“Why do you love birds so much?” I once asked during an Audubon chapter meeting. What about them intrigues you more than other animals? What motivates you to wake up early in the morning to travel to get a sight of them?
“Birds are like uncovering buried treasure,” was the response. “They are typically upbeat and don’t mind if you observe them.” “They are constantly there and simple to notice.”
The most obsessive did not express their reasons that evening, maybe because there are no words for the most profound affects on the heart and intellect. People are still impelled to meticulously record their sightings, to spend hours painting or carving representations of birds, writing up songs about them, photographing them, and delivering interminable slide shows to rapt audiences. These are signs of how birds stimulate our creative minds. In a nutshell, birds are muses.
The term “muse” derives from one of Zeus’ daughters, who was an inspiration in art, philosophy, and science. Derivative terms like “amuse” and “bemuse” intend to captivate and fascinate us. We certainly pay close attention to birds, sometimes exclaiming in astonishment. We look for them in groups, but we also look for them on our own, welcome them as companions in our isolation. But it’s the following phase that piques my attention in this case, and that’s how birds trigger particular ideas and actions.
Let us now turn our attention away from public works and onto the inner creative process.
For starters, birds have received more scientific attention than other creatures. Charles Darwin’s study of finches in the Galapagos Islands inspired his historical theory of evolution, which he presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Scientists have used birds’ lives to explore mating systems, the function of kinfolk, communication, inheritance and learning, hormones, DNA, brain mapping, their adaptability to severe environments and odd niches, navigation, the evolution of behaviour, and everything else they could think of. When it was thought that birds were plentiful in the nineteenth century, they were tragically overtrapped in order to be studied. As we all know, John J. Audubon and Afred Russel Wallace, among others, had no qualms with murdering specimens in order to create their masterpieces.
The study of ornithology sprang from the thick tomes of bird watchers. Pierre Belon wrote a History of the Nature of Birds in 1555. Alexander Wilson’s (an emigrant Scotsman) nine-volume American Ornithology was a key study in the 1800s. Thomas Nuttall, curator of the Harvard Botanical Garden, released a book in 1832. A variety of museums, ornithological associations, and publications and journals dedicated to birds blossomed upon a rich layer of foundation. Amateurs and professionals interested in advanced field observation. Roger Tory Peterson’s guides, which were originally published in 1934 and had sold over four million copies by 1997, were acclaimed as “the most significant natural history achievement of the century.”
People have established a slew of enterprises centred on birdfranchised storefronts, selling stuff like as CDs, adorned home objects, feeders, and seeds. In distant parts of the globe, the eco-tourism business developed hotels and other amenities to facilitate bird viewing.
Throughout history, people have fondly evoked birds in their art. Ornithologist (and currently Senior Scientist of the National Audubon Society) Frank McGill wrote about “The Strange Wonderful and Enduring Relationship Between Man and Birds” in an essay published in “American Birds” in 1991, including several instances. Birds occur throughout European and Asian Paleolithic cave paintings, Egyptian tombs, and Greek vases. Tribal artists created bird masks. Giotto painted St. Francis preaching to birds in the Middle Ages. Christ was shown as a dove, a swan, and an eagle. Brancusi sculpted elegant birds in chrome and stone in the twentieth century.
Birds served as inspirations for some of literature’s greatest writers: Famous ancient works include Farid ad-Din Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds” and Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds,” poetry that often features the cuckoo, nightingale, and lark. Birds, above all, have inspired music. For Die Meistersinger, Wagner composed an aria about owls, ravens, jackdaws, and magpies. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony includes cuckoo and nightingale sounds. The first lines of Bizet’s Carmen are “Love is a renegade bird that no one can tame.” Paul Winter’s saxophone accompaniment to birds in the outdoors.
Birds were also elevated to the status of deities. Goddesses were created to seem like birds between 27 and 10,000 B.C.E., with breasts pushed forward and huge buttocks that housed eggs. These bird goddesses were thought to germinate and transport the essence of life and the cosmos. Because of the ability of birds to create nests, bird deities were sometimes represented as spinners and weavers. People in Ecuador and Peru still paint birds on their spindles.
To equate Aphrodite with elegance and love, she was represented on the back of a swan. We now have a love stamp with two swans. Mother Goose, the teacher of those timeless stories, is a descendant of the swan deity.
Let us now direct our attention to the person responsible for this massive amount of bird-related content. On a biological level, human conduct is similar to that of birds. We wear colourful attire, like plumage, during the mating game to attract the other sex. A man’s tuxedo is clearly inspired by the penguin appearance. We strut our thing and make seductive looks like birds, particularly on the dance floor. Even our graceful ballet dancers seem to imitate avian moves. Soft wooing sounds and triumphal yells are both part of our common lexicon. Males like to spread their seed, whereas females prefer to get the greatest bargain. As with birds, our species deals with promiscuity and a wide spectrum of pairing, including monogamy, polygamy, and female-to-female connections.
Birds have also influenced our moral compass. “Birds dream of territories contained by song,” wrote Margaret Atwood. Birds’ disregard for state and national borders in their quest for survival suggests an oneness of being, a world free of artificial divides and full of delight. Birds have traditionally been considered holy since they can fly and hence are closer to God in heaven. They’ve been the icons of the spirit, flying away from leaden preoccupations with stuff. We’ve made the dove a symbol of peace, and the eagle a symbol of tremendous grandeur.
The ability of some little, apparently helpless birds to fly thousands of miles, weathering severe weather patterns and charting their path so they arrive at the same location year after year drives us to strive for more in our lives. The poet Emily Dickinson said of these wonderful activities, “Hope is the creature with wings that nests on our spirit.”
Birds can heal. Terry Tempest Williams, a naturalist and novelist, speaks for many when she writes in Refuge:
I pray to the birds because I think they will convey my heart’s words skyward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, since their melodies begin and close each day with Earth’s invocations and benedictions. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I like rather than what I am afraid of. And they teach me how to listen at the conclusion of my prayers.
Bird feathers, bones, and eggs have long been gathered as talismans. These things have been used in meditations and rituals to enhance contact with the divine and to heal. Even a contemporary writer, Barry Lopez, has recalled how, when he was depressed, copying the motions of a heron in a secret dance comforted him. Something about identifying with nature, particularly birds, provides this peace.
The Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, provides an example of the healing potential of bird singing. He has been interested with bird language since boyhood. He read “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils,” about a mischievous youngster who speaks with wild geese, which inspired him to learn bird language and fly away with his beloved wild geese. He had no idea that he would have a seriously brain-damaged youngster who couldn’t talk much later in life. Oe and his wife spent two years while the youngster was four years old playing bird songs all day. The youngster began to hum and eventually made great music on the piano and flute after hearing similar noises. The physicians said that their son’s verbal hemisphere was quite poor, but his musical hemisphere was very powerful. None of this would have been uncovered had Oe and his wife not followed their instincts about birdsong.
Birds have been picked out for their unique characteristics. Crows, for example, are revered in many cultures for their intellect and alertness. Their noisy caws warn of impending peril. They’ve long been associated with tricksters because they’re amusing, cunning, provocative, and disarming. They have absorbed projections of sorrow and the soul’s required plunge into darkness before emerging to light because they are black. Black in alchemy signifies the “nigredo” state, which is unformed yet full of promise. Because they feast on carrion, they were a frequent emblem of death with the vulture and raven. The presence of multiple people at the same time has been thought to presage death. The flock of crows soaring over a field was Van Gogh’s last work.
A guy who was bereaved by his mother’s death and then dismayed to learn that his sister had terminal cancer went on lengthy walks where he regularly encountered a crow. It would jump along a fence with him, but always ahead of him. He came to see it as a spiritual ally, a sign that the “higher forces” were aware of his existence.
Crows were allies and role models for native Americans.
Eagles were connected with strength and combat because they resembled noble heroes. To defend oneself from bad powers, the Greeks hung eagles over their doorways. In ancient Aztec tradition, the chief deity instructed the banished people to reside near an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a serpent. This was the birthplace of Mexico City.
Eagles may swoop down into the water to gather food. This capacity is analogous to being able to delve into the unconscious without being overwhelmed or swamped by it, but rather to fish out a little amount of nutrition. The fact that eagles can swallow a snake implies that they have extensive snake expertise.
One of Aphrodite’s terrible chores for Psyche in the Apuleius story of Amor (Eros) and Psyche is to fetch water from the feared black river in an impassable Stygian abyss, jealously guarded by dragons. The eagle arrives to help her. He swoops through the risks, a little urn in his mouth, and fills it. Water contains uncontrolled life force that can only be held in limited quantities. The psychological problem is holding part of this chthonic force without fracturing.
Eagles offer power to combat the inner demons of perplexity and despair, as well as the exterior demons of rivals, swindlers, and ignoramuses, in dreams and other symbolic images.
Many dreams include birds. To comprehend the dreams, consider the characteristics of the birds as well as their cultural background. Typically, the bird in a dream will have particular importance to the dreamer, such as a personal favourite.
Which birds are your favourites? Who fills your imaginations and dreams? What ones make your heart sing and inspire you to create?
I’d like to conclude with a bit of a poem that ties together the ideas of this piece: the author, Sandra Alcosser, and her community are both fascinated and confused by birds. They arrange a ritual to commemorate the return of the woodpeckers to Montana, taking great notice of the comings and goings.
And so on a long day
of the summer solstice when the world
spins silly with light, we do the dance
of the woodpecker, twirling our skirts and mustaches, tapping our resonant
branches, our underwear
flashing white as we shake
the irregular flags of our body
into undulant, raw flight.
Valerie Harms, a graduate of Smith College, is the author of 8 books, including The NAS Almanac of the Environment / The Ecology of Everyday Life. For 7 years she was a Science Editor at the National Audubon Society in New York City. She now lives in Bozeman, Montana.