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.

Advertisements

Surviving the winter: Plants and animals

Whilst I struggle with winter, at least I have a warm and cosy flat and somewhere dry and comfy to snuggle up.  Plants and animals don’t have it so easy.  Over time they have adapted a number of different ways to cope with the harsh weather that winter brings.

There are four main strategies for coping with winter:

  1. Stay active, but adapt
  2. Hibernate
  3. Die, leaving offspring behind in a form that lets them survive
  4. Migrate

Before we look at the options, let’s consider the problems that plants and animals face in the UK.  Obviously it’s cold.  There are frosts and this is a really significant factor as most organisms are made up of a lot of water and frost can lead to their tissues freezing which leads to death.  Other problems include reduced food supply, shorter days can mean less time to find food, lack of light, shortage of water in a liquid form, after all, you can’t drink ice.

Plants and animals know when winter is approaching by sensing environmental cues such as lower temperatures and shorter days.  This knowledge means they can start preparing, for example by building up fat reserves, shedding leaves, hoarding food etc.

Stay active, but adapt

Some organisms continue to be active despite the challenging weather and are able to do this because over time they have adapted strategies to help them.  Growing thicker feathers or fur is one such adaptation; the house sparrow has 11.5% more feathers in winter than in summer.  Squirrels which hide away nuts for the winter are another example of adapting to the weather.

Social behaviours change.  Birds which are normally solitary or found in pairs form flocks for the winter.  This increases food efficiency, reduces heat loss and increases protection from predators.

In the plant world, we see evergreen plants toughing it out.  The main issue for them in the winter is lack of water.  Their needle shaped leaves reduce surface area and this reduces water loss.  They also have a waxy layer which further prevents water loss.  This means the tree retains water throughout the winter and thus are better able to survive.  A lot of adaptations however mean trade offs.  In this case, the shape of the needles makes them less efficient in the spring and summer.

Deciduous trees also struggle with reduced water over winter and it’s also harder to photosynthesise when there is less light.  They’ve dealt with this issue by letting go of their leaves.  Before they do so, they move the water, sugars, minerals etc from the leaves to the woody part of the tree.  Then the chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down and reabsorbed into the main tree.  This leaves behind other pigments which aren’t useful to the tree such as orange carotenes and yellow xanthophylls which is why leaves become the gorgeous colours we associate with autumn.

Hibernation

Some animals will go into a full state of hibernation whilst others go into a sort of semi-hibernation which is affected by weather conditions.

In hibernation, the metabolic activity reduces significantly which helps them to conserve energy and survive the winter.  This includes incredibly low heart rates, as low as 10% of their normal heart rate.

Before hibernation, these animals must eat a lot of food and store it as fat.  Whilst this strategy allows animals to survive the difficult winter, it is imperative that they find food again soon after emerging.

Hedgehogs are one example of a true hibernator.  Depending on the weather, they may enter hibernation any time between October and December and emerge again in March or April.  During this period, their heartbeat can fall from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute and its body temperature drops from 35˚C to just 10˚C.

Other UK hibernators include bats, dormice, some insects such as ladybirds, amphibians and reptiles.

Die

This might sound a drastic solution to facing winter but it’s one a number of species implement.  For example, annual plants will complete their life cycle in a year.  During the summer they release their seeds and then they start to die, but leaving behind lots of babies in the form of seeds.  Seeds are a much better form to face the winter in than as a leafy, lush plant which will not be able to cope with frost.

Another organism which often uses this strategy is butterflies.  Many butterflies die shortly after mating and laying eggs and their young then face winter as caterpillars and chrysalises which is much safer.  Some butterflies have adapted to hibernate over winter instead.

Migrate

About 40% of the birds that breed in Britain don’t spend winter here, instead heading off for sunnier places.  But it’s not just birds that migrate, caribou, reindeer, monarch butterflies and other insects all do as well (obviously not UK examples!).

Migration allows animals to find warmer places with better food supplies and less risk of freezing to death.  However, it’s not an easy option.  It’s estimated that swallows suffer 67% annual mortality, much of which is during migration.  Migration is an expensive venture in terms of calories and brings with it risks of predators, shooters and ….

Whilst you might not think it, more northerly birds do migrate to the UK for our comparatively warmer winters.  This includes many kinds of ducks and geese as well as fieldfares, redwings and bramblings.

Migrant butterflies include red admirals and painted ladies which arrive in vast numbers so their caterpillars can hatch here and enjoy the thistles and nettles in the summer.

A likely overlooked migrant is the basking shark which heads to our shores over the summer to eat the concentrated numbers of plankton found here.

Useful links

Winter Solstice, or Mana’s Birthday

We’re back to my house of helens, see previous posts for context:

This time it’s Mana’s birthday.  She is the materal or grandmother figure.  She is not a helen I know that well yet.  She is sort of there in the background watching and offering hugs and nudges where needed.

Today, to celebrate her, we will be lighting a candle as the longest night begins and offering her hugs and kisses.  There will be yummy tea drunk by a roaring fire.  Stories will be told.

We will thank the sun for returning and thank the darkness for the chance to reflect, to restore, to rest.  This has been a really important part of my change in perspective of winter, that is to honour the unique and vital aspects of the darker time of year rather than just berating it for existing.

Alone, myself and Mana will do a tarot reading.  One fitting to her wisdom and knowledge as well as the time of year.  It will reflect, pause and look to the coming light.

Whilst this is a post about the house of helens, I also want to make it relevant to my nature and writing project so I’m sharing some things I have found or know about winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

During the winter solstice, the north pole is as far away from the sun as it can get.  This means that at the same time the south pole is as close to the sun as it can get and the southern hemisphere celebrate the summer solstice.

The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still.”

There are numerous stone monuments which are configured in such a way as to show when it is the solstice.  Whether they were built for this purpose is a matter of debate but given how important the passing of the year would have been for our ancient ancestors I think it’s a strong possibility.  If you live in a time when farming and hunting are your lifeline, it’s going to be very reassuring to know that the shortest day is here and from now on everything is going to get easier.

For the Mayans, the sun was incredibly important as it allowed them to create their complex calendars and “entire ceremonial complexes that were positioned specifically for the celebration of the solar cycle”.

Around the world, people celebrate the winter solstice. China’s Dongzhi (literally “the extreme of the winter”) Festival celebrates the winter solstice, along with the imminent return to longer days. At the ancient ruins of Stonehenge in England, thousands gather before sunrise to celebrate. In Japan, some partake in a traditional hot bath, soaking with a Japanese citrus fruit, called yuzu, to greet the winter solstice while protecting against common colds.

Futurity

Whether you mark the solstice or not, I hope you have a lovely day!

Winter and me

Over on Poets & Writers, a prompt came up which sounded interesting and timely for my weather focus.

In preparation for cold winter months, red-toothed shrews are able to shrink their head and brain mass by 20 percent and then regrow it as the weather warms up in spring. With this survival strategy, they expend less energy when food resources are scarce. Does your energy level or your relationship to your body change during certain seasons? Does your body feel, act, or respond differently in the winter? Write a personal essay about measures you’ve taken, whether moderate or drastic, to adjust your body to difficult times or discomfiting temperatures at various points of the year. 

I have touched on my relationship with weather and with winter a few times but this felt like an interesting angle to approach it from.  This is not an essay but rather my very initial responses to the topic of winter and me.

As winter approaches, as the icy wind creeps over the landscape, you will find me retreating.  You will find me shrinking into my flat, into my bed, into my duvet.  I am no longer an outside creature.  No longer a creature of the weather.  If I could, I would hibernate.  But to do so is not possible in a human shell.  So instead I adopt the next best thing.  A season snuggled into my warm home, blankets, hot drinks and reassuring comfort.  I will mark my days with morning chills and evenings nesting.  I will conserve my energy.  Only moving when necessary and even then, I leave my den reluctantly.

Pyjamas and jumpers become my layers of choice and I will not leave the house without a blanket.  I am bundled up, my armour against the bitter winter.  Perhaps if I wear enough layers, the wind will not chill my bones, I will not slip on black ice and damage yet more of myself, the rain will not permeate my soul only to be released as tears.  Perhaps.

I move slower.  The cold tires me out.  My joints ache with the low temperatures.  Depression pulls like a ball and chain at my ankle, holding me back as I try to step forward.  So I stay still, in my nest, in a state of dormancy.

Of course, when I worked, I could not indulge myself in my semi-hibernation.  I had to get up, brave the frosty mornings and skate on the black ice to the office.  I had to fight my body and my mind to get out of bed, to leave the house.  The darkness, the grim shadowy mornings and nights, bothered me more then.  To work in the dark, a day at a desk far removed from daylight, then home in the dark.

Now, through my windows and occasional venture outdoors, I see the slither of day.  I do not battle my natural instinct to retreat but accept it for what it is and it makes this time of year easier.  I prepare, like a squirrel collecting nuts, only I collect ideas and projects and books that can all be carried out slowly from the safety of a blanket.  I do not sleep the winter away. But nor do I expect from myself the same level of activity as summer.

I am comfortable now, secure in my knowledge that as the seasons rise and fall, so too will I.

December: A pre-introduction – coping with the weather

The darkness has arrived.  It is engulfing us.  And it is crushing some of us.  Winter can be a difficult time for some of us, for our mental health and our physical health.  Winter weather can restrict and isolate us.

Before I get onto this month’s topic, I want to say a bit more about how I am currently thinking about winter this year.  In the past I have battled against it, I have set myself up to fight the winter.  This has involved SAD lamps, meal plans, cooking and freezing in bulk and late winter holidays to sunnier places.  But I was constantly on the defensive and to be honest, my success was limited.  I would still get to the end of winter having faced worse depression and increased physical pain.

Then last winter came and it was my first winter not working and so I wasn’t going out and seeing people and wasn’t feeling useful and so on.  All great things for your mental health.  In addition to that, most people I knew were working full time and I can’t go out in the rain on my own because I can’t put on my own wheelchair waterproof.  On the whole, these things are still the case.  I do now know people who don’t work which is good but I still can’t go out in the rain without help and the cold is bad for pain and the dark is bad for mental health.

Then, last Christmas, an amazing friend of mine gave me the wild unknown animal spirit deck.  And shortly after, I started my blog series, looking at each animal more closely and getting to know them.  The first card was the bear.  And it was one of a few things that really transformed my approach to winter.

Instead of battling, the bear teaches us to go with the seasons, to let the rhythms flow with us not against us.  We can embrace the urge to hibernate, as long as we balance it with more active times in the spring and summer.  I’ve already repeated a lot of the bear post in many other posts so I’m not going to talk much more about it, but I do recommend looking at it.

Along with the bear, I was also finding I was reading about the necessity of the darkness.  The need to have space and time to go within ourselves and to nurture ideas and seeds which aren’t ready to be externalised and made vulnerable.

Some of what I was reading was talking about changing the way we think of darkness.  It is not the absence of light, but something immensely valuable in itself.  Without the dark, we cannot see the moon, we cannot see the stars and we do not appreciate the light.  This is a time of rest, of restoration, of recuperation.  A necessary part of the year.

But of course, the winter can feel long and this is why we have festivals and celebrations.  December has long been considered a holy month, holding as it does the winter solstice and later the Christian Christmas as well as Hanukkah, and various other feast days.

Links