Ornithology

Ornithology

The branch of zoology devoted to the study of birds. Like entomology it has a substantial hobbyist following, mainly because of the aesthetic appeal of the brightly coloured plumage that many birds exhibit and the fascination of their ability to fly. The observation of patterns of bird migration had a particular scientific significance in ancient times by assisting agricultural calculations; the arrival of a particular species in a locality was often employed as a signal when calendars were still primitive.

This utility undoubtedly assisted various bird species to acquire a reputation as omens, although the establishment of carrion crows and vultures as birds of ill omen had a more obvious cause. Various legendary birds were added to traditional bestiaries, including the giant roc, but the most important was the phoenix, which continually renewed its life by rising afresh from its own funeral pyre—a symbol of regeneration that guaranteed it frequent literary citation. Significant symbolism was also granted in the West to the dove, as manifest in its use by Noah in the aftermath of the flood, and the owl, as manifest in its association with Athene, the Classical goddess of wisdom.

Eagles eventually became significant symbols of empire and ostriches acquired an entirely unwarranted reputation for burying their heads in sand to avoid unpleasant sights. The symbolic potential of birds allowed them to be used in a significant series of allegorical literary works ranging from Aristophanes’ fifth-century b.c. satire The Birds through such Medieval works as a twelfthcentury dialogue between The Owl and the Nightingale, such Renaissance works as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Fowles (ca. 1380) and ‘‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’’ in The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1387), such post-Renaissance poems as John Webster’s ‘‘Call for the Robin Redbreast and the Wren’’ (1612) and William Davenant’s ‘‘The Lark now Leaves His Wat’ry Nest’’ (1650), such Romantic poems as Percy Shelley’s ‘‘Ode to a Skylark’’ (1820) and John Keats’ ‘‘Ode to a Nightingale’’ (1820), such post-Romantic poems as Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘‘The Eagle’’ (1891), such moral fables as Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘‘The Ugly Duckling’’ (1845) and Maurice Maeterlinck’s L’oiseau bleu (1909; trans. as The Blue Bird ), and such calculated mockeries as Edward Lear’s ‘‘The Owl and the Pussycat’’ (1846) and James Thurber’s ‘‘There’s an Owl in my Room’’ (1934), to earnest fabulations such as Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973).

The progress of ornithological science made hardly any impact on this tradition, and remained overshadowed by it even in literary works desirous of offering more naturalistic accounts of bird life. The postal service role played by owls in the literary phenomenon of the early twenty-first century—J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—testifies to the residual  authority of the symbolic tradition.

The domestication of various bird species was important in the addition of protein to the human diet, in the form of eggs as well as meat, and acquired a new significance after the invention of writing, when quills became significant instruments of inscription—a role they maintained until the invention of the steel nib in the late eighteenth century. Magical eggs and quill feathers feature abundantly in folklore, and hence in fairy tales, but literature took more inspiration from the fact that certain birds are capable of imitating human speech, as famously represented in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘‘The Raven’’ (1845). This equipped them for such purposes as forming courts to put humankind on trial, as they do in such literary fantasies as the second volume of Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre monde (1662)—an idea recapitulated in such twentieth-century works as Geoffrey Dearmer’s They Chose to Be Birds (1935) and James Blish’s Midsummer Century (1972), and tacitly echoed in such stories of *Nature’s rebellion as Frank Baker’s The Birds (1936) and Daphne du Maurier’s ‘‘The Birds’’ (1952; film, 1963). Satires featuring avian cultures, such as Samuel Brunt’s A Voyage to Cacklogallina (1727) and Anatole France’s L’ıˆle des pingouins (1908; trans. as Penguin Island ), also draw upon this resource.

Comparative observations of variation in wild and domestic birds played a crucial role in supplying Charles Darwin with the evidence he needed to support his theory of evolution by natural selection. The Origin of Species begins with a long discourse on the selective breeding of pigeons, whose mechanism is then analogised to the natural differentiation of the finches specialised for life on different Galapagos Islands. Birds also made a considerable exemplary contribution to the understanding of sex, not in physiological terms but in terms of their frequent sexual differentiation; male birds often have elaborately coloured plumage, whose effect is often further enhanced by elaborate competitive displays of singing, occasionally augmented by ‘‘dancing’’ and nest decoration; various aspects of this art of display are taken to extremes by such species as peacocks, birds of paradise, and bowerbirds. Speculative explanation of the genetic economics of brilliant plumage and elaborate courtship behaviour became a key factor in the development of sociobiology, but their analogical relevance to human behaviour was noted long before, elaborately depicted in metaphor and literature. Studies of birds also played a major role in the development of the behavioural science of ethology, particularly in revealing the role of psychological ‘‘imprinting’’ in establishing bonds between chicks and their mothers.

This too seemed to have some analogical relevance to human behaviour. Literary reflections of this kind of scientific research, and the potential for its confusion with human affairs, include Graham Billing’s Forbush and the Penguins (1966; film 1971 as Mr. Forbush and the Penguins). The most extensive literary use of birds is concerned with the mysterious mechanics of their flight, whose inspirational quality is extensively celebrated in poetry, as exemplified by Charles Baudelaire’s ‘‘L’albatros’’ (1857; trans. as ‘‘The Albatross’’) and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘‘The Windhover’’ (1918). It gave rise to cautiously modified hopes of technical mimicry, from the myth of Daedalus and Icarus to aeronautical designs of imaginary ‘‘ornithopters’’ and such literary extravaganzas as Robert Paltock’s The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751). Images of winged humans often symbolise transcendent freedom, as in Barry Pain’s Going Home (1921), J. G. Ballard’s ‘‘Storm Bird, Storm Dreamer’’ (1966) and The Ultimate Dream Company (1979), Vera Chapman’s Blaedudd the Birdman (1978), and William Mayne’s Antar and the Eagles (1989); by the same token, the clipping of wings—often done to restrict the movement of domesticated species—becomes a striking metaphor of female oppression in Inez Haynes Gillmore’s feminist allegory Angel Island (1914).

Science-fictional images of birdlike aliens extend the various elements of this symbolism in a striking fashion, notable examples including Otis Adelbert Kline’s ‘‘The Bird People’’ (1930), Francis Flagg’s ‘‘The Land of the Bipos’’ (1930), Poul Anderson’s The People of the Wind (1973) and ‘‘The Problem of Pain’’ (1973), R. Garcia y Robertson’s ‘‘A Princess of Helium’’ (1999) and ‘‘Bird Herding’’ (2000), James Van Pelt’s ‘‘A Flock of Birds’’ (2002), and Carol Emshwiller’s series including ‘‘All of Us Can Almost …’’ (2004). In the twentieth century, several bird species became significant symbols of the dangers of extinction, largely because of publicity given to the recent fates of the dodo—ironically echoed in Howard Waldrop’s ‘‘The Ugly Chickens’’ (1980)—and the once-common passenger pigeon. The discovery of relics of giant birds in New Zealand—as featured in such stories as H. G. Wells’ ‘‘Aepyornis Island’’ (1894) and Gregory Feeley’s ‘‘A Different Drumstick’’ (1988)—lent further impetus to this symbolism, and the particular fascination of giant flightless birds was further represented in Robert Reed’s ‘‘In the Valley of the Thunder Quail’’ (2000).

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