Jul
19

Greater and Lesser Ripples

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greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs

Of all the ways to tell lesser and greater yellowlegses apart, one of the least appreciated is the difference in behavior. Greaters are violent and fast, rushing through the water like avocets, heads asway, while lessers are less frantic, picking and stepping high as they feed.

On a beautiful calm fall day like today, all you have to do is look for the ripples on the pond.

greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs

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Jul
17

Are Wild Peacocks Deaf?

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Among the “birds that haunt the woods and fields” in Comnesius’s Orbis pictus is Number 8, “the deaf wild peacock.”

Charles Hoole‘s otherwise perfectly serviceable translation of his Latin source stumbles slightly here: “Tetrao” is the name not of the peacock but of the capercaillie, a bird I suppose we can forgive the English schoolmaster for not knowing.

Hoole got the adjective right, though.

Orbis pictus Tetrao

“Surdus” does indeed mean “deaf” — but what could that possibly have to do with the bird?

Here and elsewhere in the Orbis pictus, Comenius inserts a single word as a placeholder for an entire rich tradition of natural historical lore.

Pl enl 73 Martinet capercaillie

Though it took centuries to confirm what some suspected was just an ancient folktale, we know today that cock capercaillies, it turns out, are in fact deaf, at least sometimes. But the argument was hard fought.

In 1753, a “skilled hunter” reported that the displaying capercaillie

during the entire time he is calling is deaf, and notices nothing, no matter how much noise one makes, not even when one shoots at him….

Seventeen years later, the comte de Buffon repeated as credible much of what that hunter had written. But he corrected his informant in the matter of the bird’s deafness.

Some have even written that the capercaillie is deaf and blind at such times [of mating displays].  But he is hardly any more so than are almost all the other animals, including man, in similar circumstances. All experience more or less the same ecstasy of love, but it is apparently stronger in the capercaillie…. Obviously, the mating season is when one hunts the bird or sets traps for it.

J.L. Frisch Auerhahn 1733-1763

In the middle of the eighteenth century, J.L. Frisch noted that the bird’s obliviousness when the spirit of amor fell upon him was downright proverbial: When the cock is displaying, he lets hunters walk right up to him,

and that is the origin of the saying, when someone is lovesick and wanders around as if in a dream, “He is like a capercaillie in the mating season.”

Frisch had nothing to say about the bird’s auditory capacities, but he did report another tale, which he dismissed as “risible.” They say that the capercaillie

spits his sperm out of his bill, thus attracting the females to him. They gather it up and eat it, and in this way fertilize their eggs. If it lies on the ground and goes bad, however, snakes and other vermin are produced by it.

Comenius’s telegraphic annotations of his birds are meant to draw the reader deeper, to raise the questions that would take him (the pupils were boys, recall) into centuries worth of natural historical lore.

Worked for us, worked for them.

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Jul
10

Politics

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International events affect everything we do — right down to our choice of birdhouses.

This little bit of throwaway chauvinism was published in Bird Lore in the last months of the First World War.

I wonder what we patriots will be called on to reject next.

 

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Jul
07

Maybe You Already Know This

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But I didn’t. Not until fairly recently, at least.

Filippo Picinelli’s famous Mundus symbolicus is on line pretty much all over the place. And Book IV, treating the emblematic use of birds, is hugely productive, and hugely under-exploited, font of information about the “properties,” real and imagined, of birds and their meanings.

There is Some.Very.Weird.Stuff in here.

Northern Lapwing

Northern lapwings, for example, can stand for the words of the heretic, attractive at first but foolish and obscene when examined by the intellect. Or they can be the soul cleansed in baptism that falls back into sin. And so on, depending on what you happen to want it to mean.

Note that the Mundus is not an emblem book itself but rather an encyclopedia serving as an index. I’ve found it pretty difficult all in all to track down the actual emblemata Picinelli describes, but practice makes slightly better.

Have fun!

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Jul
05

Magnus von Wright

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Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the death of the painter of one of my all-time favorite red-breasted mergansers, the Finnish artist and ornithologist Magnus von Wright.

I know rather little about him — wikipedia is my friend, I suppose — and I have never seen his most famous bird illustrations, published in the three-volume Svenska Fåglar

I will learn more next July, no doubt, when we assemble in Stockholm on the 151st anniversary to explore the birds and art of the Baltic Sea.

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