by Hazel Anna Rogers
When I was younger, my family and I would drive around eighteen hours every summer to the south of France to meet with my mother’s family. For most of my youth we’d do the whole thing in one go, albeit taking a short break and nap on the ferry over to Calais. The hours would crawl up onto each other, each not dissimilar to the last, until the dry fields of withered sunflower heads and fat rows of corn came into view, indicative of the last stretch into southwestern France.
In the morning, upon waking early enough to feel the adrenaline of anticipation for an adventure waiting to be started, I would look out of my bedroom window and watch a quarrel of sparrows raise up from the thicket stood just beneath my eyeline, chirping and whistling the start of the wonderful day. Each stage of the journey was characterized, in some way, by birds. Red kites swooping and gliding over us as we drove over the Chiltern hills, their reddish-brown plumage glinting bright in the morning sun. Seagulls hovered above us at the port of Dover, their squealing and honking acting as a myriad of greetings welcoming us to the coast, and gannets diving like spearheads into the shimmering ocean, gorging themselves ready for migration season. All along the way, my sister would squawk at each exhilarating sighting, often met with a ‘Where? Where?’ from my father, or a less amicable ‘I’m trying to concentrate. I can’t look backwards.’ It never got tiresome, seeing the glimmer of a wing slice through the air in the fields beside us, or trying to decipher the flying black shapes in the distance. Their beauty was majestic, intriguing, and unattainable, and it made me think, years on, about the prolific presence birds have in our lives.
Birds have been an integral source for the wandering human mind ever since recorded history. Ever an audible and visible marker of season and landscape, our humble avian companions have followed us through the centuries, in our dreams, our technological advances, and our literature. The symbol of flying is synonymous with freedom, so it is of no surprise that our curiosity in birds (perhaps tainted with jealousy) has chased us across time. One of the earliest written examples of our deep-rooted affinity with the bird kingdom is the ancient Greek myth of Tereus, a Thracian King, who ended up meeting a feathered end. The story was written into play form by Sophocles around 413 BC, and it this version that has endured the test of time. The story goes that Tereus, consumed by lust, rapes then proceeds to cut out the tongue of his sister-in-law Philomela, ensuring she could tell no one of his deed. Philomela and her sister (Tereus’ wife) Procne plot and succeed to kill Itys, Tereus’ son, and feed his flesh to his father. This dark conspiracy is unearthed by Tereus who decides to kill both sisters in revenge, but the whole debacle is quickly solved by the Gods who turn each member of the conspirers into birds. Most significantly, sister Procne is chosen to sing the melancholy tunes of the nightingale, while Philomela’s fate is as the songless swallow. The symbolism of bird transformation in this story is incredibly significant; all participants, regardless of crime, have been recreated as birds each resonant and indicative of the crime or personality of their previous human form. Birds become, in this context, intertwined with humanity.
Birds are not just around us, they are within us, within our common cultures and our minds. Turkeys and geese grace our tables as magnificent centrepieces at Christmas and Thanksgiving, an owl offers enduring wisdom to beloved bear Pooh, and we used biomimicry of birds to achieve flight in the form of the aircraft. Communities still use birdsong as a form of communication; in the forested Himalayan foothills, the Hmong people use whistles and bird-like calls to talk to one another through the trees. Herodotus wrote of his amazement at the squeaking bat-like interactions he heard of one Ethiopian tribe in the 5th Century BC. The hunters of the Siberian Yupik people use whistling to coordinate hunts for whales and other sea mammals, and dwellers of the Turkish village of Kuskoy use a ‘bird language’ to speak through the mountain valleys surrounding them. These incredible feats of human ingenuity, modeled off the sounds of our feathered compatriots, suggest the extent of influence the bird has had on collective humanity throughout the world.
Birds also often act as seasonal markers; the apparition of the solitary robin, though prolific all year round, is associated with the onset of the cold winter months, its proud red breast plumage starkly contrasting snowfall. The tuneful melody of the bluebird brings the joy of spring back after a long, dark winter, heralding the prospect of sun, warmth, and new life. Historically, the autumnal migration of the crane has indicated winter to come, and the swallow a welcome reminder of the ‘light of spring’, in Hesiod’s words.
Birds offer us a subtle insight into the workings of the planet, giving us hope, warning, and company through our long years. Not to mention the physical bounty the bird has offered us, in our clothing, bedsheets, and stomachs. Dyed feathers are used by fisherman for fly fishing, a practice I learnt from my father down by the river near our home. I remember the flick of the feather floating through the air as though in slow motion, then drifting down to the flowing water, soundless as a swan moving effortlessly down the current.
There is something so wonderful about our long-term connection with birds, a relationship borne not of language but of mutual respect, of understanding and awe on the human side. The bird is an ever-resonant example of the wonders of nature, an animal embodying the dream of freedom. And while we go about our everyday lives, drifting through the cities, streets, and motorways we call home, they follow us, dominating the skies and chattering in the trees, an empire of winged beasts older than us all. As my family and I drove those long, hot hours in our metal box, birds were the only enduring aspect of the landscape, indicators of the changing scenery and symbols of voyage. They were the signs of respite from our everyday existence, resounding messengers signalling the joyful holiday weeks to come. And I think that’s quite wonderful.
Hazel’s website is at https://badessay.com/ and you can find her on Instagram @classichazel_