Archive for the ‘Fictional birds’ Category

A Christmas Story

December 27, 2010

Christmas at our home started out uneventfully. The farolitos – or if you prefer, the luminarios – had lasted all night. At the bird feeders visitors included a few White-crowned sparrows, several English Sparrows, some Bushtits, and two robins, but nothing exotic or out-of-the-ordinary. Overflights of Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes added color and sound to the morning. The Border Collies helped us open presents and we had a traditional Northern New Mexico lunch: Posole, tamales, with copious doses of red chile.

A turkey was in the oven, promising turkey dinners, dressing, gravy, and turkey soup.

After lunch we watched “A Christmas Story.” That’s the movie about the little boy, Ralphie, who wants an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, a/k/a BB gun. But it’s not looking good for his chances: His mother, his teacher, and even Santa Claus assure him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

He expected resistance from his mother, of course. After all, Mothers know nothing about creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen where only you and you alone stand between your tiny, huddled family and insensate evil.” But he is stunned by opposition from his teacher and Santa Claus.

The Roast Turkey from "A Christmas Story"

A Christmas Story” is also the movie in which Darrin MacGavin plays Ralphie’s Dad and is constantly at profanity-laced war with electrical outlets, his car, and the furnace. As an adult, Ralphie remembers his father as an artist who, “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.” “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

The Bumpus Bloodhounds

But, to his father’s credit, he was beloved by the bloodhounds belonging to the neighbors, the Bumpeses. The dogs mobbed Ralphie’s Dad whenever he appeared at his door or when he got home from work. Any man that beloved by dogs can be forgiven a lot of profanity.

And he loved roast turkey. After the Christmas turkey was roasted his wife was on constant guard to ensure he didn’t sneak into the kitchen and start eating it before dinner.

That turkey was the tragedy of the movie. The bloodhounds broke into the house and demolished it like it had been thrown into a Piranha infested river. Ralphie summed it up, “The heavenly aroma still hung in the house. But it was gone, all gone! No turkey! No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey Hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup! Gone, ALL GONE!”

Red-bellied Piranha by Gregory Moine

I commiserated with that man. I love roast turkey and all its fall-out. And while I would never – and never did, even when I owned a BB gun – shoot a wild bird, I do love to eat turkey.

Anyway, while waiting for our turkey, we watched and enjoyed “A Christmas Story.” On our television, that movie was followed by “The Wizard of Oz” and neither of us had seen it in years.

But that didn’t matter. The turkey was ready, the dressing and potatoes were ready for the gravy and, even though I had not yet had a glass of champagne, I announced, “Our cookie is turked.” I was that excited, you see. Even the power of coherent speech left me.

So instead of watching another movie we ate our dinner.

After the meal we wandered back into the living room and watched the last scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakes and finds herself back in Kansas. Shortly one of the Border Collies wandered into view with something in her mouth.

It was a turkey wing.

A dash to the kitchen resulted in a view of several Border Collies in the middle of the kitchen floor, huddled around the turkey. What was left of it.


Here is the movie’s official trailer. A glimpse of the turkey heist occurs about 50 seconds into the clip.

The Wisdom of Owls

March 30, 2009
Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

The most often read post on this blog is now “Halloween and Barn Owls.” Sometime ago it passed even “Crows and Ravens Part IV” which is the post where we tell you precisely and clearly how to tell the difference between a Crow and a Raven and even help you identify which kind of crow and raven.  Now we are hard at work on a post telling you how to identify various owls.

In the meantime we thought we would remind you of one of James Thurber’s fables.  Specifically the one about the owl who was God.

Once, according to Thurber, on a dark night, an owl, perched in an oak tree, heard two moles scurrying about on the ground.  The owl said, “Who?” startling the tiny mammals one of whom sqeaked, “Who?”  To which the owl replied, “You two!”  The moles ran off and reported to all the animals in the forest that the owl could see in the dark, answer all questions, and therefore must be the wisest of all animals.

The Secretary bird wasn’t having any and charged off to test the owl.  Arriving at the oak tree the bird demanded that the owl, in pitch darkness, answer the question, “How many fingers am I holding up?”  (Secretary birds, of course, don’t have fingers but Thurber is telling us a fable here, not reporting scientific fact.)  The owl answered — correctly — “Two.”  The secretary bird then asked the owl for another word which means “that is to say” or “namely.”  From the tree came the answer, “to wit.”  So the secretary bird asked its last question, “Why does a lover call on his love?”  “To woo,” answered the owl.

sagittarius serpentarius

sagittarius serpentarius

Secretary birds live in sub-Saharan Africa, spending most of their time on the ground.  They are not small birds; some grow to a height of 4 feet.  Thurber was a writer, not an ornithologist.  We may suspect he chose a Secretary bird for his fable because of its name and for no other reason.

So this secretary bird returned to all the animals, reporting that the owl could see in the dark and knew everything.  There was a doubter in the group as there always is in any group.  The fox wanted to know if the owl could see in daytime too but all the other animals laughed at the fox.  They sent a messenger off to tell the owl they wanted him for their leader.

secretary-birdThe owl appeared among them at noon the next day with huge globular eyes and all the animals thought he was God and started following him everywhere he went.  When he bumped into trees, so did they; when he started walking down the center of a highway, they followed.  Pretty soon a hawk saw a truck bearing down on them and reported to the Secretary bird who said to the owl, “There’s danger ahead!”  The owl calmly asked, “To wit?”  But about that time the truck ran them over.  Except for the fox who had refused to go along. Since this is a kind of a fairy tale, he probably lived happily ever after.

As you can tell, Thurber was using the fable story-telling form – invented, so far as we know, by Aesop – so, in addition to the conflict introduced by the fox, the story has to have a moral.  Here is how Thurber described the moral of this story: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

But for us, as birders, the moral might be stated differently: There is a reason you don’t often see owls during the day.


Keven Law took the photo of the yawning secretary bird; Chris Eason took the photo of the entire bird.  You can read more about David Utterback here.

We read Thurber’s owl fable in our copy of Thurber: Writings and Drawings, published by the Library of America. Thurber’s fables were originally published as Fables for Our Time and Further Fables for Our Time. For more about Thurber himself, try this.

The Birds of Moby Dick

March 3, 2009

Moby dick by Rockwell Kent

Moby Dick by Rockwell Kent

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.”

wandering-flying1Best 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?”

He continues,

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!”

Red-billed Gull

Red-billed Gull

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.

Birds and Henry V

December 12, 2008

agincourt-by-gilvertWe’re almost 600 years away from the Battle of Agincourt, the famous battle in which the outnumbered, cold, and hungry soldiers of Henry V defeated the French in the most famous battle of the Hundred Years War.  Shakespeare’s play Henry V centers on the English invasion of France that culminated on the battlefield near Agincourt.

And what, you may ask, has that got to do with birds?

The answer is: Shakespeare.

Shakespeare knew birds and today we begin an occasional series about his love of birds and the thousands of references to them in his plays and poems. We’ve decided to start with some images from Henry V.

In many plays, Shakespeare refers to birds by name but in Henry V birds mainly are metaphors for swift movement.  In fact, as Caroline Spurgeon noted in her 1935 classic, Shakespeare’s Imagery, the flight of birds, “. . . symbolized the swiftest movement known to man.” (243) Only one species is specifically identifiable in this play and it is the world’s fastest. When Henry describes his affection for his soldiers, many of whom are low-born conscripts, he describes his affections as “higher mounted” than those of commoners, “yet, when they [his affections] stoop, they stoop with the like wing.”  Shakespeare does not name the Peregrine Falcon in that passage, but what else could he have been talking about? Peregrines, the fastest animal on the planet, are the highest and fastest divers.
Most, if not all, the bird references in Henry V are used as similes or metaphors for speed. Preparing to depart for France, Henry urges speed in the preparations,

Let our proportions for these wars
Be soon collected, and all things thought upon
That may with reasonable swiftness add
More feathers to our wings.

While the fleet is on the way to France, the audience is implored to think of wings as the scene changes,

Thus, with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought.

Likewise, on his way back from France, the audience is asked to,

Heave him away upon your winged thoughts
Athwart the sea.

Probably Location of the Battle of Agincourt

Probable Location of the Battle of Agincourt

The night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry visits his troops.  In  a famous discussion with them, Henry argues while a subject’s duty belongs to the King, the subject’s soul is his own.  Soldiers who previously have been miscreants or worse “have no wings to fly from God.”

And, in one of the sublime moments of highest emotion in the play, characters have wings to fly to God. The Duke of York discovers his friend Suffolk dead on the battlefield.  He cries out,

Tarry, dear cousin Suffolk!
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven;
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast.


Shakespeare’s Birthday

April 23, 2008

Today might be the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. No one knows for sure, but this is the traditional day.[1]

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare?
The correct day of his birth is just one of the ten thousand details about Shakespeare’s life of which we know next to nothing. Some people aren’t even sure Shakespeare was really Shakespeare. He might have been somebody else. But this blog is unafraid of that controversy. We take the position that Shakespeare was Shakespeare and that he wrote the plays and the poetry attributed to him. He is dead now. Dead since this same day, April 23rd, in 1616, the same day that Cervantes died.

With all that out of the way, we can get to the point of today’s post: While we know little about Shakespeare’s biography, we know that he loved birds. His writing is full of avian references. And not just general references but explicit ones about individual species and their behaviors, indicating that Shakespeare knew the birds of England very well indeed. According to one scholar, Caroline Spurgeon, of all the images in Shakespeare only images relating to the human body outnumber those relating to birds. Falcons, Eagles, Hawks, Kites, swans, crows, ravens pelicans, doves, choughs, lapwings, herons, sparrows, owls, larks, even chickens populate the plays.

Goshawks “wing the wind”, turkey-cocks strut beneath “advanced plumes”, wild geese are “ scattered by winds and tempestuous gusts”, and falcons, “tower in [their] pride of place.” Chided by her father for her choice in husbands a daughter tells him, “I chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock.” Falstaff bemoans a lack of courage on the part of a fellow robber by noting that he has no more valour than a wild duck. Juliet longs for, “. . .a falc’ners voice, to lure this tassel-gentle [Romeo] back again.” ” Anthony flies after Cleopatra like a “doting mallard.” And Othello promises to whistle Desdemona off like a falcon and let her, “down the wind to prey at fortune” should she prove unfaithful. Beatrice, “like a lapwing, runs close by the ground.” Prince Hal, wasting his youth but soon to be King Henry V, is a Cuckoo in June, “heard but not regarded.”

We could go on and on and would; except there is, “Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity as a Wren’s eye.” Instead, we will, “. . . with reasonable swiftness add more feathers to our wings” and depart this post before trying your patience further. As we used to say in the Royal Navy, “You may, “Heave [us] away upon your winged thoughts athwart the sea.”

[1] At the time of his life, Britain still used the Julian Calendar. The British Empire did not officially begin using the Gregorian calendar until 1752.

Crows and Ravens, Part V – Fictional Birds, Part II

December 10, 2007

Our posts here about crows and ravens are our most popular and another is on the way. Our incipient series about fictional birds is also popular. Obviously it is time to wed the two and today we do that; calling on the services of the late Vincent Price.

Fictional Birds, Part I

September 15, 2007

This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. Darzee, the Tailorbird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall, gave him advice, but Rikki-tikki did the real fighting.

That is from Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful short story Riki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose who saved his human family from Nag and Nagaina, the cobras. But it really wasn’t Darzee who helped, it was his wife. When the time came that Nagaina had to be distracted while Rikki-tikki-tavi scurried off to the melon bed to break the cobra’s eggs, it was Darzee’s wife who knew what had to be done and did it.

Darzee was a feather-brained little fellow who could never hold more than one idea at a time in his head. And just because he knew that Nagaina’s children were born in eggs like his own, he didn’t think at first that it was fair to kill them. But his wife was a sensible bird, and she knew that cobra’s eggs meant young cobras later on. So she flew off from the nest, and left Darzee to keep the babies warm, and continue his song about the death of Nag. Darzee was very like a man in some ways. She fluttered in front of Nagaina by the rubbish heap and cried out, “Oh, my wing is broken! The boy in the house threw a stone at me and broke it.” Then she fluttered more desperately than ever. Nagaina lifted up her head and hissed, “You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you’ve chosen a bad place to be lame in.” And she moved toward Darzee’s wife, slipping along over the dust. “The boy broke it with a stone!” shrieked Darzee’s wife. . . .[Nagaina replied,] What is the use of running away? I am sure to catch you. Little fool, look at me!” Darzee’s wife knew better than to do that, for a bird who looks at a snake’s eyes gets so frightened that she cannot move. Darzee’s wife fluttered on, piping sorrowfully, and never leaving the ground, and Nagaina quickened her pace.

Scientists have a technical name for that kind of avian behavior, they call it “Distraction Displays” and many ground dwelling birds are quite adept at it. Kipling was taking fictional liberties with that distraction display. Such displays are almost always the behavior of ground dwelling bird parents trying to keep a predator away from their nest. orthotomus_sutorius.jpgTailorbirds, so named because they pierce the edges of a large leaf and then sew it together using plant fiber or spider’s web to make a pouch which they fill with grass to make their nest, nest in trees. They live in South Asia and are warblers with short rounded wings, short tails, strong legs and long curved bills. They hold their tails upright, like wrens. Kipling knew his birds; his story takes place in an urban garden and tailorbirds live in open woodland, scrub and gardens.

He may have known his birds but he was writing in the Victorian Era and Darzee’s wife never gets her own name. But, like I said, it was she that knew what had to be done and did it. When Nagaina is about to kill the little boy who rescued Rikki-tikki at the beginning of the story, Rikki-tikki arrives with the last of the cobra’s eggs in his mouth. Nagaina forgets killing the boy in order to get her last egg.  She eventually does and flees for her hole with the egg in her mouth. Darzee just keeps on singing:

But Darzee’s wife was wiser. She flew off her nest as Nagaina came along, and flapped her wings about Nagaina’s head. If Darzee had helped they might have turned her, but Nagaina only lowered her hood and went on.

And so, because Darzee is an idiot, Rikki-tikki has to follow Nagaina into her hole and little mongooses are frequently killed by snakes in snake holes where there is no room for the mongoose to manuever. But Rikki-tikki emerges the winner. Then we are introduced to the second bird species of the story, the Coppersmith Barbet.

Tell the Coppersmith, Darzee, and he will tell the garden that Nagaina is dead.” The Coppersmith is a bird who makes a noise exactly like the beating of a little hammer on a copper pot; and the reason he is always making it is because he is the town crier to every Indian garden, and tells all the news to everybody who cares to listen. As Rikki-tikki went up the path, he heard his “attention” notes like a tiny dinner gong, and then the steady “Ding-dong-tock! Nag is dead–dong! Nagaina is dead! Ding-dong-tock!” That set all the birds in the garden singing, and the frogs croaking, for Nag and Nagaina used to eat frogs as well as little birds.

The Coppersmith Barbet is also a resident of South Asia. megalaima_haemacephala.jpg It is the most common barbet and lives entirely in trees, preferring open wooded country and urban gardens. Its call is a loud metallic sounding “tuk…tuk…tuk,” which is how it got its name. It makes the call by closing its beak then inflating and collapsing its throat like a rubber bulb. It does this monotonously for hours, accompanying the call with much shaking of its body and tail. It is one of India’s most frequent bird sounds, during the warm season. It is largely quiet in colder weather. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi takes place during the warm Monsoon season.

Like I said, Kipling knew his birds.

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