Review of The Rarest Bird in the World

In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.

I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.

This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.

Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.

Oilbird, a relative of the Nightjars.
Oilbird. Photo by Doug Greenberg on flickr.

The Wrong Reader

And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.

To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.

Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.

For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.

A Raven @ Tower of London. Photo by Kasturi Roy on Unsplash

Do Rare Birds Need Us?

The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.

This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.

For more, listen to this 4 minute NPR program.

Featured Photo of the plains of Nechisar by flickr user Rafael Medina

That Time when Americans thought Eagles would Snatch Babies.

Jack E. Davis’s book The Bald Eagle reminds us that the national symbol was once erased from the lower 48. One reason? The belief that eagles hunted babies.

I just finished reading Jack E. Davis’ wonderful book The Bald Eagle: The Improbably Journey of America’s Bird. The book is a stunning account of the Bald Eagle’s natural history in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the species’ journey through policy, politics, and culture. Davis’ writing is beautiful, crisp, and loving. And the story is an epic as Bald Eagles themselves.

In truth, it took me much longer than it ought to have. I took breaks to read Sy Montgomery’s essays on hawks and hummingbirds. In part, the book reads slower than it might because there’s a lot packed into the book’s 380+ pages. Especially names. Names upon names. Of naturalists, activists, hunters, poachers, politicians (some who venerated the Bald Eagle, many who didn’t), and conservationists. Many of the names are lost (at least to me) to the arch of the story — from the Eagle’s veneration at the country’s founding, U.S. Americans quickly moved to assaults on the bird, only to realize in time to save them.

Some of these assaults were outright. Some farmers and ranchers killed (and still kill) hawks and eagles to protect domestic animals. Some hunters and fishers antagonize the bird (and still do) to protect prey for humans. Many states once had bounties on the bird, and hunters would exchange talons for dollars.

Other assaults were less direct, but no less fatal. Habitat loss and DDT, especially, nearly did to Bald Eagles what generations of persecution had failed to do: wipe the birds from the continent.

But as every birder knows, Davis’ story has a happy ending. Thanks to the careful and dogged effort of conservationists, Bald Eagles were guided through the worst of DDT’s impact. According to Davis, their population today matches what it did when their land was first colonized by Europeans. While every eagle encounter may still be captivating, such encounters are no longer rare, as they were just four decades ago.

Misunderstanding the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle by Philipp Pilz on
Photo by Philipp Pilz on Unsplash

U.S. Americans persecuted Bald Eagles for many reasons. Most of those have to do with our view of nature as an exploitable resource that serves humans, first, and all others last. From our perspective, Bald Eagles violate this rule by hunting some of the same animals we hunt. Or worse, that we raise to eat ourselves.

But worse than any of this was the fact — well, actually, fiction — that eagles not only ate our food, they also ate our babies. In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that Bald Eagles hunted children, snatching babies from yards and carriages. No matter that eagles can’t carry infants and toddlers. Members of Congress, children’s writers, nature writers, even ornithologists spread the lie of the eagle who hunts human babies.

So, too, did the nascent film industry. Davis’ describes a brief, silent film that Thomas Edison’s movie studied produced in 1908. Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest stars D. W. Griffith, who later go on to direct the racist film Birth of a Nation, as a father who pursues an eagle back to the bird’s nest, where Griffith’s baby has been taken. The film is a sad and awkward 7 minutes or so of propaganda against the eagle. The bird herself appears in the form of a stuffed specimen that, by ropes, hoists the real human baby into the air and back to the eagle’s eyrie.

Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908)

Edison’s studio has a dubious record, to put it mildly, of representing non-human animals. Five years before making Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest the studio released a film of an elephant, “Topsy,” being electrocuted to death.

We’ve come a long way from the misbelief of this film. But we haven’t yet come far enough. There’s still a general distrust of hawks and eagles. I’ve heard, more than once, that they’re likely to take dogs. They generally won’t, unless those dogs are the smallest of small dogs. No doubt people, vehicles, and other dogs attack dogs more regularly than do raptors. I’ve also had neighbors ask me if Turkey Vultures, which feed on carrion, will attack dogs. They definitely won’t, unless something gets to the dog first.

Davis’ book is an corrective to all of this. Davis is meticulous in his research. He is loving in his descriptions of both eagles and the people who care for them.

Most of all, Davis respects the unbridgeable difference between us and Bald Eagles. Sure, we’re now entangled: Eagle and Nation, eagle and people, nest and cul-de-sac (or golf course or reservoir or stadium lights or cell phone tower). But Eagles, like all other living things, neither exist for us nor on our terms.

Featured Photo by Ingo Doerrie on Unsplash

The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings

Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift shows just how wild the world’s smallest birds are.

Like The Hawk’s Way, Sy Montgomery’s The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Renewal, and Beauty on Wings is a repackaged chapter from Montgomery’s book Birdology. In many respects, it’s also about the same themes — wildness and the utter, unpassable gap between humans and a family (or two) of birds.

This theme is more fully realized in The Hummingbird’s Gift. This is unexpected. Hummingbirds would seem a far more docile, less wild thing than a hawk. Consider size. North America’s most familiar hummingbird, the Ruby-throated, weigh just .4% what a large female of North America’s most common hawk, the Red-tailed, weighs. And while the latter are built to kill, hummingbirds are built to lap up nectar and miniscule insects.

It’s the hummingbird’s diminutive size and their delicacy that makes them far less amenable to the handling of humans than hawks. Montgomery explains to us how much of hummingbirds exist as air. Yet its this delicacy that makes hummingbirds such remarkable creatures. They are the only birds that genuinely hover. Hummingbirds are even capable of feeding while upside down in flight. And though Peregrine Falcons get all the attention for their gravity-enhanced speeds, hummingbirds are arguably faster.

… a male Allen’s humingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second–and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world. Diving at 385 body lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon’s dives at 200 body lengths per second–and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per seconds.

Montgomery, The Hummingbird’s Gift, p. 16
SUPERNATURE – WILD FLYERS | Anna’s Hummingbird | PBS

Most of the Montgomery’s essay is a careful description of the work of Brenda Sherburn, one of the few people in the country who have the skills, patience, and commitment to rehabilitate hummingbirds and their nestling. We follow Brenda and Sy as they try to save the lives of two orphaned Allen’s Hummingbirds nestlings.

It’s a gripping story that can, at any moment, end badly. Hunger, mites, and aggressive Anna’s Hummingbirds threaten the nestlings. Montgomery takes us through all of it, offering bits and pieces of natural and cultural history along the way.

I hope the story leaves its readers planting pollinator-friendly wildflowers and keeping their cats inside. And maybe, just maybe, appreciating the tiny, fairy-like hummers that sip sugar water at feeders. After all, they are no less wild than the hawks and owls that carry off other living things at the harsh edges of prairies and forest.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris
Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeding on Agastache rupestris

Featured Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

Sy Montgomery’s The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty

Falconers, not hawks, take center stage in Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty.

I feel a two-fold ambivalence about Sy Montgomery’s book The Hawk’s Way: Encounters With Fierce Beauty. The ambivalence first comes from the fact that the book is not a book. It is a chapter of Montgomery’s Birdology repackaged with photos to stand alone; the production was clearly rushed and at least two of those photos have incorrect captions. The second ambivalence comes from the purposelessness of the story Montgomery tells. Just when I thought I had found the hawk’s way, Montgomery lost it.

Selling The Hawk’s Way

In tiny type on the front cover, below the title, a reproduction of Audubon’s illustration of a Harris’s Hawk (then the Louisiana Hawk), below even the reminder that Sy Montgomery is a New York Times bestselling author is this disclaimer: “Previously published as a chapter in Birdology.”

Birdology was published by Simon & Schuster. The Hawk’s Way (and The Hummingbird’s Gift) were published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The repackaging alone doesn’t bother me. The chapter is now a stand alone essay with a lovely cover and full color photographs. The problem is it seems the production of the book was done quickly or without proper checks on the images photographs that are meant to make the book special. At least two species of raptors are mislabeled in the book–a disappointment that chips away at Montgomery’s credibility in telling her story of the hawk’s way (though I suspect we don’t owe the production to her).

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

The third color photograph of a bird shows a Ferruginous Hawk in Colorado. The bird stands on the ground, as Ferruginous Hawks often do in the open, dry grasslands and pastures they hunt in Colorado.

The photograph’s caption tells the reader: “Red-shouldered hawks love tall woods and water. This one, photographed in Colorado, has an unusually light breast.”

So here is a hawk, standing among dry grasses, loving tall woods and water. Here’s a nearly-white breasted raptor, while the Red-shouldered Hawks red shoulders bleed rust through their breast.

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Later in the book, an apparent Peregrine Falcon is labeled as the much smaller and more colorful American Kestrel.

It’s easy to make mistakes in the writing or production of a book. Copyeditors and I have caught mistakes in the spelling of well-known names in books I’ve written. I shudder to think what I didn’t catch.

But the mistakes in The Hawk’s Way are glaring. They are attached to one of the elements of The Hawk’s Way that make it a special book to own and not just a book chapter.

The mistake has the effect of eroding Montgomery’s credibility as a narrator of the hawk’s way of life. The book is short on species accounts to begin with. (In truth, a more accurate title is The Falconer’s Way.) So to not know the main characters well enough to use their proper names is something of a disappointment.

The Wayward Way

My other ambivalence comes from the underlying meaning of the stories Montgomery tells. For much of the chapter, I thought I was with her. This seems a story about the wildness of diurnal raptors and the profound incompatibility between their wildness and our own way of being in the world.

Books on birds often look for ways to diminish the distance between us and them. This brings us closer to birds, giving their lives meanings on our terms and investing us in them and their conservation.

This is particularly true of books on social songbirds, like crows, ravens, and starlings. Corvids, especially, possess remarkable, human-life abilities. They can solve problems. They express emotions. They lie. They play. They use vocalizations in ways that seem to mirror human language.

Not so, hawks. (Or perhaps most hawks, though they’re treated with a broad brush in The Hawk’s Way.)

I appreciate Montgomery’s effort to express the singularity of hawk-ness. But this seemed to fade into the background of the book the more Montgomery involved herself in the world of falconry.

This is particularly so in the book’s conclusion. The closing scene has Montgomery going out in the field with a master falconer to hunt with a young bird. It seemed a mess. Wild hawks lurk at the edges of the scene, and these birds’ wildness seems a problem to be solved. Conflicts between a hunting dog and the falconry birds abound. And all of this seems to result from human mistakes, not precision.

Perhaps this is what falconry is like, given the profound difference between a hawk and a human. But Montgomery doesn’t tell us if this is so. More importantly, she doesn’t help us understand this, so that we can appreciate the mistakes as something other than mistakes.

Instead, the clumsiness of the scene left me feeling for everyone subject to the interests and actions of humans — the wild birds seen as threats, the dogs who might the falconry birds might attack, those birds who might get downed by a Goshawk or Red-tailed, and the quails feeding all of the action.

And then I was left wondering the purpose of it all. If it’s to get close to wildness, then why the neglect of the wild birds when they enter the scene? (And the neglect of them when photographed and used to illustrate a book.)

If, as the final sentence seems to suggest, it’s to appreciate the meaning of animal lives and deaths, why not live, for a moment, with the quail’s way?

Review of Elizabeth Cherry’s For the Birds.

I recently read Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze. For me, the book is several things at once.

It is first, and primarily, a book of sociology. Cherry is a sociologist specializing in animal studies at Manhattanville College in upstate New York. She used qualitative methods, such as interviews and observation research on Audubon bird trips, to explore how birders relate to birds and the environment. Cherry and I share an interest in how practices of attention are learned. While the topics we write about are wildly different — I’ve written about the role of attention-management in the denial of problems and Cherry’s written about it among birders! — we use similar frameworks and approaches in our work.

Read as a work of sociology, For the Birds is, as most outings of birdwatching are, a joyous trip through wild spaces and urban parks to see birds. Cherry shows how birders learn to see, identify, think, and talk about birds, usually in the accompany of more experienced others. She demonstrates that, over time, many birders — or at least those involved in the Audubon Society — develop what she calls a “naturalist gaze” that allows them to perceive and assess the quality of local ecosystems.

But as I’m also a birder, I read For the Birds as a description of the activity. Much of what Cherry documents resonated with my experience as a birder and field trip leader. I nodded along as Cherry describes a trip leader describing birds perched at “o’clocks” on a tree. This is a strategy I learned from long-time birders in Denver (e.g., “the nuthatch is at three o’clock on the bare branch on that large tree” or, better yet, “the Plumbeous Vireo is at 9:37 on the bare branch on the century-old cottonwood along the canal”).

As a birder, it also was enriching to understand that my sense of how I became a birder was fairly generalizable. While there may not be one path to becoming a birder, there are certain experiences that many of us go through that enable us to effectively use our binoculars, our cameras, our field guides, each other, and, eventually, our earned knowledge to find, spot or hear, and identify birds.

There was yet one more thing that For the Birds represented to me. As I mentioned, Cherry is based in upstate New York and studied with Audubon Societies in the area. I grew up slightly farther upstate than these groups, near areas where some of the birders who Cherry met would look for birds. I recognized the Black Dirt Region of upstate New York, where downstate birders seek Short-eared Owls. When one birder Cherry spoke to complained of birders trespassing on private property to seek a Gyrfalcon, I had a sense of where this might have been: Blue Chip Farms, not far from where I grew up, where a Gyrfalcon spent much of the winter of 2015. (The timing of the bird seems right for Cherry’s research, and a friend-birder [we need a word for that — “frirder”? “briend?”]) had told me of out-of-town birders and photographers trespassing at the farm to get better photos.)

Sociologists tend to write books that drain the joy from the world. By focusing, specifically, on birders relationship to non-human species, Cherry preserves the joys and passions of birders. Sure, she asks that more birders eat less meat — surely the one thing most birders could do at an individual level to protect habitats for birds. But she carefully documents the ways that birders care for the birds they see, even above their commitments to their list. And she shows how our “naturalist gaze” inspire us to learn more, appreciate more, and understand more about the delicate relationships among ourselves and the non-human species that surround us.

Featured photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

What’s a good bird? Elizabeth Cherry’s “For the Birds”

As a qualitative sociologist who’s also a bird-watcher—or perhaps, more accurately, a bird-watcher who is also a qualitative sociologist—I was thrilled to discover Elizabeth Cherry’s book For the Birds: Protecting Wildlife through the Naturalist Gaze (Routledge, 2019).

Cherry is an associate professor of sociology at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, mainly researching and teaching in the areas of culture, theory, and the environment. For the Birds is her second book on animals and society. Her first, Culture and Activism: Animal Rights in France and the United States, was also published by Routledge. Both books have also won distinguished book awards from the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association.

For the Birds is a book I wish I’d written. Cherry participated in birding trips and interviewed birders to understand how we think about and act toward birds and the environment. The book dispels stereotypes about birders as obsessives interested mainly, if not exclusively, in their life lists to show how we learn to care about the birds we encounter and the habitats that sustain them. She describes us developing a “naturalist gaze” through which we observe the dynamic relationships between birds, humans, and urban / suburban habitats.

Two of the chapters in For the Birds address birders’ perceptions and ways of talking about specific species and categories of birds. Given my own interest in how people think about Nightjars and Nighthawks, these chapters are of special interest.

Chapter 3 addresses common birds; Cherry shows that birders are not nearly as indifferent toward the typical birds of yards and parks as we normally think. Rather, we take common birds as indicators of relatively healthy ecosystems, particularly in urban and suburban environments.

Cherry also demonstrates how birding trip leaders try to convey this quality of common birds, helping field trip participants value the numerically common birds. Her writing on this resonated with my own experience, both as a trip participant and trip leader. Field trip leaders may draw attention to common birds, teacher novice birders how to identify them, and share origin stories of those birds’ presence in urban and suburban landscapes.

Learning to see the connections between birds, food sources, water sources, and built environments is critically important in this. Urban and suburban habitats come alive when we can perceive these connections. And birders may develop a commitment to stewardship and conservation, creating backyard and neighborhood landscapes that can sustain these connections. That so many birders become proponents of native plants is an example of this.

Chapter 5, meanwhile, addresses the distinctions birders make between “good” and “bad” birds. The former are, in a sense, birds–in–place: native species in balance with ecosystems. Birders are take into consideration commonness of birds. Uncommon birds and/or those that we only encounter during migration tend to be described as “good” birds during and after our outings in the field. Bad birds tend to be species out of alignment with ecosystems — invasive species and those birders consider “harmful” to other birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, are the main example of the latter.

For a while now, I’ve found it curious that birders, myself included, will use phrases like “good bird” and “best bird” when describing their outings. I’ve wanted to analyze posts in birding lists to see which birds us birders apply these terms to. My sense is that uncommon birds — migratory ones and colorful ones, especially — most frequently earn this label. I’ll tend to use the term to apply to some migratory vireos in the Front Range of Colorado — Plumbeous and Cassin’s Vireos, especially, but not the rather common Warbling Vireo.

But Cherry shows that birders also consider the broader, ecological context of bird sightings.

Birders deem birds “good” based on their behavior, including how they fit into an ecosystem and how they exercise agency to provide ecosystem benefits.

Cherry, For the Birds, p. 117-18

A bird like the Common Nighthawk — my favorite bird and almost always the “best” bird on my lists when I see this — fits most of these criteria. It is, most of the year, numerically uncommon (by comparison to common birds). Though not difficult to encounter, it’s not exactly easy to encounter. So sightings, too, are rather infrequent in most urban and suburban settings.

But their behavior, too, draws me in: their crepuscular flights; their singular calls; and their intense, unsteady pursuits of prey. (I’ve written of these in “The Nighthawk’s Trajectory,” for the Center for Humans and Nature.) And then there are Nighthawks relationships to ecosystems: their dependence on flying insects as prey and their use of human habitats for nesting, for instance. This is what Cherry means by “good birds” exercising “agency.”

I also have a tendency of designating every Shrike I see — Loggerheads during spring and fall migration, Northern during winter — as a “good” bird. Like nighthawks and some vireos, they’re uncommon. On most bird outings, I don’t expect to see them. They are also rather “picky” in their exercising of agency. They need particular habitats and food sources. In Denver’s suburbs, they tend to prefer weedy, overgrown areas with lots of insects and mice. This means you’re less likely to encounter them in a backyard than you are even the uncommon vireos. And many suburban parks wouldn’t attract them. Rather, you need wilder portions of suburban habitat.

All of this is to say that Cherry’s sociological analysis of how birders think and talk about common, good, and bad birds resonates with — and, indeed, clarifies — the birder’s experience.

Featured photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Book Review: Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate

Peter Tate’s book Flights of Fancy documents the odd and unusual in European folklore of birds.

Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition by Peter Tate describes thirty European species of birds and the folklores surrounding them.

The book’s chapter on nightjars led me to it. This chapter, like most in the book offers a brief history of the species in European legend. It offers a fairly rudimentary description of these legends, and most of the chapter’s content could be gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on the European Nightjar. (In fairness to Tate, he wrote a brief, but impactful natural history of Nightjars. Most of the Wiki entry on the species could be gleaned from Tate’s earlier account.)

This is typical of the book, as many Goodreads’ reviewers of it have noted. Some of the chapters offer rather basic descriptions of folklore surrounding European birds. And Flights of Fancy isn’t ripe with references that lead readers back to historical sources.

And yet I found the book, as a whole, endearing and informative, if not a bit beguiling for the strangeness of European beliefs around birds. Barnacle geese, for instance, were believed to have been born not from eggs but something like a mix of sea foam and barnacles.

Barnacle Geese by Ronald Woan @ flickr

An old remedy for headaches, meanwhile, required killing a swallow on a full moon, drying the swallow, then grinding it into a medicine — a rather elaborate ritual when nibbling on willow bark would do.

Tate’s chapter on Wrynecks, a bird unfamiliar to me, taught me that the genus’s scientific name (Jynx) is the origin of the familiar word, jinx. This holds up. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster attribute the origin of the word jinx to folklore surrounding the genus.

Eurasian Wryneck
Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) captured at Borit, Gojal, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan with Canon EOS 7D Mark II

I also learned of the rich Christian folklore surrounding the bird, of which I was entirely unaware. Two species — the European Robin (not a thrush like the robins of the Americas, but a flycatcher) and swallows — were held in particularly high esteem for having provided aid to Jesus during the Crucifixion. The red of Robin Redbreast was believed to be a drop of Jesus’s blood that the bird carries on its chest. (A sort of follow-up legend, which Tate doesn’t describe, has Merlins, a falcon, capturing robins and keeping them captive during cold winter nights. Their red breasts, apparently, would warm the falcons.)

Birds were also believed to have access to magical stones and herbs. People could access them by tricking the birds into retrieving one. This often involved an act of cruelty — injuring or blinding a young bird — so the parent would retrieve the stone or herb in question. Then, when the adult bird returns to the nest, it’s fooled again — a red blanket is put under the bird’s tree, simulating a fire. The bird, in a rush to put out the fire, then would drop the stone or herb to the deceitful human.

Swallows, for instance, could retrieve stones that cure blindness. Tate writes,

If you wanted to obtain the pebble for yourself, you first had to blind the nestlings of a pair of swallows, so that the females would fly off to get the magic stone and touch their nestlings’ eyes with it in order to restore their sight. Then you had to place a red cloth beneath the nest, so that the swallow would drop the stone on to it, believing that she was dropping it into a fire.

Flights of Fancy, 2007, p. 140

Flights of Fancy is, definitely, Eurocentric, and many reviewers of the book note this. Most single volume field guides are provincial in nature, by necessity — birds are too global and diverse a kingdom to be otherwise.

The book’s failing is less in its focus, though, but in its subtitle, which promises more than it offers. This is European birds in European myths, legends, and superstitions. Tate tends only to invoke beliefs from Asia and the western hemisphere when they’re largely resonate with the European myths. This allows Tate to document the surprising coincidence of beliefs around global genera of birds, such as Cranes (Grus).

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