Wed, Jan 13, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Act now to save our birds

Birds have always been endowed with symbolic portent — from Chekhov to Hitchcock to Twitter. We ignore their decline at our peril. There are glimmers of hope, but only if we act now

By Margaret Atwood  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

How to justify the ways of men to birds? How to account for their attraction for us? (For, despite Hitchcock’s frightening hunt-and-peck film, The Birds, it is mostly an attraction.) Why is Chekhov’s play called The Seagull instead of The Sea Slug? Why is Yeats so keen on swans and hawks, instead of an interesting centipede or snail, or even an attractive moth? Why is it a dead albatross that is hung around the Ancient Mariner’s neck as a symbol that he’s been a very bad mariner, instead of, for instance, a dead clam? Why do we so immediately identify with such feathered symbols? These are some of the questions that trouble my waking hours.

For as long as we human beings can remember, we’ve been looking up. Over our heads went the birds — free as we were not, singing as we tried to. We gave their wings to our deities, from Inanna to winged Hermes to the dove-shaped Holy Spirit of Christianity, and their songs to our angels. We believed the birds knew things we didn’t, and this made sense to us, because only they had access to the panoramic picture — the ground we walked on, but seen widely because seen from above, a vantage point we came to call “the bird’s eye view.” The Norse god Odin had two ravens called Thought and Memory, who flew around the Earth during the day and came back at evening to whisper into his ears everything they’d seen and heard; which was why — in the mode of governments with advanced snooping systems, or even of Google Earth — he was so very all-knowing.

Some of us once believed that the birds could carry messages, and that if only we had the skill we’d be able to decipher them. Wasn’t the invention of writing inspired, in China, by the flight of cranes? Thoth, the Egyptian god of scribes credited with the invention of hieroglyphic writing, had the head of an ibis. In the ancient world, an entire job category grew up around bird reading: that of augury, performed by seers and prophets who could interpret the winged signs. When Agamemnon and Menelaus were setting out for Troy, two eagles tore apart a pregnant hare and ate the unborn young. The augur’s prediction was victory — Troy would fall — but an ill-omened victory with a heavy price to be paid; and so it turned out. “A bird of the air shall carry the voice,” says Ecclesiastes, with impressive gravitas, “and those that have wings shall tell the truth”; and we can bet that those bird-borne truths were momentous.

By the 1950s, when I was what’s now called a young adult, respect for birds had dwindled considerably. Birds might still be thought to carry messages — “a little bird told me,” we were fond of saying — but these messages were no longer from the gods, and they no longer concerned the deaths of kings and the fates of nations. They were more likely to be from the girl who had the locker next to yours, and to be about who just broke up with whom. “Bird-brained” meant stupid, and people with too obsessive a knowledge of birds were considered geeky and ridiculous. Bird-watching had become an increasingly popular pastime — a trend spurred by Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 publication of the first Field Guide to the Birds — but one of the effects of this growing popularity was the appearance of parody versions of such guides, filled with cartoons of silly-looking people in pith helmets with names like “The Spectacled Drone,” who were watching girls in halter tops and short-shorts captioned “The Rosy-Breasted Nutcracker.” There were also various puns on the slang word “bird,” meaning either an attractive girl or — cf Frank Sinatra — the male genital organ. The supposed light-mindedness and frivolity of birdy activity is mirrored today in the name of the popular Twitter site, with “tweet” being the term for a tiny info-tidbit.

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