Call me Ishmael. No, wait. Don’t. That’s been taken. By Herman Melville, writing Moby Dick, and by Abraham long before him. Melville knew a thing or two about birds, sea birds especially. He wrote Moby Dick from a depth of personal sailing knowledge which included sailing on a whaling ship in 1841-1842.
Birds play several roles in Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator is compared to a Catskill Eagle, a bird according to Melville, able to fly into the darkest canyons or the brightest sun, invisible in both places and fitting for the tale’s narrator. No bird by that precise name exists in either BNA’s Birds of North America or Avibase’s The World bird Data Base. We are left to assume that Melville was referring to some brand of eagle that frequented the Catskill Mountains in the early 19th Century, probably a Golden Eagle.
Melville uses many birds to foreshadow foreboding events yet to come. For instance, vultures swirl about the whale-boat “Rosebud.” In chapter 51, “sea-ravens” appear and are oblivious to the humans on the Pequod, almost as if the birds know they are irrelevant. “Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves.”
That implacability of Nature may be the main point of Moby Dick. As T.H. Huxley wrote, “It is even more certain that nature is the expression of a definite order with which nothing interferes, and that the chief business of mankind is to learn that order and govern themselves accordingly.” The Pequod and its sailors are going to learn that lesson. In spades.
Yet often the birds represent the ethereal, heavenly qualities of Nature. White sea birds appear in conjunction with the novel’s supreme mythical image of Nature, the White Whale. Making expectant happy cries whenever Moby Dick is near, “longingly” lingering over the “agitated” pool the whale leaves behind when he dives beneath the sea; the birds are what one observer has called a part of the “serene tranquility of nature that the Pequod disrupts.”
Best of all is the Albatross. Here, in Chapter 42, is Melville on that marvelous white emblem of the sea. “Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations?”
I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. . . in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird chiefly lurks the secret of the spell.”
The albatross Melville saw was caught and a leather strap tied around its neck with the date and the ship’s position written on it and then released. “But I doubt not, that leathern tally, meant for man, was taken off in Heaven, when the white fowl flew to join the wing-folding, the invoking, and adoring cherubim!”
Into the third grouping of Melville’s symbolic birds go the “red-billed sea hawks.” No bird by that name exists, so we are left to assume that it was a sailor’s name for some sea bird seen in the far waters of the great oceans where whalers sailed. Perhaps it refers to some species of sea eagle. Or perhaps a species of Skua. The only sea bird with a red-bill in its official name is the Red-billed Gull but it seems strange to refer to a gull as a “sea hawk.”
No matter. Just before the final climatic three day chase between Moby Dick and the Pequod, Captain Ahab is aloft on the mast, searching for the whale when, “. . . one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks which so often fly incommodiously close round the manned mast-heads of whalemen in these latitudes; one of these birds came wheeling and screaming round his head in a maze of untrackably swift circlings. Then it darted a thousand feet straight up into the air; then spiralized downwards, and went eddying again round his head.” Ahab ignores the bird which then swoops down before Ahab’s eyes and, yanks his hat from his head. “. . . the long hooked bill at his head: with a scream, the black hawk darted away with his prize.”
So now the bird is black with a red beak. That lets out the Red-billed Gull; it’s white.
Inexorably the book marches on to the end. The three day chase, the harpooning of the great whale, the entangled Ahab whisked into the sea to his death, and the whale’s destruction of the ship, killing all the humans aboard her except for Ishmael who survives to tell the tale. The “savage sea hawks” sailing overhead with “sheathed beaks” trouble Ishmael no more.
But as the Pequod sinks, the last images of the book are of birds. With only the top mast still showing, Tashtego trys to hammer the ship’s flag into the top of the mast when,
A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.