When I was about forty years old I discovered a clay deposit on a beach that I visited frequently. Intrigued, I sat down and began working with the river’s gift. I remember my astonishment when a beaked bird – woman emerged out of the clump of damp earth. I could feel a surge of fire pulsing through my body so I took the figure home and placed it on my bedside table, hoping to discern its message.
Shortly thereafter I discovered the work of Marija Gimbutas in the book The Language of the Goddess. There were a number of beaked goddesses pictured in this volume, some uncannily similar to mine. Had I tapped into the world of the ancient bird goddesses? I believed so. Although I had no idea what this might mean these images of Marija’s captured my imagination and kept me questioning. It wasn’t long before I also dreamed other bird goddess images and rendered each of them in clay…
Some of my earliest memories were tied up with birds because my grandmother loved them, and watching birds was something we did together. To this day I can recognize a bird I haven’t seen since I was a child; all birds are treasured by me. During my mothering years when I was so distracted, I still fed whole flocks of Mourning doves outside my door every morning. Later, after my children were grown and I moved to the mountains, I acquired Lily b, my free flying African Ring Necked dove. Each dawn when writing in my journal, Lily b would reinforce any important insight I had with a certain call. Within six months I was forced to acknowledge that Lily b read my mind. When I learned that scientist Rupert Sheldrake was doing research on animal telepathy I began to correspond with him, and my experiences with Lily b became part of his data bank. This communication between Rupert and I reinforced my belief that Lily b and I had an unusual relationship. My powerful patriarchal conditioning was still insisting that birds don’t read human minds. I loved birds, animals, and plants – fiercely – after all, I was a naturalist. Now that my children were grown I was advocating for all non – human lives through teaching and writing. Yet that internal voice continued to try to dismiss my experiences with Lily, as well as other unusual encounters I had with animals.
For the longest time I believed that my relationship with Lily b was an anomaly. In retrospect it is clear that Lily b opened a psychic door that allowed me to cross a threshold into the world of birds, animals and plants on a deeper and more intimate level than I had ever experienced before.
When I moved into my log cabin a few years later a glorious crimson Cardinal began coming to my feeder. Oh, I was transfixed, experiencing the same kind of fire that I had when I sculpted my first bird goddess. Soon I had a family of Cardinals who fed their two fluttering nestlings each summer. In the winter I would stand at the door and watch for the pair to come in to feed when it was almost dark, and if they didn’t appear during inclement weather I experienced inexplicable grief and longing. My love for these particular birds rivaled my love for Lily B. One summer tragedy struck. One of the male nestlings was mauled by a cat. Although I attempted to save the bird’s life he died three days later. When the parents disappeared, I was beyond bereft. For two years I heard Cardinal songs up the road but my beloved birds did not return. Every Cardinal song broke my heart.
Early in September of the third year a female Cardinal materialized ‘clicking’ outside my open window. I begged her to stay, telling her how lonely I had been for her company. She regarded me solemnly with one beady eye as she listened to my plea. The next morning she appeared again, and afterwards the female began to visit me every day at which time I would race out the door with special food just for her. Six months later she arrived at dawn with a male cardinal who immediately began to sing his ethereal mating song. I was overjoyed. That summer the pair raised a brood that didn’t disperse in the fall. The following winter I had four.
I don’t know why it took me so long to begin to converse with Cardinals in an ordinary voice since Lily b and I bid each other good morning every day; he coos and I return his greeting in English. We also coo back and forth because he likes it when I mimic his voice. Once I began communicating out loud with the Cardinals they always responded; they also initiated contact like the day the male warned me NOT to go witness the slaughtered trees at the spring. The females simply click, but the males start singing, pause, wait for me to tell them they are beautiful (!) and then reply, accentuating certain notes each time. The other night one of these exchanges lasted for about 20 minutes.
It is normal for me to be awakened by one of the male cardinals every morning at 4:15 AM because it’s summer, and they are early risers ( I have to bring in the feeder every night at dark or raccoons will raid it). If they come during the day when I have temporarily removed the feeder because of squirrel predation, both males and females call out with short irritated chirps and clicks arriving at whatever window is closest to where I am in the house until I return their feeder! It is uncanny how they know which room I am in. I also note that is the male that teaches the youngsters how to get my attention, so the routine is passed on intergenerationally. Although this relationship between us is stable, the wonder I experience never ceases.
Five years ago another bird appeared in my life carrying that same powerful charge, so now there are three – the Dove, the Cardinal and the Sand hill Crane. Three birds in all.
Just recently I listened to a interview by an English folksinger named Sam Lee who has had a similar experience with Nightingales. Sam discovered by accident that when he sang folksongs to the Nightingales that they began to sing back to him. He writes:
I feel like nature is my spiritual leader…and the nightingale is at the top of that tower calling the prayer out.
Lee believes that bird song and folk music have much in common because both embody place and landscape. I hadn’t made this connection myself but I have loved folk music all my life and the moment I heard this remark I realized it was true for me as well.
Lee believes that singing to the Nightingale led him across a threshold to enter deep time, and that a space for communion opens in that silence. He believes that humans and the Nightingale have been sharing songs for millennia. I would extend this idea of ancestral relationship between birds and humans to include all birds not just the Nightingale, because it is clear to me from my experiences, Indigenous mythologies, and by reading fairy tales that any bird can become a Muse. And this reality has radical implications for us, because I think some humans may need birds to help them access the spirit world. Isn’t that one reason why ancient goddess images have bird aspects? My guess is that women first discovered this capacity for a spiritual relationship with birds; they weren’t hunting them, they were listening.
When I hear bird songs I am rarely far from the knowing that we have already lost 2.9 billion birds since the 1970’s. With more catastrophic losses on the horizon it helps me to read what Sam has to say about the birds he loves:
“Nightingales will probably be extinct in about 30 – 40 years and eulogizing these dying birds with songs and being in intimate relationship with them is the most beautiful response to extinction I can think of….”
I believe the bird goddesses attached me to the spirit world as an adult, first as images, then as live birds. So often when listening to bird song I think of my grandmother. It makes perfect sense to me that my ancestral connection to all birds comes through her. Women and birds… I wonder how many of us are out there. These days I sometimes wonder how to cope with the losses ahead. The answer is always the same. Be present now. Then I recall that I have been graced by having intimate relationships with three of these winged jewels of the sky and have loved many. I hope that we can continue to celebrate the lives of birds with songs, dances, or the written word even after we lose more of them. I want to do anything I can to help humans remember…
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.