Soaring Through Our Imagination


Mark Cocker contemplates the cultural cachet of birds:

The central symbolic value that birds play in language, literature, art, thought and religion is that of transformation from one state to another. The idea is ancient, visceral and undeniable. Mesolithic infants have been found buried with their heads resting on swans’ wings. The symbol for the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith is a dove. In south-east Asia cranes carried the souls of the dead to heaven. At weddings throughout the western world people release white doves as a symbol of the couple’s love. In Europe white storks bring the spring. Muslims built hospitals to house injured storks and made it an offence to harm them. Traditionally the symbol of homecoming for sailors was the swallow tattooed on their arms.

The examples are innumerable. Central to them all is the idea that birds often express our most cherished ideas and our most exalted values. Look at the spectrum of national flags and other state insignia. Birds, particularly birds of prey, are everywhere – few other creatures feature. It is surely this association with transcendence, or some tiny fragment of it, that is at work in all our encounters with birds. And it is for this reason that they are so crucial to our relationship with all nature.

Jim Crace shares his experience of swifts, “a bird neither friendly nor unfriendly”:

Here, this evening, in Grasse in the Alpes Maritimes of southern France, the noise trapped in the dilapidated, medieval, traffic-free alleyways and courtyards is deafening and eerie. At least a thousand screaming swifts have condescended to spend an hour close to me. I could almost catch one with a butterfly net if I stretched high enough and if they weren’t such whizz-kids of the wing, celebrating every duck and dive and every taken bug with their falsetto palaver. In the final shadows of the evening, these alpine swifts are closer to my head than either starlings or bats would ever dare to come. They are as close as gnats. I’m standing in the eye of the swarm. But still I cannot claim any intimacy with them. Despite this tumultuous proximity, they are not sharing any of their world with me. There is no interface, no common ground. They’re still aloof. My love for them is vain. All they know about is bugs and air, feeding, flying, moving on. They leave me gaping at an empty sky.

Previous Dish on our feathered friends here and here.

(Photo of flying swifts by Robert T. Britt)