Monday, January 9, 2012

First Bird of the Year, 2012

Superstitions about the first of anything to occur on January 1st abound. The first person who steps into your home after midnight is said to augur the kind of year you can expect; the direction of the wind likewise can foretell calamity or prosperity; and in Hungary, you're lucky if your first visitor is a man but unlucky if it's a woman. (Feh.)

And apparently in medieval times, a farmer would impale a flat cake on the horn of a cow and dance around it, singing, until the cow threw the cake to the ground; if it landed in front of her, it would be a great year, but if it fell behind her, it would be a poor year. (What I wouldn't give to see John Cleese and the rest of the Python crew do a skit about this.)

Being fresh out of cows and flat cakes, I figured it made more sense to skew toward the game played by birders known as "Bird of the Year." This game mandates that the first bird you see on January 1 is the species that becomes the theme for your upcoming year--as author Lyanda Haupt puts it, it is the one "to bless your perspective, your imagination, your spirit."

As you can imagine, this can involve a bit of cheating or finessing the rules if you're not enchanted with the first bird you see (Haupt writes in her book Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds about birders who decide their first bird will be the first one they see after an arbitrary cutoff, say, the first one after 7 a.m., the first one after a cup of tea, and the like.)

How that bird translates into a theme seems to be your own business. Haupt decided that her first bird, a starling--a species reviled in the United States for being an invasive non-native that boots native species out of their nesting sites--could be a symbol for resilience.

Pair of young crows, cropped closeup taken from
photo (c) by William Meyer.
I thought how splendid it would be for my first bird to be the Anna's Hummingbird currently visiting the feeder outside my dining room window, or maybe even the elusive Snowy Owl lurking around Ballard, but I figured it would most likely be the (ho hum) House Finch. That species hogs the feeder morning and afternoon, a regular gang of six of them, leaving little to chance. But no. When I pulled open the drapes on January 1, the first avian life form was a crow in flight silhouetted against the morning clouds.

Crows abound in Seattle, so this first bird lacked any foreign flair. However, it's a fabulous first bird and one of my favorite species. Smart, brave, cunning, sassy, playful, loyal, adaptable, and handsome--what more could one want from a bird? I hope a crow year translates into rolling with the punches and maintaining a sense of humor all the while.

I did wonder what such an in-your-face bird signified for people inclined toward superstitions and augury in the past.  As you might guess, crows (though admired in many cultures for having great family values and cleverness) are often considered bad-luck omens.

You're apparently in for a really bad time if you see crows in a churchyard; have a lone crow fly over your house or cross your path; see two crows flying in tandem from the left; see a crow at sunset in the south; or spy one pulling human hair, perching on a skull, or sitting on your house with a red string in its beak.

Prominent ornithologists, however, have little patience for linking crows with dire news. Writer William Leon Dawson notes in Birds of Washington (1909) that the crow, "more than any other bird...has matched his wits against those of man, and his frequent easy victories and consequent boastings are responsible in large measure for the unsavory reptuation in which he is held."

And some painter-guy going by the name John James Audubon appears to have been an even more ardent admirer of the crow, which he calls a "poor, humble, harmless, and even most serviceable bird":

"The Crow is an extremely shy bird, having found familiarity with man no way to his advantage. He is also cunning--at least he is so called, because he takes care of himself and his brood. The state of anxiety, I may say of terror, in which he is constantly kept, would be enough to spoil the temper of any creature. Almost every person has an antipathy to him, and scarcely one of his race would be left in the land, did he not employ all his ingenuity, and take advantage of all his experience, in counteracting the evil machinations of his enemies...

"The Crow devours myriads of grubs every day of the year, that might lay waste the farmer's fields; it destroys quadrupeds innumerable, every one of which is an enemy to his poultry and his flocks. Why then should the farmer be so ungrateful, when he sees such services rendered to him by a providential friend, as to persecute that friend even to the death?"

All this makes me wonder if the crow I saw is pondering whether or not I was a worthy first-person-of-the-year to behold.