Pick a pecking order: How birds and politics mix

The rufous hummingbird was recently named the American Birding Association’s 2014 Bird of the Year. How did it pull that off? Don’t recall any campaigning.

$T2eC16RHJGEFFm6!7qebBRzq,,WZdQ~~60_35We humans take care of that. Explains Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA: “We listen to member ideas, but, so far, the staff makes the call on Bird of the Year.” It’s also based on “geography, cool biology and outrageous beauty — not necessarily in that order,” pipes in Ted Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine.

When promoting birds in general, one can’t help but show favoritism now and then. Artists and artisans do it. Ever wonder why male cardinals grace so many Christmas cards? Are they easier to paint/photograph, or just easier to spot?  (I personally prefer the females.) And what’s the deal with owls lately? It’s not just snowy owl irruptions; there has been an eruption of owl ornamentation in a range of products from home decor to personal wear over the past several years.

Some birds seem perennially and unfairly freighted with symbolism. Consider:

Top 5 symbolic birds

1. Eagle (patriotism). And it coulda been the turkey. See American history, or the Broadway musical “1776,” for the animated explanation.

2. Dove (peace). Still, those male cardinals are giving them a run for their money. What people don’t realize is cardinals are more like Angry Birds than sirens of serenity.

owlaamilne3.  Owl (wisdom). Winnie-the-Pooh’s delightful friend “Wol” is even semi-literate.

4. Turkey (Thanksgiving, sure, but also refers to “a lemon” or a lunkhead). This is probably the first bird every kid learns to draw, outlining their hands then rendering in felt, glue and construction paper.

5.  The twin pillars of the stork (birth & hope) and the raven (death & fear)

Other birds get drawn into the political fray through no fault of their own.

Top 5 political birds

On that whole national bird / state bird thing: It shows a lack of imagination when you have some birds (again with the Northern cardinal) monopolizing seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia) as an emblem. Mention the American robin to sensitive Michiganders, and they may get a little ticked: It’s their state bird even though it’s a migrant in Michigan. Whose decision was this?

Illegal immigration has always been somewhat of an issue for birds — just ask the European starling or house sparrow, or the boat-tailed grackle, which has become a target for hunters eager to “help” control populations. Here are a few other feather rufflers.

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Big Bird makes a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment with Seth Meyers.

1. Big Bird – Embroiled in a 2012 controversy over federal funding of “liberal-leaning” PBS, the good Sesame Street neighbor helped to roast Mitt Romney’s presidential chances.

2. The northern spotted owl / the snowy owl – More owls! The first species was caught up in a Northwest conservation fight / the second, amid this crazy irruption into the Southern states, has been touted by some as evidence of climate change (a politically freighted term all its own).

3. The Canada geese that downed Sully’s aircraft – The risk of bird strikes has triggered miles of legislation and local skirmishes about policing bird nesting areas near airports. A sad tale close to home: the eviction of nesting eagles at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, situated next door to Norfolk International Airport. This is where politics and symbolism intersect. (I blogged about this last year, during March Migration Madness.)

4. The stork – Embodies the idea of sex education, or lack thereof, i.e. how we don’t give our children the straight story, or even the gay story.

5. Poultry — Meaning chicken, as in “tastes like …” Does modern farming of food run afoul of animal rights? Everyone from Whole Foods to PETA has a cock in this fight.

Dear reader, do you have a “pet” wild bird or cause?

Bird was not always the word

The etymology of “bird” is fraught with mystery and/or typos. In Old English, the word for bird was “fugol,” while “bridd” applied to all nestlings. In Middle English, “byrde” applied to all young animals, even humans, with “burd” targeting “young, maiden women.” In modern-day Britain, the slang “bird” retains that “sweet young thing” meaning.

0864c_3031018903_b0d754d862Giving someone the bird.

The middle-finger reference seems to arise from 1860 vaudeville, when catcalling or hissing at a performer in rejection was likened to a goose’s hissing.

6 of the funniest species names (to me)

1. Bananaquit (national bird of the U.S. Virgin Islands)

2. Rufous-vented Chacalaca (national bird of Tobago)

3. Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (national bird of Peru)

4. Imperial shag

5. Grey Go-away-bird

6. Long-wattled Umbrellabird

umbrella

A long-wattled Umbrellabird, found in a relatively narrow belt along the Pacific slopes of the Chocó of western Colombia and Ecuador, sayeth Wikipedia.

Top 5 references to birds in the Bible

Writers of the Bible had a limited grasp of diversity, but some species get regular mentions.

1. Noah’s ark: Raven vs. dove. “So it came to pass, at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. Then he sent out a raven, which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth. He also sent out from himself a dove, to see if the waters had receded from the face of the ground.” Genesis 8:6–8. And you know the end of that story. In Christianity, the raven appears in 12 Bible verses. The dove? At least double that.

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Picasso’s dove sketch

2. Nesting. Psalm 84:3: Yea, the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars …” Deuteronomy 22:5-7: “If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young.” Psalm 104:17: “Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.” Isaiah 34:15: “There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.”

3. Hunting/evading capture (only a smattering of examples as hunting is quite popular, biblically speaking).
Proverbs 1:17: “Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.” Proverbs 6:4-6: “Deliver thyself as a roe from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler.” Proverbs 7:23: “Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.”

songbird

4. Birdsong (a sampling). Ecclesiastes 10:20: “Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” Ecclesiastes 12:4: “And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low.” Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” Turtle?

5. Start of an ancient life list. Leviticus 11:16-17: “And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl.” Psalm 102:6: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”

burr-owl