Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bird Break - "True hope is swift, and flies with swallows' wings"

Should I organize the post around birds and flowers?  Or around the places I saw them?  How we categorize things affects how we see the world and whether people can find what they are looking for.

That's how I started this post, I had no idea how this was going to play out. Now that it's done, I see that you'll be able to follow the evolution of a post.  I decided to leave the camera notes for others who are having such issues, or can give me tips.

I did these four bird pictures from our trip. (The Goldeneye is the only one I didn't photoshop.)  But to justify that narrow focus I started thinking about the important role of birds in nature and in the lives of humans.  And that led me to finding references to these birds in art, literature, and music.

The birds' physical beauty, their songs, their eggs, and their ability to fly have charmed people from early on, and inspired some of the greatest artists of all times.

Here's a redwinged blackbird from Tyhee Lake provincial campground on the Yellowhead Highway - after Smithers, but before New Hazelton.  (These birds are all from the Tyhee Lake.)

Red Winged Blackbird

"Pack up all my cares and woes, here I go, singing low, bye bye blackbird."  Ray Henderson and lyricist Mort Dixon, Bye-bye Blackbird 

"Blackbird singing in the dead of night" - Beatles, Blackbird
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds."  Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird.  

Eventually I'll get the hang of capturing flying birds with the Canon Rebel.  I did learn that some of it is luck.

Like these swallows (two different pictures melded into one.)  A couple of the many shots I took as they swooped around me actually came out.

"True hope is swift, and flies with swallows' wings"(From Richard III Act V, Scene 2)   [I'm sure Shakespeare knew, when he wrote this, that swifts very closely resemble swallows and that they are hard to tell apart. And after reading about the distinction at the link, I'm not sure these aren't swifts, or martins.  Or that they are the same type of bird.]

And if the birds are far enough away, it's easier to get them in focus like this loon.

"The devil damm thee black, thou cream-fac'd loon!"  (Macbeth Act V, Scene 3)

Again, this is just one loon photoshopped twice onto one picture.   It was a mere speck flying way on the other side of the lake.

Goldeneye in the reeds

Of course, if they aren't moving much, it's easier to get in focus, though the auto focus has trouble figuring out what to focus on in a picture like this one of the Goldeneye in the reeds.  I have to figure out how to tell the camera which of the 'spots' is the one to focus with.  I think this ended up manual focus.  And I realized that my old Pentax manual focus (all it had) was easier because it turned more smoothly and because it magnified the focus.  And as I write this I remember I read there was a way to do that on the Rebel too.  Need to look that up again.

It's harder to find a literary or art reference specifically to a Goldeneye.  Ian Fleming's Jamaica house was called Goldeneye, but it doesn't appear that it's named after the duck.  I did find a painting in my 1950 edition of Audubon's Birds of America that I've had since I was a kid.  Audubon killed his wild birds and then painted them so they are really pictures of dead birds.

The Roles of Birds

These birds aren't just 'pretty' (which they are).  They are important to the ecosystems they live in and even to the economy.  According to the Iowa Extension website:
Adding all wildlife watching equipment together, including bird food, binoculars, spotting scopes, film, carrying cases, etc., the nation spends nearly 20 billion dollars! In Iowa alone, we spend some 36 million dollars on bird food! Birds are not only important economically in Iowa and the nation, but also server a vital ecological role as well. Birds are critical links within the vast food chains and webs that exist in the ecosystem. Here are just a few of the many roles birds play:
Agents of Dispersal
Biological Controls
 At the link they go into each of the three roles. Basically, they spread seeds and even fish eggs and also help pollinate plants;  they keep insect populations down (and some small mammals and reptiles as well); and like the canary in the mine, they are early alerts to diseases and pollution.  That $20 billion is just what people spend directly to watch and/or feed birds.  I'm sure the $20 billion is a small amount compared to what the birds do for insect control.  They are part of the $33 trillion natural ecosystem services that E.O. Wilson writes about in The Future of Life.

Endangered Species International explains the birds' roles this way:
Birds occupy many levels of trophic webs, from mid-level consumers to top predators. As with other native organisms, birds help maintain sustainable population levels of their prey and predator species and, after death, provide food for scavengers and decomposers.
Many birds are important in plant reproduction through their services as pollinators or seed dispersers. Birds also provide critical resources for their many host-specific parasites, including lice that eat only feathers, flies adapted for living on birds, and mites that hitchhike on birds from plant to plant and even between countries.
Some birds are considered keystone species as their presence in (or disappearance from) an ecosystem affects other species indirectly. For example, woodpeckers create cavities that are then used by many other species. . .
Birds and humans
Birds have been integral to humans since prehistory. To birds’ detriment, they and their eggs have been an important human food source since humans evolved, and we have hunted many species to extinction. Feathers, usually obtained by killing their original owners, have been used as adornment in hats, headdresses, and capes. Birds are popular as “pets” throughout the world, and the pet trade has driven many species to the edge of extinction.

More benignly, birds appear in ancient art and mythology worldwide.
Just being pretty and singing beautifully, and showing us that flight is possible, might be value enough to justify birds.  We have studies that show contact with nature improves human mental health, but I couldn't find anything that specifically correlates birds to that, but I'm sure it will be shown eventually.  We can certainly document the huge impact birds have had on  artists, musicians, writers, playwrights, who have been moved to put birds in their works.

Shakespeare makes 606 references to 64 different bird species (and he may never have left the tiny British Isles.)  Here's a list of the birds he referenced.  

Above I referenced two songs about blackbrids, but here's a link to an essay on the influence of birdsong on human music in general.

Birds remind us that nature is a balancing act and that we have to protect their habitats because without them, our lives are diminished - not simply because of the loss of their beauty, but because of the loss of all the work they do to help maintain the ecosystems we depend on for life.  The more we know about birds, the more we understand the interrelationships in nature and our role in nature. 

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