Thursday, 4 May 2017

Jenny Wren - Troglodytes troglodytes

Jenny Wren - Troglodytes troglodytes


There is something valiant about Jenny,  Kitty-me-wren or Our Lady's Hen.  She is our most common breeding bird, a little bird of the earth that stalks us on our walks around the garden.  She never flies very high, we catch occasional glimpses of her skulking out of sight, poking about in holes and peering under things, disappearing and reappearing in amongst the tree roots and in the bramble patches. The male Wren will build up to eight nests to attract his bride to be, and he is amongst the first up in the morning to guard his territory with a loud clear voice that is amongst the most complex in the bird kingdom.  They are tiny, they are everywhere except wide open spaces, but we still find them  in scrub on remote barren islands.

We have forgotten that the wren was once the central object of worship not just in Britain but in every European nation.  In Ireland they have medieval manuscripts telling us how to read the speech of the wren.  The Welsh called them "Dryw", which is also their word for druid and soothsayer, because this bird was sacred to the druids, it is thought they were kept in cages as oracles.    The English word Wren is derived from Drian, ie Draoi-en, "The Druid's Bird" (from the proto-Celtic Drevo, cognate with the English "true").

Her nobility was ambiguous and had many forms, she was a symbol of the earth that sometimes usurped the Eagle, the sun and rightful "the king of the birds".  In the Mabinogion, an ancient Welsh masterpiece, a hero called Llew who slays wrens is slain himself.  His body is transformed into an Eagle with the wren on its back, just as one year runs into the next.  Thus we find this symbolism that the wren is the spirit of the the earth, the old year killed at the winter solstice and reborn again to soar like the Sun and the Eagle into the coming Spring.  In many Celtic communities  they had wren hunts at the Winter solstice and afterwards they paraded their little bodies on sticks around villages, exchanging their feathers for tokens. In parts of France they would dress her in the apparel of hawks,

The earliest stories of her trickery are 4000 years old and come from Sumeria, they tell of a wren who outwitted an elephant.   Aesop (600 BCE) is the earliest credited source of the a fable about a congress of birds which had gathered to choose their king, and to this end they had organised a competition to find the bird that could fly the highest.   Of course the Eagle soured higher than any other bird could manage, and so the confident Eagle looked down and said "look I am your King".  Suddenly, the little wren, who had hidden himself in the feather's of the Eagles crest, flew a few inches higher and chirped "Birds look up and behold your King". Across Europe abundant variants and sequels of these stories survive, they are found in the Brothers Grimm and Shakespeare, stories of angry birds and blundering owls who Jenny always outwitted, but sometimes paying a price; she lost half her tail when the Eagle in his rage slammed her to the ground and was forever banned by the other birds from ever flying higher than the Hawthorn bush.


Her kingship is celebrated across Europe in her name; the latin word for wren is Regulus; Greek  Basiliskos (Little King); French Roilet (Little King) and Roi de froidure (Cold Weather King); Italian Reatino (Little King); Swedish Kungs Fogel (Kings Fowl); Danish Elle-Konge (Alder King); Dutch Konji (King) and Winter-koninkje (Little Winter King); German Zaunkonig (Hedge King) and Schneekonig (Snow King). To this day the Bretons have a proverb "The Eagle flees before the Wren". 


Amongst the many names from around the British Isles are: Kitty-me-wren, Wran, Wrannock, Cutty, Cuddy, Scut, Scutty, Stumpy Dick, Cracket, Carckadee, Tit wren, Tom Thumb and St Mary's Hen and Little Brown Nut (Shetlands)


BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin
 

REFERENCES: Hunting the Wren (1997) by Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence University of Tennessee Press - This is a wonderful book about the folklore surrounding the wren

Friday, 28 April 2017

The House Sparrow - Passer domesticus

The Gregarious House Sparrows Passer domesticus


My Grandfather used to call them Spadgers. The male can be recognised by his black bib and more vivid markings. Local British names include sparrow, sparr, sparrer, spadger, spadgick , spug, Spuggies, spur or Sprig (Scotland)  Spatzie or Spotsie (N America)  from the German Spatz which has a common etymological root with speed 

House Sparrows, as their name implies, are rarely seen far from human habitation.  It is thought that they are descendent from weaver finches that cohabited with stone age people on the fringes of the Mediterranean.  A clever adaptation because ever since they have co-evolved with us and followed our species around the world, today they are the most widely distributed birds on the planet.  In recent years the British population has declined dramatically, this might be because our houses have less nesting nooks and crannies and we are better at recycling our waste and protecting our grain on our farmsteads.

Such strong associations generates rich traditions and myths; the ancient Greeks associated sparrows with Aphrodite, Goddess of Love.  Cattalus Lesbia, a famous Roman poem, used a pet sparrow as a symbol of true love and spiritual connection, but during the medieval age this idea had degenerated into seeing sparrows as lustful, as is echoed by later writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare.

In the bible Jesus says "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?"  These themes about the sparrows intrinsic value and chirpy good nature, their social pluckiness and speed are constantly resurrected, reinvented and transferred into new popular metaphors, like those surrounding the melting pot communities in the East End of London in the 1950s who identified themselves as "Cockney Sparrers", and later inspired a punk band of that name.

BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin


 References

The Sparrow

Catullus Lesbea's Sparrow

All you Loves and Cupids cry
and all you men of feeling
my girl’s sparrow is dead,
my girl’s beloved sparrow.
She loved him more than herself.
He was sweeter than honey, and he
knew her, as she knows her mother.
He never flew out of her lap,
but, hopping about here and there,
just chirped to his lady, alone.
Now he is flying the dark
no one ever returns from.
Evil to you, evil Shades
of Orcus, destroyers of beauty.
You have stolen the beautiful sparrow from me.
Oh sad day! Oh poor little sparrow!
Because of you my sweet girl’s eyes
are red with weeping, and swollen.


http://www.hominf.org/sparrow/sparintr.htm

The Mute Swan - Cynus olor

British Birds :  The Mute Swan Cynus olor



Mute swans, the commonest swan native to Northern Europe, are easily identified by the black knob atop their orange beaks.  Swans pair for life and return to the same nest every year which they defend by hissing aggressively and chasing away intruders, otherwise except for the odd grunt and hoarse whistle, they are mute as the name suggests, .  I always imagined Swan was a homophone of watery words like Swim, Swiss and Splash, but I was wrong.  Swan is derived from an Old Saxon word swan or suan, (Danish svane, Dutch zwaan, German schwan, Icelandic svanr and Swedish svan) which has its root Indo-European *swen or *swon (to sound, to sing).   Thus "Mute Swan" encapsulates an image of the bird as mute singer.

Aesop, 6th century BCE, has two fables mentioning mute swans that would only sing under duress, especially after they had been threatened with death, and then they sang beautifully. Hence the phrase Swan Song meaning something we do at the end of our careers before we retire or die.  It seems that these ancient stories about reluctant (mute) singing swans are very old.  Looking on Google it seems to me that there is compelling evidence to suggest that ancient cultures mentally matched the necks of swans with the shape of their bronze age trumpets called lures (lurs).  

Danish Bronze-Age Lur; 13th-5th Century B.C. (Wikipedia)



These lurs appear on Scandinavian rock carving from 1000 BCE.  


 
 Norse rock carvings with swan necked lures  


The Celts, who appear a few hundred years later, used to carry lur like trumpets with animal heads into battle.

Celtic Lur

Although Celtic lurs with swan heads have not been found there is one Celtic helmet that looks like a lur with swan's head.

An Gallic Iron Age helmet in the shape of a swan (wikipedia)



Is this the song of the Swan?




In Roman times, after the Celts had been defeated, Pliny seems quite angry about the stories of singing swans, in his Natural Historie he tells us  "some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals,and eat one another's flesh."

But Pliny's words fell on deaf ears, 500 years later Isidore of Serville is still telling stories that swans "singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck".  Another 500 years later Bartholomaeus Angelicus is again mentioning that swans "hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes" and adding news about a fabulous country where "it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily"

A millennium later the meme connecting swans, death and beauty (this time dancing for salvation rather than singing) was still being promoted by classical ballet; most famously in the solo piece “The Dying Swan” and again in the final act of Swan Lake where a swan maiden dies to release herself from the curse of the evil Von Rothbart.
On a more optimistic note swans are symbols of flourishing beauty, most famously in the tale of the ugly duckling that unknowingly grows into a beautiful swan.  A particularly lovely idea can be found in Indian Mythology where swans are symbols of unworldly, untouchable beauty because when you put their feathers into water they remain dry and do not absorb water.  


BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin

REFERENCES

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] ( Temple 173): A man kept a swan for its voice and a goose for the table. Wanting to eat the goose, the man went out in the dark to get it, but caught the swan by mistake. The swan, thinking it was about to die, began to sing, and was recognized by its voice. (Temple 174): A man bought a swan because it was reputed to have a fine voice. One day, to provide entertainment at a feast, he urged the swan to sing, but it would not. Later, relizing it was about to die, the swan began to sing. His owner said "It was foolish of me to ask you to sing; I should have prepared to kill you, and then you would have sung!"
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 32): Some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this (says Pliny) is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals, and eat one another's flesh.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:18-19): There are two kinds of swan: one has all white feathers and is called olor the other is black and is called cygnus, though this one is not mentioned by the ancients. The cygnus is named from its singing (canendo) because it pours out song with modulated sounds. Its singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck and its voice, in struggling to get out through the winding way, necessarily emits various notes. Some say that many swans gather and join in with song when the cithra is played in the Hyperborean regions. Sailors say that the swan is a good omen.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The swan feigneth sweetness of sweet songs with accord of voice, and he singeth sweetly for he hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes. And it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily. Shipmen trow that it tokeneth good if they meet swans in peril of shipwreck. Always the swan is the most merriest bird in divinations. Shipmen desire this bird for he dippeth not down in the waves. When the swan is in love he seeketh the female, and pleaseth her with beclipping of the neck, and draweth her to him-ward; and he joineth his neck to the female's neck, as it were binding the necks together. ( Steele edition of 1905)  http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast237.htm 


Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Blue Tit - Cyanistes caeruleus

The Blue Tit on Acer  Cyanistes caeruleus





Blue tits, well known for their love of collecting peanuts from the winter bird table, time their breeding cycle to coincide with the feast of green caterpillars found on young Oak leaves in May. During the summer months the parents can be seen hanging upside down inspecting the underside of leaves for small grubs, spiders and aphids on which they love to feed.  Later in the year they support themselves on berries and seeds and return to the bird tables.
The most common English name Blue Titmice is of 7th century Norse origin: ttr = small and Mase = bird which together translates as "small blue birds".  Other common names include  Blue Cap, Blue Bonnet, Blue Ox-eye, Blue Spick (N Devon), Nun, Tree Babbler (Cornwall), Pinchem (Bedfordshire), Tinnock, Yaup, Bee Bird (Hampshire), Willow Biter, Billy Biter (Midlands), Pickcheese (Norfolk), Tom Tit, Hickmall, Heckymal and Titmal (West Country).

BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin

The Robin - Turdus migratorius

The Robin  Turdus migratorius

There is nothing bashful about the Robin with their loud red breasts, loud melodic singing voices and bold opportunistic habit of following us around to cash in on the insects and worms we expose as we walk through
patches of rotting leaves or dig our gardens with our spades, they can become extremely tame and some will feed from the hand.  In medieval times it was popular to give birds human names as in Jack Daw and Jenny Wren.  Robin was originally a diminutive of Robert, but Chaucer called them "Tame Rudducks" which is perhaps an older name.  Other common names include Bob Robin, Bobbies, Ploughman's Bird, Robinet and Robin Ruck.  

There are many stories about how the Robin got a red breast; one is that it was scorched whilst fetching water for the souls of purgatory which is why the Welsh call Robins Brou-rhuddyn (Burnt Breast).  Another legend has it that the Robin’s breast became stained red with blood of Christ whilst it sang to ease his pain on the cross, but this is not the reason why the bird occurs on our Christmas cards.   The birds traditional place on Christmas cards started in Victorian times when there was a tradition that the postman would deliver your Christmas cards on Christmas day.  The postmen wore red jackets and were nicknamed Robin Redbreasts. 

Early Victorian Postman's Jacket


BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin

 

Long Tailed Titmice - Aegithalos caudatus

Long Tailed Titmice  Aegithalos caudatus


Long Tailed Tit (mice) are amongst our smallest birds.  They use their tails as a counter-balance as they seesaw and flit–tumble from branch to branch.  In winter large family groups come to our gardens announcing their arrival with high-pitched, rolling calls of “si-si-si-si-si" and a distinctive trilled ‘tsirrup: Once you’ve learnt to recognise their call you will always know a flock of long-tailed tits are in the vicinity.

When Spring arrives they pair off to build nest coccoons of wool and moss bound and felted together with spiders webs, lined with feathers and camouflaged with lichen flakes.  Inside a single female will lay up to 15 eggs.  When broods fail, as often happens, the parents move on to help their brothers and sisters raise their extended families of nephews and nieces.
photo: Warren Photographic

There was a time when every English village would have had its own name for these birds.  Some traditions referred to their appearance:  Long Toms,
 Long-tailed Muffins (Worcestershire), Hedge Mumruffins, Bush Tits,  Kitty Long-tails,  Fluffits and Juffits,  Feather Pokes, Long-tailed Magsor and Millithrums (Miller’s Thumbs).  The other tradition was to describe their nests;  Oven Birds, Oven Builders (Lothian) and Bush Ovens (Norfolk), Barrel or Bottle Tits (Berkshire)  and Bum Barrels (Nottingham)

BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin








The Bullfinch - Pyrrhula pyrrhula


The Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula





The Bull Finch’s voluptuous pink breast and white rump make it one of the easiest birds to identify, but for many birdwatchers its call, a low mew, is often the first signs of bullfinches being present. They feed voraciously  on the buds of fruit trees in orchards which why they are sometimes called Bud Finch, Plum Birds or Bud Pickers (Devon).  There is a theory that the name Bull Finch may be a shortening of Bullace Finch. (Bullace being the Tudor name for the wild plum trees that were cultivated in medieval orchards).

The more widely believed theory is that Bullfinch got its name from its large thick head and stocky form, as happened with bull dog and bull frog.  Some birdwatchers claim to have seen the birds head-butt other finches off the bird table.  Other folk names include Alpe, Nope, Pope and Monk.

BRITISH BIRDS IN THIS SERIES SO FAR

Bullfinch
Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 
Robin