Reflections

For the birds...

Eleanor Deckert

Chicken and Loonie and Silly Goose are common phrases that we all use as insults.


Perhaps most stinging of all, “This talk show is for the birds,” tells the listener that the speaker thinks it is stupid, boring, worthless.

The moral of the story...

Literature abounds with stories of birds that convey a life lesson or symbolic meaning. Often a way to expose human traits and flaws, storytellers from ancient times have illustrated the point they are making by pointing out well known characteristics and behaviour of birds. Our feathered friends repeat their behaviour, but humans have the ability to self-correct. Thus, the storyteller prompts the audience to take a moment to examine their own behaviour and perhaps choose more wisely in the future.

Although none of Aesop's Fables have survived as original documents, earliest Greek sources, including Aristotle retell his fables and indicate that Aesop was born around 620 BC. Familiar tales include crows because of their problem solving skills. The Crow and the Pitcher describes how a thirsty crow could not reach the water down in the deep pitcher, but dropped pebbles in to raise the water until he could drink. Moral: Don't give up. Small changes bring desired results. In the fable The Fox and the Crow, a crow finds a piece of cheese and flies up into a tree to eat it. A fox tries to trick the crow into dropping it. Flattering the crow by asking if the bird's voice is as sweet as other birds, the vain crow cannot resist and sounds a raspy “Caw!” When the cheese falls, the fox quickly snatches it, leaving the crow hungry, but wiser. Surely a lesson to avoid vanity and flattery!

The Lion, the Boar and the Vultures signals a warning about quarrelling. The lion and boar begin to fight each other over something they both want. Then they notice the vultures gathering to devour whichever is the loser. The two animals decide to take turns and avoid certain doom.

Much older than these Greek stories, Hebrew Scriptures record in Exodus 40 how Joseph interprets The Baker's Dream. A flock of birds ate up all of the bread in the three baskets the Baker has prepared for Pharaoh. Joseph predicted the Baker would, in three days, be condemned to death.

Moses wrote in Exodus 19:4 that he was called up to Mount Sinai and reminded by God “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.” The Psalmist and Isaiah also refer to the strength of the soaring eagle. Isaiah 40:31 is often read at funerals. “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

A quaint Bethlehem fable says that the robin gets its red breast because it fanned a fading fire for the Infant in the manger. Jesus told a parable to emphasize trust in God's provision in The Sermon in the Mount, Matthew 6:26. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet, your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” And, on The Mount of Olives, entering Jerusalem, knowing His death was coming soon, Jesus spoke, summarizing the whole history of the relationship between God and the people. “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

The pelican is often shown on heraldry and in literature as a Christian symbol. The mother bird wounds herself to nourish her young with her own blood, thus, showing self-sacrifice as Christ nourishes believers with His own Body and Blood.

First Nations stories of origins tell how, in the beginning, The Raven Steals the Sun, bringing light to the world. Hummingbirds are known to be a messenger from Spirit World.

Europeans tell that The Stork brings new babies. Chicken Little sounds the alarm, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” And Hans Christian Andersen's tales include lessons of hope and loyalty. The barnyard animals are surprised when the grey Ugly Duckling hatched among the downy yellow ducklings grows up to be a graceful, white swan. The Emperor of China prefers the mechanical, jewelled music-box bird to the plain, sweetly singing Nightingale, who returns to coax the Emperor back to life.

Fairy tales include The Golden Goose (everyone who touches her gets stuck, eventually making the lethargic Princess laugh), Jack and the Bean Stalk (he brought back the hen that lays eggs of gold) and The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg (the farmer foolishly decides to kill the goose, thereby stopping the supply).

In The Hobbit, instructions to enter the Lonely Mountain and face the dragon depend on a clue from a bird. "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole."

Sometimes an ancient tale is retold in modern times. Dr Seuss revisits Aesop's Bird in Borrowed Feathers when he draws Gertrude McFuzz, who has one small, plain tail feather and envies Lolla Lee Lou who has two. Both Aesop's and Seuss's birds magically gain splendid tail feathers, only to be mocked and stripped and realize that “I am the way I am” is a better self-image.

Perhaps all of us have an affection for Sesame Street's Big Bird who gently shares wisdom and practices peaceful conflict resolutions, demonstrating “for the birds” might become a positive slogan.

“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those who sang best.”

- Henry Van Dyke