“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”~ Langston Hughes.
There are a few songs from my childhood memories that feature birds. In wintertime in England we worried about poor robin-redbreast, who had to keep himself warm, by hiding his head under his wing (poor thing). We also sang about a bird we had never seen – the kookaburra – native to Australia and New Guinea, was it because we had an Australian teacher? When my family moved to Jamaica we had the opportunity to meet a whole new set of birds – there was the ugly ‘john crow’ – which seemed to portend death since it is a carrion bird – the turkey vulture. If you saw a group of them circling up above, you knew there was death below. But there was also the tiny, dainty, gravity defying humming bird, able to hover indefinitely above a beautiful flower, narrow beak dipping delicately into the stem of a tropical flower.
I remember going on a trip up to Newcastle, located in the hills above Kingston, an army camp built beneath St. Catherine’s peak. The cooler climes provided a respite for British soldiers in the 1840’s, who at the time were dying from yellow fever at a rate of one soldier every two and a half days! At almost 4,000 feet above sea level, the nights get so cool that the officer houses (in later years, rented out to visitors) even had fireplaces! What I remember most about that trip was hiking through the woods and hearing the calls of so many different types of birds. We would catch glimpses of them darting around, hear a woodpecker hammering away in the distance, and if we were lucky, we would catch sight of a bright array of feathers. There is another song that describes the variety of birds to be found in Jamaica, some of them known by the sounds they make, like ‘kling-kling’, The song is called ‘chi-chi bud-oh’ and was a ‘call and response’ type of song created by workers in the field (I imagine going back to the days of slavery) to try to lighten the load and make the day go faster. The chorus line describes the noise the birds make ‘some of dem a holla some a bawl’ (some holler, some bawl) which remains one of my favorite stories to tell. There was a Welsh minister, transplanted to Jamaica (married to a Jamaican woman), who referred to the song in one of his sermons with his own version: “Some of them are hollow, some are bald!” Different concept altogether.
But there is something very magical about birds. Their ability to fly, the beautiful dances they perform when flocks of them rise and fall in magical shapes and flurries, forming and reforming like some choreographed artwork. Their cooperative act when flying in v-formation, of taking turns to lead so that others may get a lift from the wings of the bird in front. Their intricate nests, their need to find food constantly to maintain the energy required to fly. Their beauty.
Scientists can assess the health of a community by the presence or absence of birds. One of the interesting things after a bad hurricane, is the silence (before the generators power up) as the birds made sure to exit stage left. With fewer airplanes above and little traffic around, the absence of birds is even more noticeable. Apparently, ornithologists studying the Everglades are very excited to report that this year there are two super colonies of nesting ibises, a very unusual event, and one which indicates that there is an overall healthier ecosystem, more fish for food. Ibises are my personal favorite – comical looking birds on the ground, (think of the mascot of the University of Miami), they always look as if they are so self-conscious about their curved beaks, giving them a look only a mother could love! But in the air they gain grace, like those other ungainly creatures, the pelicans. Awkward with their huge beaks and lopsided walk, they turn into stealth bombers, sleek divers, smooth gliders when they take to the air.
For those who believe that the spirit never dies, that when the human form no longer functions, the spirit takes flight to go another excellent adventure, it is easy to imagine them taking to the sky as a bird. I once took part in an interesting conversation, about which bird we would like to come back as! But it is a comforting thought, to be reminded of those who have left this realm visiting us in the form of a favorite bird. The glimpse of a flock of ibises then not only brings a smile, but a message of hope from someone who has gone before, a hint that somehow they are still watching over us, encouraging us to make the most of this life and all it has to offer. A reminder that life is fleeting, but that there may be many more mysteries still to unlock.
In the summer in South Florida we tend to stay indoors, scared of the humid, hot, thundery weather that drains us of energy, but the birds are still out there. I hope you can get inspiration from the wonderful variety of birds, who get up each morning and go to work, caring for their young, building their nests, finding food. And if you see a ‘dutty john crow’, feel sorry for the poor ugly creature! Perhaps it carries the spirit of a politician!
Have a wonderful weekend, family!