunderbird from native American beliefs.  These are just a few examples.  And it’s not surprising that gods and goddesses were depicted as birds – birds can fly which even today is a remarkable thing to think about.  Back before we knew anything about flight, these creatures must have seemed even more miraculous and it’s not a big leap to then assume that they must be deities.

In addition to this, they soar through the air, high above the world to the realm of the clouds and hence, in many cultures, to the afterlife or the realm of the gods.  Birds are also the closest we have to speaking animals, other than humans of course.  Because of this it’s easy to imagine that they are talking to us, and for non humans to speak must surely have given them god like status.

There were also gods who could take on the form of birds, such as Odin and Hecate who could appear as raven and owl respectively.  To cast gods as birds is not that surprising and as Taylor explains, they already inhabit a sort of supernatural niche:

We humans have always sought to dominate the natural world, but birds literally soar out of our reach – as far as we’re concerned, they do have superpowers! Many birds exist beyond our control and live their lives beyond our observations (or at least they did before the existence of firearms and binoculars) and that in itself is rather threatening to the human ego. Those that are active at night, or live in the most rugged and inaccessible places, seemed particularly unknowable and untouchable, so we filled in the gaps with stories and beliefs, which is really just another way to try to exert control. 

Delving into cultural myths, tales and beliefs about wild birds

Another role for birds in religion is that of familiars or symbols or companions.  We have Athena and Ishtar associated with owls, Zeus with the eagle and Odin with ravens.  Because of their role as familiars or companions of the gods and goddesses, birds are natural vessels for sending messages.  Especially as they are unencumbered by boundaries between conscious and unconscious, the mundane and the spiritual.  They can also move easily between the land, the stars and the sky, and even water if they need to.  There’s pretty much nowhere that a bird can’t go – you can’t escape the message of the gods if they send it by bird!

The eagle plays the role of messenger in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, being the messenger of Zeus and Jupiter respectively.  It is a common messenger birds, possibly because of how high they fly and their regal associations.  They have a very real view of the bigger picture which chimes with how many people perceive gods and goddesses.  Eagles soar high above the mundane day to day, flying adeptly and freely through the skies and the realm of the mind, of knowledge and of communication.

We also see doves, cranes and many other birds cast in the role of messenger in mythology around the world.  They may sing their messages to us, their very appearance may be the message itself or we may receive messages through avian tokens such as feathers and eggs.  There are a vast number of pins on pinterest telling you exactly what the feather you saw on the pavement means… And we’ve already seen how birds and eggs can be used in divination which itself is a type of messenger service.

Whilst you might not fully be convinced by the idea of birds as gods, goddesses or messengers of those deities, most people would agree that to see a bird, to hear it’s song in such a way that you feel it’s just for you is a very special moment indeed.

Migration: Birds and folklore part three

Migration was a controversial issue until evidence around it began to be accumulated.  It was generally believed that birds either hibernated or turned into other species for the winter although I have also read about birds retiring underwater for the winter*.  The latter of these theories might have led to or propagated myths around the barnacle goose.  Bird ringing, over 100 years ago, eventually gave us evidence that birds migrate but we still have limited knowledge about this, especially for more elusive species.

It was Aristotle I believe who first posited the idea that birds hibernated, in particular he mentioned swallows, and there is written evidence of this belief well into modern times.  Of course we now hold swallows up as one of the icons of migration, flying to South Africa and back each year.  That said, a particular beautiful idea, not limited to swallows, is that of flying off to the moon each year.  This was captured in John Dryden’s poem The Hind and The Panther (1687).  Obvious poetic license does not mean he believed it but given I’ve read about the same idea for geese and a few other birds it does seem possible that it was a reasonably common conception.

They try their fluttering wings, and trust themselves in air. 
But whether upward to the moon they go, 
Or dream the winter out in caves below, 
Or hawk at flies elsewhere, concerns us not to know. 
Southwards you may be sure they bent their flight, 
And harboured in a hollow rock at night; 

John Gay also writes of swallow migration in the late 17th or early 18th century:

He sung where woodcocks in the summer feed,
And in what climates they renew their breed;
Some think to northern coasts their flight tend,
Or to the moon in midnight hours ascend:
When swallows in the winter season keep,
And how the drowsy bat and dormouse sleep.

Because migratory birds are so clearly in tune with the seasons, they are often celebrated for bringing the spring and equally vilified for bringing winter.  As we saw with the cuckoo, this led to particular species being considered to have foresight.  This also led our ancestors to build their calendar around birds.

For example, in the case of ducks and geese, the Dakota people refer to the May moon as the moon when the flying game returns.  For the Megwanipis, the duck represents midsummer, July is the moon when they begin to moult and when the ducklings take flight, it is the August moon.

A lovely belief around migration was that larger birds, such as cranes, carried smaller birds on their backs.  Apparently the cranes tolerated this because the song of the small birds was so beautiful.  It was also said that cranes would swallow stones before they set off on migration to prevent them from getting blown off course.

Sir Walter Scott depicts a nice scene when he tells of nuns in Whitby Abbey who were visited by birds, tired from flight across the North Sea, who landed there not for rest but instead as a pilgrimage to the abbey.

But possibly my favourite idea, from a creative perspective, is that birds changed species.  This makes sense when you consider that at points in the year some species would disappear and others, including similar looking birds, would suddenly appear.  You’d never see them together and hence there may be the possibility that, like Clark Kent and Superman, they are one and the same.  I’ve had an idea for a piece of art for a couple of years now which pivots on the idea that cuckoos turned into sparrowhawks in the autumn.  It was also thought that redstarts turned into robins and garden warblers into blackcaps.

Finally, and possibly the strangest of explanations, beating even the annual trips to the moon, is the explanation for cranes:

The Common Crane breeds in the marshlands of northern Europe and Asia and makes yearly migrations into Turkey, Iraq, and even down into Sudan and Ethiopia. But, as early as Homer’s Iliad, we find the strange notion that cranes are annually at war at the far ends of the earth with Pygmies. In Homer’s epic, the Trojan army is compared to the

shriek of cranes down from heaven
who flee the winter and the terrible rains
and fly off to the world’s end
bringing death and doom to the Pygmy-men
as they open fierce battle at dawn.

Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder reports an already ancient factoid that these pygmies fight the cranes with arrows while mounted on goats and rams. They must spend a good three months of the year eating the cranes’ eggs and chicks; otherwise, they would never survive the terrible onslaught of the birds, Pliny tells us.

Ancient explanations of bird migration

 Further reading

*A 16th century archbishop even recorded that fishermen had been seen pulling up sleeping swallows in their nets.

Good luck, bad luck and omens: Birds and folklore part two

Let’s start with something positive… The wish granting ability of the wishbone!  A common luck related tradition is that of breaking the wishbone of a bird although apparently this is a lot less widespread these days as people don’t eat as much poultry on the bone apparently (I don’t eat meat so I have no idea about these things).

It wasn’t until Roman times that the bone was broken to grant wishes, before this it was dried and stroked…  Birds were scarce in Rome and there weren’t enough wishbones to go around so the snapping of them came into practice.

On a side note, did you know t-rex’s had wishbones!

Whilst we’ve got our hands covered in bird bones… In Bavaria on St Martin’s Day, once the goose had been eaten and the breastbone was left to dry overnight, the bone would be closely examined and from it predictions would be made about the weather of the coming winter.  This was taken so seriously that the information would be used to make decisions about war.

Cockerels are associated with divination but this time they got to live to carry out their practice.  Greeks used to mark grains of corn with letters of the alphabet and the order in which the cockerel pecked at them would be used to make predictions.  Romans used a similar approach, feeding unmarked grain to a special group of sacred chickens and how they ate it (fast, slow etc) would provide them with omens.

Other ways of using birds feeding in divination included sprinkling the grain on top of what was essentially an alphabet board.  This is sort of a cross between the greek and roman methods and you’d see which letters the birds pecked first and interpret the results.

Using bird behaviour to make predictions went beyond what they were eating and often relates to when particular species arrive or leave.  Cuckoos arrival heralded spring and so the bird was seen to foretell the coming weather.  In agricultural societies this was critical information and there was a belief that the cuckoo was sent by the gods.  In other parts of the world similar beliefs were held but for local birds instead of the cuckoo.  The predictive talents of the cuckoo were utilised by children in Yorkshire who called out:

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cherry-tree
Good bird, prithee, tell to me
How many years I am to see

They would then shake the cherry tree and the number of cherries which fell out would correspond to the number of years they would live.  This is just one of a number of beliefs which use the cuckoo to tell the future.  Rooks were another bird believed to be able to forecast the weather.  A Yorkshire saying went that if they perched on dead branches of trees that rain would come that day but if they were on live branches the weather would be fine and dry.

Oomancy, or egg divination, was another practice used to predict the future.  There were a number of methods but one included separating the whites from the yolks and dropping the whites into hot water.  The shapes formed would then be read and interpreted to provide predictions.

From what I can tell, a popular use of oomancy was to tell a mother to be how her pregnancy was progressing.  An egg would be rubbed on her stomach and then cracked open.  One yolk meant one child, two meant twins and so on but blood in the egg meant a miscarriage or complications.  There were also ways of using eggs to predict the sex of the child.

Other egg related beliefs include double yolked eggs as a sign of good luck and/or a sign someone in your family is pregnant, possibly with twins.

The flight of birds, known as augury, was also used in divination.  The augur, the person reading the bird flight, would be able to interpret the movements as omens and hence determine whether things were looking good or bad, or auspicious or inauspicious.  This practice goes back a long way in time although it is commonly associated with the Romans as they formalised methods.

In Ancient Greece, augury was considered to be messages from gods but in Rome it was taken as the will of gods.  This meant that the readings told the Romans what they could or could not do.  This was taken so seriously that the creation of laws, elections, even wars weren’t allowed to go ahead unless the gods agreed.

Apparently even the location of Rome came down to augury.  Romulus and Remus debated where to build the city, each had chosen a spot and from there they watched for vultures.  Remus saw 6 but Romulus saw 12 and so, through him, the gods decreed they agreed with Romulus and thus Rome is where Rome is.  No wonder Rome wasn’t built in a day…

Further reading