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

The thick taste of petrichor

This is a fragment of my writing from the Emergence nature writing course I am currently doing.

The thick taste of petrichor

Microorganisms in the soil – actinobacteria – decompose dead and decaying matter, turning the no longer living into nutrients and life – the fantastic, eternal, circle of life. 

And as they do this, they create a kind of alcohol called geosmin, to which our noses are very sensitive.  This is one of the compounds that creates the smell of rain, earthy and nostalgic.

When it is dry, they are less active, when the air is humid and the ground is moist they speed up, releasing more geosmin.  So what we are breathing in is the recycling of life, the cycle of life and death and rebirth, the cycle of ransformation.  We are smelling the process by which a tree becomes food for a daffodil and the bones of a rabbit become a nutrients for a carrot.

It is also a signal, a sign of a symbiotic partnership that has played out over and over for almost 500 million years.

The bacteria release the odour to attract a specific arthropod, a Springtail, which responds by eating it.  This is less suicidal than it appears.  Bacteria spores stick to the Springtail and get relocated, as do those excreted in faeces.  This helps the bacteria to spread and create new colonies.

Next time you smell the lush, slightly salty, tang of rain, spare a moment for the minute lives whose drama is plays out beneath our feet.

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

My outside space

I am currently doing an online course with Emergence Magazine about nature writing and last week we were thinking about place, specifically relationship to place. Normally on sunny, warm days I would be found in the local park which I treat like my garden. If I need to stay home for a delivery or whatever, I might sit out the front of my flat on the pavement. Neither park nor pavement are options right now. What follows is what I wrote about my only option, the back yard.

The back yard is not a space I am intimate with.  It isn’t a space I have made familiar.  I have avoided it as much as possible.  It comes with fear, anxiety and an unwarranted sense of trespass. 

When I first saw my flat had a yard, I filled my imagination with dreams and plans, I designed the space in my head.  And then I met the neighbours I share it with, and their two untrained dogs which bark and leap and scratch all over my allergic legs.  And I saw the dog poo that wasn’t picked up and the dryer fluff that comes out of their window and sticks to the floor.  And I got yelled at and threatened for things I hadn’t done. 

And those dreams and plans were lost.

Four years later.  We can’t spend this sunny afternoon in the park, or sit out the front by the street.  Regular habits have been put on pause by coronavirus so, instead, we snatched at a chance when my neighbours went out.  We sit in the yard.  It is lovely feeling sun on my skin and air outdoors feels twice as fresh.  But a bitter buzz deep in me can’t shake the anxiety and fear that my neighbours, or their dogs, will appear. 

The self I see out here is one who gives copious amounts of space to others, who makes herself incredibly small so they can stamp all over her more easily.

The front of my flat goes straight onto pavement, but there is a small square where the council planted a bush.  I claimed this as my garden.  A bird feeder clings to my window above it, visible from the riser recliner I reside in most of the time. 

I have built a relationship with this space.  Watching sparrows and starlings on the feeder, blackbirds on the bush and pigeons on the floor hoping for scraps of seed.  I track the light of the sky slice I can see.  Weather permitting I keep my windows open, if only a crack, so I can hear the life outside. 

Overtime I’ve ‘trained’ my carers to tell me about birds on the feeder out back that I can’t see from my chair.  They send me photos of nature they encounter on their days off; trees abundant with blossom, daffodils singing about the sun and shells seen on a beach.  These love notes, for that’s how I think of these pictures, always make me smile.  Snapshots of nature in the wider world, sent back to me in this flat, in this chair.

From this chair, I have learnt the names of species but I’ve also got to know the individuals; my friends.  The baby sparrow who could feed itself but convinced mum to feed him (and even though you couldn’t yet tell, it had to have been a boy, a mummy’s boy).  I watched a lone starling grow up and gain his or her starspots.  I have seen a blackbird courting a female and heard his songs from my bed. I have seen bees and butterflies, wagtails and magpies, pigeons and gulls.

This small slice of nature, fills my world and feels so much bigger the more intimately I know it.  A fraction of the size of the yard, yet this is mine.  This is where I grow and glow and beam so brightly that I seem bigger, not smaller.

Ferrets

“We all have a sneaky side.  It is a necessary skill for our survival.  Whether you have to be the one who is sneaky, or be the one able to spot others in their sly ways, the art of deception is not to be taken for granted.  Smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand all have their place; the real trick is knowing when and where to use them”
– Animal totem tarot

Ferrets are a domesticated form of the European polecat and it’s likely that they have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years.  Historically they were used for hunting, and whilst they still are, they are more likely to be kept as pets these days.

Their name comes from the Latin furritus, meaning little thief as they like to steal small objects such as hen’s eggs.  Over time, their name has developed into a verb, as in to ferret out something.  This likely reflects their sneakiness and their ability to move in and out of tricky places.  They are adept at moving in tight, twisted burrows, can bend 180 degrees and can change direction very quickly.  They move seamlessly between overground and underground, making them masters of both realms.

Their spines are incredibly flexible and supple making ferrets seem long, floppy and melty.  This makes them adorable but also means they can slip and slide through tunnels like water.  But make not mistake, they use this ability to sneak up on prey with extreme stealth.  They are fast and efficient predators who can kill with a single, powerful bite.  This animal is all about fluidity and strength, flexibility and precision.  Slink stealthily and then attack!  Be the unsuspecting threat, take people unaware and make an impact!  The ferret’s presence goes unnoticed until the damage is done.  I’m not suggesting you go out and cause damage, but you can still shock and wow people and this has extra power if no one sees it coming.  Go out and be fierce!

Despite being powerful predators, ferrets have a wonderfully fun side.  I read something which described them as the clowns of the animal world.  They are funny, curious, mischievous and playful.  They are full of energy, they are trouble makers, escape artists and they are intelligent.  This inspires me to be more curious, more adventurous and more inquisitive.  They will literally tunnel into anything, but we can take this as a prompt to dig into a topic or get our teeth stuck into learning something.

Ferrets have a variety of body language in their repertoire including dancing when they are happy, wrestling which is usually a playful activity and their war dance.  This involves frenzied sideways hops, leaps and is not actually an incitation to war, but an invitation to play.  It often comes with a soft clucking noise and ferrets extend their communication options with an array of vocalisations.  They ‘dock’ or ‘cluck’ when excited, hiss when scared, squeak softly when upset and screech if they are afraid, in pain or angry.

As you might have gathered, ferrets are very high energy animals so it’s probably not surprising that they spend up to 20 hours a day asleep!  They are most active during dawn and dusk and when they are sleeping, it’s thought that they experience more REM sleep than a lot of other pets, meaning they are more likely to dream.  I wonder what ferrets dream about…

It wouldn’t be a blog post of mine without an animal sex fact.  In the case of the ferret, it’s that the male has a hooked penis.  Once he penetrates a female, they can’t separate until he releases her.

Since domesticated, ferrets have been bred for fur and hunting, also known as ferreting.  They were sent down holes to chase rodents, rabbits and moles out of their burrows.  In 1390 in England, a law was enacted limited the use of ferrets for hunting to the wealthy and high ranking families.

Other ways that we’ve used ferrets have also taken advantage of their ability to shimmy through tunnels.  For example, they’ve been used to run TV cables underground, to run through parts of planes for Boeing and apparently to clean steel pipes of a particle accelerator

As they have similar immune systems to us, they have been used in the development of vaccines and in testing flu medications.

And I can’t mention human ferret interactions without bringing your attention to ferret legging.  It was apparently a popular sport amongst coal miners in Yorkshire and involves putting ferrets down your trousers and seeing who can stand the longest. 

Ferrets are often vilified and underestimated, with people projecting ulterior motives onto them.  If you are able to ferret out secrets, you may find that people don’t like it.  They may feel vulnerable if you are able to see under the surface.  Of course this doesn’t mean you should turn off your empathy, but it’s just worth being aware of it.  If you are an empathetic person who can sense other people’s feelings, know that it might make some people feel unsettled.  Also, as a side note, if you are very empathetic, remember you can and should set boundaries, you don’t need to feel everyone else’s stuff!

The way ferrets slip and slide through the world means they have been associated with magic at times and were thought to be witch’s familiars.  Add to their stealth, the fact they are crepuscular, and you can also see why they have been associated with invisibility.

When it comes to mythology, there aren’t many ferret references that I could find, likely because they were domesticated animals, and because they overlap with weasels so it’s harder to find any stories or beliefs that are out there.  That said, I did find that their fur was attached to an eagle feather to give the skill of alertness and ability to elude capture in some native American tribes.  This comes from the ferret’s ability to move unseen, and to track and scout out enemies. 

Many myths and stories seek to explain why an animal has a particular characteristic and for the ferret, we have a Cree tale to account for why it seems to be nervous.  He is running and trembling because he is afraid he is being chased.  This would certainly account for the high energy bursts!

Reading

Wild Speak
Animal Diversity Web

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

Sugar Glider

“Movement of any kind is a risk, but then again not moving can also be just as dangerous.  Trying to stay where you no longer feel safe and secure won’t serve you.  You have outgrown your old self, and it is now time to say goodbye once and for all.  No one said any of this would be easy.  But at least for now, you don’t have to do anything other than glide on the wind current of inevitable change.”
– Animal totem tarot

Sugar gliders are a kind of possum, an Australian creature that I’ve written about before.  The sugar glider’s scientific name is Petaurus breviceps which translates as ‘short headed rope dancer’ which is incredible!  Many people confuse sugar gliders and flying squirrels but the former are marsupials and the latter are mammals.  They are however, an example of a wonderful concept called convergent evolution whereby different species have adapted to the same challenge of life with the same solution.

The challenge in question being how to move through the air when you don’t have wings.  Both animals have adapted to this by being able to soar, and this allows them to move through the trees, from tree to tree without encountering ground predators.  They are able to soar effortlessly over 6 metres but can reach distances of over 40 metres.  They are also manoeuvrable, able to shift directions mid air; are you being as flexible as you need to be in order to thrive?  For the sugar glider, it is more energy efficient to glide than it is to climb and for you, it is more energy efficiency to be flexible that it is to fight against obstacles.

As sugar gliders glide, as opposed to fly, they are to some extent, at mercy of the elements, specifically the wind.  The wind is moving air and air is the element associated with the mind.  This makes me think of someone who feels at the mercy of their anxiety.  Whilst anxiety can feel like it controls you, there are ways you can work with it to reduce the impact it has on your life.  I’m not going to shoot off into them now, particularly as different things work for different people, but the sugar glider has swooped into your life to nudge you towards finding your own ways of working with anxiety.

As you might have been able to guess, sugar gliders live in forests and they build their nests in the branches of eucalyptus trees.  They enjoy nectar and tree sap but are also opportunistic and will eat insects, eggs and fungi.  We just asked ourselves how flexible we are being and now we are being asked to consider how adaptable we are being. 

As they are nocturnal, sugar gliders communicate primarily through vocalisations and chemical odours.  The sounds they can make include an alarm call which is similar to the bark of a small dog.  The chemical markers can be used to communicate the health of individuals, the rank of the sugar glider and are also used to mark territory.

Sugar gliders are very sociable creatures, living in family groups which can have up to 7 adults as well as the youngsters.  Social grooming helps to maintain the bond and the group identity whilst also helping with health and hygiene.  Whilst they are highly social, this friendliness stops with the group as they are also territorial.  Each group has a small area which they protect and defend.  The territory is marked by the males with their saliva and secretions from their anal, hands and feet scent glands.  There are also glands in the forehead and chest which are used to mark the members of the group.  Any animal that does not smell like the group is immediately registered as an outsider and is attacked.  This is all about managing your boundaries, establishing them and continually reiterating them.  Working out who is allowed access to your heart and soul, and who isn’t.  You do not need to share your whole being with everyone, it is ok to keep some parts of you for yourself and your closest loved ones. 

Female sugar gliders give birth to teeny, tiny babies which weigh just 0.19 grams when they are born.  They crawl into the pouch and leave after about 70 days.  After about 111 days, they will leave the nest and become independent.  Before this point, both parents take excellent care of the young which increases their survival rates.  Until they are 100 days old, they can’t thermoregulate so having both parents involved is important – one adult can huddle with the young and keep them warm whilst the other goes to find food. 

As an interesting aside, and because it seems virtually all of my blog posts must include sex, the female has two uteri and the male has a bifurcated penis!

Horrifically, when I was researching the sugar glider, most of my search results were about how to keep them as a pet.  These are not suited to pet life.  And this huge industry made it very hard to dig up any mythology around them, searching just gave me lots of myth busters…

Whilst I couldn’t access the original link, I did find some information written about the symbolic meaning of the sugar glider in relation to the Australian Animal Tarot Deck:

“Sugar glider teaches the wisdom of being able to fend for what is important to you in an assertive manner; without appearing fearsome or threatening. It is important in life that we don’t go through it submitting to everyone’s desires and suppressing our own wishes, or for that matter, being so aggressive that we scare off everyone! Sugar glider encourages a middle path…

… Sugar glider reminds us that we can do this. Finally, all the gliders tend to teach us that sometimes we need to do a bit more lateral thinking in order to reach a goal. As the gliders soar sideways and laterally to other trees to reach food sources, and communal nests – so glider can teach us to look beyond the square for that which nourishes us and feeds our spirit. Our lives and our lifestyles might seem a bit eclectic, but they literally help our spirit soar.”
– Ravenna, quoted on Nature: Observations and Meanings

A key message from the sugar glider is around feeling confident to soar, to approaching life with a flexible, adaptable attitude and setting strong boundaries.

Reading:

Animal Diversity Web
National Geographic