Do you share my conviction that people living in earlier times were more intensely involved with the natural world than seems to be the case today? Back then there were no machines, no electronic devices, nothing of what now controls our lives. People living long ago abided by the workings of nature.
Take, for instance, birds and the ancient Romans. They observed birds in order to make omens (it’s no coincidence that the Greek for omen – “oionos” or “ornis” – also means bird). The omens were based on the birds’ behaviour, a practice known as augury. When the official – called an augur – monitored the flight of birds in order to interpret the will of the gods, it was said he was taking the auspices, from the Latin “auspicium”, divination by means of birds (the English auspicious, inauspicious have their source in that Latin word).
Before the invention of firearms, people used birds of prey such as falcons and hawks to hunt for small wild animals. The art of falconry, believed to have been practiced by the Arabs as early as 3500 BC, was introduced to Europe around 400 AD. More than eight centuries later, Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor, wrote an illustrated treatise, “De arte venandi cum avibus” (The Art of Hunting with Birds). Divided into six books, it deals not only with falconry but also with the habits and structure of birds and is based to a great extent on Frederick II’s own observations and experiments,
Watching birds, therefore, has been going on forever, although the phrase bird watching first appeared in print only in 1901 as the title of a book by Edmund Selous. Moving fast-forward to our own time, the Covid pandemic of the last two years caused many of us to change our habits and routines. When we had to isolate, we were encouraged to ‘rediscover’ the natural world outside our door. Those of us with yards started paying attention to the birds that flocked there. The more trees, bushes, and flowers we had, the more birds we were likely to see. We bird watched like never before.
I’ve been watching the birds in my yard for a good many years. And they’ve been watching me. Our day of mutual watching begins very early, when I drink my morning coffee on the deck. It’s my routine every day of the year, no matter what the weather. Around the time I’m out there, two finches come to drink from the water bowl I’ve placed on the deck railing. They’re soon joined by a chickadee, who always heads for the rainwater-filled plant overpot. The chickadee comes even when the water is frozen, pecking hopefully at the ice.
My crow friendships are on a different level. The crows and I interact and communicate. Roofie is the one who’s currently the most friendly with me. Our conversations are always about food. Roofie’s food, naturally.
As soon as she spots me at work in the garden, she zooms in. I place her dish within arm’s reach so I can toss in any chafer grubs or cutworms I find. Roofie keeps her eye on me and as soon as I push the dish towards her, she hops over, picks up the dish in her beak and drags it six feet away, the Corvid version of Covid physical distancing.
The other day I didn’t find any treats for her. She became impatient and started meowing and cawing insistently. “Roofie,” I said, “I can’t shake the grubs out of my sleeve! Anyway, if you really were hungry, you’d have eaten that peanut lying in your dish since yesterday.” I held up the dish to show her. Then I retreated the Corvid physical distance. To my amazement, she promptly hopped over to her dish and ate the peanut.
No one can convince me that Roofie and I don’t communicate!
Sabine Eiche is a local writer and art historian with a PhD from Princeton University. She is passionately involved in preserving the environment and protecting nature. Her columns deal with a broad range of topics and often include the history (etymology) of words in order to shed extra light on the subject.