Birds and Words-May 2003

Birds and Words

From as far back as anyone knows, birds have been the subject of mankind’s wonder. Depiction of recognizable bird species have been found in Paleolithic cave paintings dating back 20,000 years. In early cultures deities were frequently endowed with qualities of birds that seemed best to portray grace, beauty and power. For example, the Egyptian sun gods, Ra and Horus sported heads of falcons. Even today some Native Americans believe the thunderbird or eagle to be the guardian of fire and the wise protector of humanity.

Birds also figure in the world’s folk lore literature of legends, myths, superstitions and fairytales; here are several examples.

Some of us, whether hawks or doves, forceful or peaceful, get up with the birds, swallow a quick breakfast – but not enough to keep a sparrow healthy. We then fly to work wondering why the old coot ahead of us doesn’t drive faster.

At work our boss watches us like a hawk, so we chicken out on a fellow worker’s challenge to take the afternoon off for a round of golf. Although we know we could certainly score a birdie or two and perhaps an eagle.

After work we stop for cocktails when we return to the family nest, where we feel light as a feather and free as a bird. In our relationships with our significant other, we may seem talkative as a parrot, or seem as crazy as a loon, but later we may be eating crow.

Sometimes we get the bird (No! its not what you may be thinking!). We may not know that originally this was a British expression, “to get the big bird.” The expression big bird refers to the goose and the hissing sound made when they are excited. On the other hand, today the goose would get you moving.

In the armed forces some cadets who have not made their first solo flight are called kiwis after the wingless New Zealand bird.

Besides the folklore, we have special names for groups of birds. Just as we call a group of lions a pride of lions, we speak of a gaggle of geese, a cast of hawks, and a covey of partridges. A sord of mallards, a bevy of quail, and a wisp of snipe were terms of special meaning to the hunters of old.

The true birdwatcher would speak of a muster of peacocks, a paddle of ducks, a rafter of turkeys, a host of sparrows, a parliament of owls or a murmuration of starlings. My favorites are the bouquets of pheasants and a charm of finches.

Dozens of similes and analogies are related to birds: chattering like magpies, hoarse as a crow, sweet as a nightingale, a feather in your cap, the crow’s nest of a ship. A person might be; eagle eyed, bird brained, an egghead, graceful as a swan, full of cock and bull, or ready to cook one’s goose.

So many quotes are also noted to birds or nature: “A nest of robins in her hair”; (Joyce Kilmer). “A hundred thousand blackbirds seemed to form a teardrop in the sky”; (John Prine). “Nature does nothing uselessly”; (Aristotle). “Everything about a hummingbird is superlative”; (Robert Lynd, Irish journalist). “No bird soars too high if he soars on his own wings”; (William Blake). “The bluebird carries the sky on his back”; (Henry David Thoreau).

Sometimes wildlife sayings are just as plain and as wise as an owl: “You can tell a persons heart by their treatment of wildlife”; (WWF). “I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained”; (Walt Whitman). “My heart is tuned to the quietness that stillness of nature inspires”; (Hazrat Inayat Khan). “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced”; (James Baldwin, Naturalist). ”In the end… we will conserve only what we love, and we will love only what we understand, we will understand what we are taught”; (Baba Diocum, African Ecologist).

To end this article, I can say I never feel lonely, as George Washington Carver once said: “…If you love it enough, anything will talk to you.” And in the words of William Wordsworth, “…Come forth into the light of things and let nature be your teacher.”

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