More Halloween fun from RSPB Media & Communications Officer, Melanie Paget!
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -Only this, and nothing more.'”
These immortal opening lines of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, are just one example of the link, in the minds of many, between birds and the supernatural. Despite all the advances of modern science and understanding, this connection has continued through the years, from Hitchcock’s iconic The Birds to the oft repeated phrase “Dark wings, dark words” in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. But just what is it that makes birds, perhaps more than any other creature, the object of such fascination and suspicion?
The answer might lie in the fact that unlike most animals, the majority of birds have the almost supernatural gift of flight. The human mind can understand the walking, crawling, running and even swimming behaviours of other creatures, but flight is an elusive skill that has always evaded us, unless aided by technology. Unable to explain the phenomenon, it must have been all too easy for early naturalists to attribute birds’ aerobatic ease to the dark arts or the supernatural.
In the darkening months of autumn the sounds of barn owls and nightjar (also gruesomely known as goatsuckers) at our reserves provide a suitably eerie backdrop to ghost stories and superstitions. One such legend concerns the much loved barnacle geese, which are currently arriving in their thousands at our Mersehead and Loch Gruinart reserves.
Barnacle geese at Mersehead (photo: Kaleel Zibe)
In the days before scientists understood the ins and outs of goose migration it was thought that barnacle geese were born from goose barnacles growing on driftwood and washed in shore in the autumn storms. The crustaceans have the same colourings as the delicate barnacle geese and it was thought that, like some kind of feathered caterpillar, the birds emerged from the shells to graze on our shores in the autumn and winter months.
While the tale of the barnacle geese now seems far fetched, perhaps what we can take away from this is the sense of awe that birds give us. They are magical, entrancing and otherworldly, but not in the sinister and dark way our ancestors thought, making it all the more important to help conserve these beautiful and mysterious creatures.