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.

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

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

(in)accessibility and nature

I will be talking primarily about access from a mobility perspective in this post because that is my main experience.  There are so many ways in which health and disability can affect engagement with nature and I do hope to touch on that in another post.  In the meantime, if you want to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments.

As I have discussed, there is a privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There is an unspoken assumption that nature means somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance, we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk, or who don’t navigate the world in the same way as the majority.  Some of us require carefully cultivated paths which regulate our experience, inevitably some might say.  But is that not because an able bodied world has determined that we don’t need the same access as others?  That by adding a short circular route near an information centre the tick box exercise is complete.  That we don’t need anything more.  That being disabled is a uniform experience and thus we want a uniform way of being in the world, and by extension in nature.

Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places – that tend to be less maintained and hence are less accessible – are often considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Of course, there are other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track including where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.  Race, gender and class all have roles to play as well and of course these barriers need to be broken down too.

Another common narrative about getting into nature is that of getting away from technology.  If I am leaving my house, I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair, with the latter being much more comfortable and more independent.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and, in that way, can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread of the discussion around getting into nature is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  Say I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

This is to say nothing of all the mental work that goes into finding somewhere suitable to go in the first place.  There is a dearth of information about accessible nature out there.  It is improving but you can still get better information about where to go for a romantic stroll on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website than you can for wheelchair suitable walks.  If you filter by the latter, you will get zero results, even though I know at least a few of their sites are wheelchair accessible…

But, despite all of this, there are some very easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more inclusive.  Adding edges to the paths means visually impaired people who are using white canes can identify the borders of them more easily.  Replacing locked gates with radar locks.  Making kissing gates a little bigger.  Even just providing all of this information online and through other methods helps immensely.  Styles with spaces for guide dogs to walk under.  Adding wooden board walks.  Adding a ramp into a bird hide.  Adding benches every so many metres and having a map to show where they are.  Adding a gap into a cliff fence at wheelchair height.  These are not difficult changes, they just require things to be done differently.  Instead of repeating what has always been done, an open mind can come up with easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more accessible to everyone.

New networks for nature: time for nature

The past few days I’ve been at the 11th annual New Networks for Nature event and it has been amazing! It was in York for the first time and that meant I was able to go without too much stress and physical health impact. The venue was mostly accessible – the internal ramp was apparently broken so I had to go outside to get between levels to use an external ramp. That was ok although I did get rained on heavily but at least there was an option. Outside of the main venue, there were I think three venues for other aspects and two out of three of those were accessible. In order to manage my energy and pain levels, I wasn’t planning on joining those events but it’s nice to know I could have done a couple.

Anyway, venue accessibility aside, the speakers were wonderful, engaging and so diverse! There was so much information and it was really well communicated – rare is the event where all speakers are engaging! I’m going to mention some, possibly many, of my personal highlights but the entire agenda was fantastic and you can find that online – if you are interested in nature then I’d recommend having a look as many of the speakers have books available.

We kicked off Thursday night with a wine tasting, hosted by Ryedale Vinyards who had some lovely white wine. This was followed by an introduction and welcome from Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. Then there was a mix of music and readings and then I took an early leave so I could face the early start on Friday!

Friday and Saturday were jam-packed days, with scattered coffee breaks and lunch which allowed me to have a bit of down time and to compress all the wonderful things I’d heard. It also meant I got to visit the Fox Lane Books stall and part with a chunk of cash…

As an aside, I’ve met Fox Lane Books at a number of events this year and they always have a fantastic array of relevant books, including those of the people speaking at the event.

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I can’t mention all of the speakers as this would become an epic post but if any of you happen to read this, you were fantastic!

Robert E Fuller kicked off Friday by talking about his wildlife photography, painting and the inspiring camera system he has set up in his garden. We were honoured to see some footage as well and his entire set up is inspirational and perhaps if I win the lottery I’ll seek his advice and create my own version!

As the theme was time, we had a session about nature in deep time which looked at the idea of what is natural in Britain from a deep time perspective and how the time frame we focus on affects our idea of native and alien species. For example, the ubiquitous brown hare, probably arrived in the 2nd century BC. This session also looked at ice age art and past woodlands.

There was a session about activism which saw a woman only stage – apparently the overall conference had 50% of female speakers which is great! And yes, I’m starting to reuse my superlatives but it was such a good conference…. We heard from Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker, Sally Goldsmith, a poet and campaigner involved in the Sheffield trees campaigning, a Hatti Owens who is a ClientEarth lawyer. They gave three very different approaches to fighting for change and I think that is really vital. We see a lot of media coverage of traditional protests and marches but they aren’t accessible to everyone. I know I feel that I am not being a ‘good activist’ because I can’t engage in those activities but it was a great reminder that activism has different strands and that you need all these threads to come together to create a strong rope that can enact change.

The Jewel of York, or the tansy beetle, gave us a bit of history of this incredibly rare creature and charted it’s rise from obscurity to a conservation icon which can now be found as a mural on the side of a building in York. This was followed by three very different children’s writers discussing using nature in children’s books. Then after a coffee break, we got the joy of a comedy session!

Simon Watt, founder of The Ugly Animal Appreciation Society, Helen Pilcher and Hugh Warwick made us laugh before we headed off to a gin tasting with Sloe Motion. It was a wonderful way to end the first day.

Saturday was equally as interesting and included a session about “the tiny majority”; flies, bees and crickets in particular. In part it was about the role these smaller, often overlooked animals have in our world, but it was also about celebrating them for themselves. Erica McAlister, a true fly enthusiast, spread her joy and interest for these little critters. We often see flies as a generic species and in doing so, pay no attention to their individual wonders. Without a certain species of fly, we would have no chocolate. Ditto for black pepper and many other things we take for granted. They clean up the planet, they recycle waste, they pollinate, they eat the things which eat our crops, and they inspire technology.

A session turned our eyes to the uplands, space where gods once dwelled and humans dreamed of, rarely visiting. Today of course we visit much more of the land but the land still holds it’s secrets. Prof John Altringham shared with us some research which reveals the vast numbers of bats which live under the surface of the uplands, in the caves. They have also been able to work out what makes a cave attractive to bats! This session also included Dr Isla Hodgson talking about conservation conflict between different groups in respect to the grouse shooting debate and the factors which underlie such conflicts.

The New Directions for Nature Writing was another diverse session with Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Zakiya McKenzie and Richard Smyth. Despite discussing intersectionality, gender, race and class, the word disability was missing. And this, for me, reflects the barriers that disabled people often face when engaging nature more broadly. Inevitably nature writing reflects those people who are able to “go into” what we typically think of as “nature”. This is not to do a disservice to the speakers, they were great and made a lot of relevant comments.

However, I felt it absolutely necessary to make a comment. My hand shot up faster than it probably should given my shoulder has a propensity to dislocate! I made a point of saying the word disability and went on to say that one of the most powerful experience I’ve had with nature was when I could barely get out of bed for six months. And how even though it was a powerful experience, the image of nature portrayed in Nature Writing and writing about nature more broadly, made it feel harder to own it.

It is because of this that I am writing more and more about nature and disability and I have a pile of notes about this which I plan to spin into a series of blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to “go out into nature” to connect with nature:

I’d like to leave you with an image from a couple of years ago:

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

Swallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Sea Birds

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

Sea gulls

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

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

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

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

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

The canary on the cliff face

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

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

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

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

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.

Albatross

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.

Links:

January’s reading 

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

Online resources

General:

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!