• People around the world and throughout history have used birds to think about and predict the future.

  • Of all the ecological knowledge people around the world use in their day-to-day lives, an awareness of birds and bird behavior is among the most ubiquitous.

  • Karen Park and I explored this phenomenon in our research, Listen Carefully to the Birds.

  • Comparing reports from six continents, we found that people from diverse communities pay attention to particular birds and what they reveal about the world around us, from approaching weather to illness, mortality and the supernatural.

  • The oldest known representation of a bird is in Chauvet cave, France – a 30,000-year-old owl drawn with fingers on a soft wall.

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, owls were the most commonly cited bird as signs or omens, and were usually related to death, ghosts and fear, but occasionally to something more positive, such as the beginning of summer.

  • Half of all bird signs were heard – that is, they related to birds’ calls or song.

  • Many more bird signs and multilingual names can be found on the recently launched Ethno-ornithology World Atlas, an online collection of bird knowledge, and a space for collaboration between researchers and the communities where they work.

  • Reading birds In many cases, the “reading” of birds is related to a sophisticated understanding of ecological relationships – black-faced babblers lead hunters to a wounded antelope, for example, by the way they act and the calls they make.

  • Similarly, the Welsh saying about the cuckoo may well be rooted in an awareness of the climate and its impact on animals and agriculture.

  • Ecologists are also confirming direct communication and cooperation between people and honeyguide birds, long known to East African locals, which lead honey hunters to beehives in exchange for the leftovers.

  • It is detrimental if we lose specific bits of ecological knowledge, but it is even worse if we stop paying attention to the natural world altogether.

  • Omens are signs, usually understood as not coming from any particular entity, that are a feature of humans’ propensity for seeking and finding guidance in the world around us.

  • By looking at the spectrum of bird signs, from those strictly based in ecological fact to those related to more supernatural notions of luck and omens, we are able to speculate about how they are related.

  • People everywhere have traditions for knowing the world; perhaps the skills honed in natural history observation are adopted into ideas about fate, luck and destiny as well.

  • We are, after all, constantly trying to learn from the past and to anticipate the future.

  • By chronicling these relationships, we can better understand how people have lived in multi-sensory connection with their worlds – and keep that option open for both us and future generations.


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