Saturday, April 20, 2013

Modern Auguries

An editorial in the April 21 issue of New York Times will give pleasure to birders everywhere, especially those who also appreciate history, language, and science. Especially history and language. Worth reading.

…A list of birds seen on a given day is also a form of prayer, a thanksgiving for being alive at a certain time and place.

There was prestige in knowing birds in ancient Rome, and there is prestige today.

Today’s birders are … contouring the frontiers of climate change. The reporting such observers do is crucial. … The Audubon Society’s estimates [of the movements of birds related to climate change] rest largely on data supplied by volunteers in citizen-science projects … Such documentation, drawing on databases and the practices of citizen science, is descended from folk wisdom, where birds are ascribed a certain predictive power. ...

Folk wisdom has deep roots. “Auspice” and “augury” share a Latin origin with “avian.” An augur was a priest in ancient Rome who studied birds to determine the will of the gods (Cicero was one). When an elected official is inaugurated today, he or she is etymologically promoted to bird-watcher in chief. Mr. President, your binoculars. …

The ancient wisdom of fretting obsessively over bird behavior has obtained the vindication of modern science. Hawks and eagles do not appear by accident. When, where and whether they appear is, absolutely, a portent. The spotted owl is a bioindicator, a species that can be used to monitor the condition of an ecosystem. In other words, bioindicator is just modern parlance for omen.

…The practice of bird-watching, no matter how geared up and teched out, cannot escape its ancient roots; or, rather, it has come back around. Birds are not moving north in anticipation of climate change; rather, they are moving in response to it. Still, they are becoming predictive in a manner not founded in superstition but well-documented in reported behavior. … We can’t escape trying to see the future through birds. … bird anxiety is an essential component of the human predicament.

… We have reached an era when our instincts, anxieties and gadgets collide; our classical relationship with birds is reinforced and our understanding is enhanced.

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