Different species evoke different associations from people. In the Hungarian cultural history, white stork is a kind bird; it represents Hungarians in the nursery rhyme ‘Gólya, gólya, gilice’. Children learn about this animal as early as at kindergarten, pupils read La Fontaine stories at school and István Fekete’s Kele is familiar to everyone. At the end of February in every year, the first stork’s arrival in Hungary is great news. Last but not least, storks bring babies according to the euphemistic explanation.
The owl is connected to wisdom, because in the Greek mythology the wise Pallas Athena’s constant epithet was ‘owl-eyed’. On the other hand, the owl whooping generates fear in people. This obscureness linked the bird with witches and indicated misfortune and death. However, those, who grew up with Winnie-the-Pooh and Dr. Bubó, consider owls as nice and bookish feathered animals. Nowadays, the owl has become a web meme, and is thought to be cute, and even human reactions and countenances are attributed to it.
The dove symbol is typical in several religions, including Christianity, because the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity is depicted as a dove. In the Old Testament, God sent a dove holding an olive branch to Noah telling him that the flood ended and God reconciled with people. The dove can also be a symbol of the loved woman in Hungarian folk culture, she is often mentioned as ‘my sweet dove’ or ‘my little pigeon’ and it appears also on folk artworks. It is a symbol of maternity as well – probably this has to do with the fact that pigeons feed their nestlings with crop milk, which is very rare among birds.
The crane has an important role in the Japanese mythology. It chooses its mate for life, thus it is a symbol of faithfulness and peace. According to a belief, a wish comes true for the person who can fold 1000 origami cranes. This tradition became well known due to a sad story: Sasaki Sadako – a little girl who was diagnosed leukemic 9 years after the Hiroshima nuclear disaster – decided to fold a thousand cranes and to wish that she managed to recover from her disease. Tragically, she did not succeed. The paper crane became the international symbol of the fight against atomic weapons and the solidarity with victims. Even President Barack Obama folded a crane and dedicated it to the city of Hiroshima.
A flush of birds might cause negative associations and archaic fear – it is a bad omen and brings the premonitory sign of death. For example, Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963), which was inspired by a true story that happened at the beginning of the 1960s, when some birds ate poisonous algae, became aggressive and attacked people. Tibor Déry’s novel An Imaginary Report on an American Rock Festival (1971) with a sinister bird apocalypse at its beginning can also be memorable.
After the cultural outlook, let’s see some biological curiosities about birds. Their sizes are extremely varied, from the few-centimetre small hummingbirds to the ostriches that can reach 2.5 metres. They are present on all the seven continents, on the ground, in the air, in sweet and salty waters. There is a species (among the ones of the ocean) that comes to the shore only to brood.
The primitive bird-like dinosaurs appeared in the Jurassic age, for example the feathered reptile-like Archaeopteryx that was regarded as a missing link for a long time. The real birds appeared in the Cretaceous age 100 million years ago. They survived the massive extinction at the end of the Cretaceous age and started spreading afterwards. Interestingly, during the Jurassic age, birds – the already-extinct flightless moas – took over the ecological role of lacking mammals on the isolated New Zeeland.
A bird’s brain consists of extremely numerous neurons compared to its weight. This number matches with those of primates. Crows are known for their intelligence, but high IQ is typical of singing-birds and parrots as well. They sense ultraviolet light, which is invisible for us, and it has a role in finding their mates and differentiating sexes. Most birds cannot move their eyeballs – naturally, there are exceptions like the cormorant – but some of them can see in 360 degrees owing to the eyes on the sides of their skulls. Sitting on a wire – which seems acrobatic to us people – also has the simple explanation: they have balancing organs not only in the ears, but in their pelvic girdles as well. Their water demand is not big, because they cannot sweat out the surplus and do not have urinary bladders. There are sea birds that drink salty water and secrete salt with a special gland. Certain species are able to sleep during flying, like the swifts.
Most birds live in monogamy for a nesting season, but sometimes for their whole lives, which makes nursing nestlings safer. Rarely happens that they misstep – mainly hen-birds – but it is for the sustainment of species. Nest parasites have a special reproductive strategy. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and also let them foster the nestlings. The most famous is the cuckoo, whose nestling is usually bigger than the ‘foster parents’ are themselves.
Certain species are able to sing and breathe simultaneously or to give forth several sounds at the same time, due to their special articulator. Their communications are rather complex; ornithologists can expound only slow-speed bird singing records. A cock and a hen-bird often sing duets with one another, when the hen-bird continues the song that the cock started. The title of ‘the bird with the most beautiful voice’ could be awarded to a robin, a nightingale (also known as philomel) or a redstart, but this is relative of course.
Due to human activities, more than a hundred bird species died out already. The ‘red list’ issued by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) includes the endangered species. If you want to save species, you can visit the website of the Hungarian Ornithological Society (MME), where you can get some advice about how to help our feathered friends in different months of the year. In addition, you can find there bird-, amphibian-, and reptile-identifying apps or you can access to streaming cameras observing storks.
Translated by Zita Aknai