Archive for the ‘Mythology’ Category

Halloween and Barn Owls

October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween to all. It is that wonderful pagan holiday where grown-up people can dress up and pretend to be something they are not. It is also the time when witches, owls, and ravens rule the night.

Ravens and owls have bad reputations the rest of the year. Edward Howe Forbush thought that unfair. He was the author of Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, a three volume work first published shortly after Mr. Forbush died in 1929. Here is what he had to say in defense of Barn Owls:

Since the dawn of history, owls have been the pitiable victims of ignorance and superstition. Hated, despised, and feared by many peoples, only their nocturnal habits have enabled them to survive in company with civilized man. In the minds of mankind they have leagued with witches and malignant evil spirits, or even have been believed to personify the Evil One. They have been regarded as precursors of sorrow and death, and some savage tribes have been so fixed in the belief that a man will die if an owl alights on the roof of his dwelling that, it is said, some Indians having seen the owl on the roof-tree have pined away and died. Among these eerie birds, the Barn Owl has been the victim of the greatest share of obloquy and persecution, owing to its sinister appearance, its weird night cries, its habit of haunting dismal swamps and dank quagmires, where an incautious step may precipitate the investigator into malodorous filth or sucking quicksands, and its tendency to frequent the neighborhood of man’s dwellings, especially unoccupied buildings and ghostly ruins. Doubtless the Barn Owl is responsible for some of the stories of haunted houses which have been current through the centuries. When divested by science of its atmosphere of malign mystery, however, this owl is seen to be not only harmless but a benefactor to mankind and a very interesting fowl that will well repay close study.

Indeed. For instance, that weird looking facial ruff appears designed to focus sound waves, magnifying them before delivery to the Barn Owl’s asymmetrical ears. Aware of minute differences in the time the sound waves arrive at each ear, the owl is capable of precisely determining the locus of the sound. A sound coming from above will seem to the owl to be slightly louder in the ear with the higher opening. A sound from the left will seem slightly louder in the ear with the left-most opening. A sound equal in both ears is straight ahead. In experiments, Barn Owls successfully hunt in absolute darkness even though in the wild there is usually at least some night illumination.

And like all owls, they hunt soundlessly. The leading edges of the first primary wing feathers are serrated which disrupts the flow of air over the wings which silences the vortex noise created by air flowing over a smooth surface.

But it is Halloween, so – if you want – you can be afraid of Barn Owls; but for tonight only.


For More on Barn Owls, see “Toe Dusting.”

Want to know how to identify Barn Owls?  Here is how if you can see the bird; here is how if it is dark and you can only hear it.

Here is a piece on the Wisdom of Owls.

For more on the delightful E.H. Forbush, see our post about Belted Kingfishers.


UPDATE – APRIL 3, 2010

Follow this link to a live web cam of a Barn Owl tending to brand new babies.

Magpies, Al Gore and Climate Change

October 14, 2007

I’ve been gone for a few days and out of touch with the world. But I knew that Al Gore and the scientists who study global climate change would receive the Nobel Peace Prize while I was gone. A Magpie told me. Actually, the Magpie only told me that Al Gore and the scientists are right: The climate is warming and faster than it ought to. I figured the rest out for myself. blackbilledmagpie12.JPG

Magpies, in many mythologies, are messenger birds; able to transcend time and space and communicate with worlds unseen by us. They can fly to the heavens and receive messages which they bring back to earth. They’ve been in North America since long before humanity arrived here. Their range was once as extensive as that of the bison. They followed the great bison herds as they ranged throughout the current western United States.

The Magpies, now that I look back on it, have been telling me for years that the climate is warming. But I need to back up a bit. My family – for three generations now – has been the privileged custodian of an old cabin in a canyon of the southern Rocky Mountains. The cabin itself is more than 100 years old and the trees which were used to make it probably another century older than that. When I first made the annual pilgrimage I was a baby and have no conscious memory of the Magpies. But, by the time I was eight or nine years old, I delighted in seeing them. We lived outside their range and so saw them only during our summer vacation as we approached the cabin. In those days, the northern extent of their local range was about 20 miles south of the cabin.

But over just the short span of my life, the Magpies have moved north and, more important, up into the Canyon. Unless you look back more than four decades, the movement was imperceptible. But now the Magpies live a mere six and a half miles from the cabin. They have reduced their range 15 miles north and 1000 feet upward. The Magpie I saw yesterday was further north than I have ever seen one and was at least a mile further up-canyon than last year.

The only reason for their movement is that the climate here is warming. Magpies don’t do well when temperatures rise to 35 degrees centigrade (95 Degrees Fahrenheit) for more than an hour or so a day. They move upward to cooler temperatures to stay alive and are well adapted to colder temperatures. The only reason for the speed of the Magpies’ upward move is that the earth is warming faster than it would be without Homo Sapiens Sapiens adding carbon dioxide to the air at breakneck speed. It may be news to humans, but not to the Magpies. They’ve known for a long time.

Bird Migration, Part One

September 10, 2007

It is that time of the year when billions of birds are on the move. No one knows for sure how many birds are alive on and above the planet at any given time and isn’t it wonderful that science doesn’t know all the answers to all the questions? The estimates range from 200 billion to 400 billion birds. No matter. We live amidst a lot of birds and it is a privilege.

Science doesn’t even know for sure how many species of birds exist and now that genetic testing has begun, the number will no doubt increase over the next decade. We know that at least 10,000 species exist now. In North America alone, more than 900 species spend some or all of their lives. About 75% of those species migrate each year.

Some species lead comparatively sedentary lives and don’t migrate. Mockingbirds, Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Titmice are a few. But the numbers of those who do migrate are immense. In the billions. As we shall see, many fly at night and in flocks so large that they appear on military and weather radars as huge moving radar echoes. nov0206.jpg Because it is September, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere; it is likely that thousands are flying over your home every night. If you go out at night next month when the moon is full or almost full and train a pair of binoculars at the moon you won’t have long to wait until you see birds flying south for the winter.

Why they migrate and how are questions that will occupy us for several posts on this blog. We will start with why they migrate. In the next post we’ll look at current scientific understanding of that question.

But, of course, there are other ways to explain bird migration. In what is currently known as New Mexico, live the Acoma Indians. acomapueblo.jpg The first governor of Acoma had a daughter named Co-chin-ne-na-ko. She, as young people do sometimes, chose her first spouse poorly. He was Shakok, the Spirit of Winter. When they married he came to live at Acoma and it got colder and colder. Snow and ice stayed longer each year and the corn no longer had time to mature. The people had to subsist on cactus leaves and other hardy wild plants. One day Co-chin-ne-na-ko was out collecting cactus leaves when she was approached by a handsome young man named Miochin, the Spirit of Summer. He was, to put into the modern language of my daughter, a stud muffin and he carried an ear of corn. He gave her the ear of corn to eat and then fetched a whole bundle of corn for her to take back to her family to eat.

She asked him where he had found such wonderful corn. He told her he brought it from the south where he lived and where the corn grew year round and the flowers bloomed all the time. She asked him to show her that country but he declined saying that her husband would be angry with her. So she took the corn home after he promised to meet her again the next day with yet more corn for the people of Acoma. When she got home her mother instructed her to bring Miochin back with her the next day which she did. That evening Shakok returned home from the north, enraged to find Miochin there. They agreed to a fight for Co-chin-ne-na-ko’s hand in marriage. The fight was scheduled for four days later.

During that time, both returned to their homes to gird themselves and their allies for battle. Miochin sent an eagle out as a messenger and collected all the birds, insects and mammals that live in the south to help him. His friend Yat-Moot built a big fire to blow on Shakok. In the meantime, Shakok collected his allies and marched back to Acoma with Magpies in the lead. Magpies live in the winter lands and do not migrate.

The day of the great battle dawned and Miochin, with the aid of the hot wind created by Yat-Moot’s fire melted Shakok’s protective coating and Shakok called for a truce. He said that Miochin could have Co-chin-ne-na-ko as his bride but they agreed that each would rule for one-half a year at a time which is why there is a summer and a winter. All the birds in the battle could fly back and forth, following Miochin all year long so they would be where it was warm and there was much for them to eat.


The photograph of Acoma was made by Ansel Adams. The Acomas have Katsina masks for both Miochin and Shakok. Because we are uncertain whether Acomas allow representations of the masks to be published, we did not post any. However, someone else has and you can find them via Google Images if you are interested. The radar image is from a Pennsylvania NOAA weather radar from the night of November 2, 2006. That echo is so intense that if that had been a storm, it would have been like the storm in King Lear and people would have been running for underground shelter.

Bird Sex, Part II

August 20, 2007

A couple of weeks ago we began a series on avian reproduction with Yeat’s retelling of the myth of Leda and the Swan. We ended with the rhetorical question of why Zeus chose to become a Swan instead of some other bird before raping Leda. That post is here. Today, we supply the answer.

Male swans are among the few birds that have penises.

In fact, only male waterfowl and male flightless birds – ostriches, rheas, emus, cassowaries, and kiwis – have phalluses. All other birds evolved a different method of sexual reproduction that does not require a penis. We’ll start with them.

Because birds fly, they must be as light as possible. One of their many adaptations to that need are cloacas which both male and female possess. A cloaca combines the functions of a bladder, waste receptacle, excretory organ, anus and sex organ into one anatomical feature resulting in lighter weight. Another such adaptation is that most birds’ ovaries and testes shrink during the non-breeding season which further streamlines them for flight and reduces the sex drive in both, freeing up energy for flying, migration and staying warm.

When the breeding season is upon them, female birds’ ovaries enlarge as do male testes. The males produce sperm which travels from their internal testes (more streamlined arrangement than mammalian external male gonads) to the male cloaca which then is extruded from the bird’s body and swells with semen. After whatever breeding rituals particular to its species, the male mounts the female and pushes his cloaca against hers. In a matter of seconds the semen is transferred by this touch, known as a “cloaca kiss.” With the possible exception of some papillaries which may actually reach inside the outer edge of the female cloaca, no penetration takes place. In fact, birds really don’t copulate; they inseminate.

After receiving the semen, the females get to decide what to do with it. They can use it to fertilize eggs, save it for up to a month or get rid of it. Some females can lay numerous fertile eggs after only one sexual contact. Other species engage in much more copulatory contact, several times daily for as much as a month. Scientists suspect; however, that birds which copulate often do it for the same reason mammals do it: To maintain a pair bond. In other words, they use sex – as do humans – for more than reproduction. They do it to stay together. Lots of birds bond for life and it is no easier for birds than for us to stay together for an entire adult life. Plus, it probably feels good to them too.

But male waterfowls have a cloacal phallus. Sort of a corkscrew actually. Shaped like a ram’s horns. Technically it isn’t really a penis because it has no ureter inside it. No urine in birds. Urine requires too much water and, as any hiker of the Grand Canyon can tell you, water is heavy. No bird could fly with that much water on board. But that means there is no tube down which the waterfowl’s semen can pass. Rather, it is transported on the surface of the erect cloacal phallus. (Made erect, not by blood as in mammals, but by lymphatic pressure. More efficient, less weight.) The penis actually corkscrews into the female cloaca so waterfowls do “copulate” or, if you please, “screw.” Almost always on water and, for the female, frequently under water.

In many waterfowl species the males also engage in what scientists euphemistically call “Forced Extra Pair Copulations.” (FEPC) If a human male did it, we would call it “rape.” Not only did Zeus need a bird with a phallus to disguise himself, he needed an avian rapist in case Leda wasn’t interested in mating with a swan.

Imagine if Leda – a human female – could have rejected Zeus’s sperm. No Helen to burn Troy.


Here is Part I of this series and here is part III.

Bird Sex, Part I

August 3, 2007

Birds form an integral part of the long history of humanity’s mythology. We’ll explore some of that mythology in the life of this blog. Today we’ll use one of those myths as an introduction to bird sex or “avian reproduction” as it should be called in polite society.

It is the myth of Leda and the Swan. ignacio_diaz_olano_leda.jpegLeda was the beautiful maiden whom Zeus desired. Zeus, knowing that his wife Hera violently disapproved of his sexual wanderings with beautiful mortals, tried to hide his sexual intentions toward Leda by disguising himself as a swan. The intercourse between Leda and Zeus – in most retelling of the myth – resulted in an egg from which Helen of Troy was born. Here is the most famous poetic versions of the myth.

Leda And The Swan
William Butler Yeats (1923)

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Have you ever wondered why Zeus chose to be a swan? Or why the first tellers of the myth told their audiences that Zeus became a swan instead of some other bird? Stay tuned. . . .

The painting, one of the more circumspect paintings of this famous myth, is by the Spanish artist Ignacio Diaz Olano (1860-1937)


Here are other posts about bird sex:

Part II

Part III

%d bloggers like this: