This is a huge survey of birds that anyone can take part in, designed to help with conservation efforts. All you have to do is register at the Big Garden Birdwatch website at http://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/ then, over the weekend of 29-30 January watch the birds in your garden or local park for an hour and submit a form to tell the RSPB what you saw. The RSPB supplies all you need to identify common garden birds and the form to record them on.
A couple of years ago I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch and used the opportunity to combine it with a bit of ornithomancy - that's fortune telling by divining the meaning of birds.
It was a form of prophecy very popular with Ancient Romans. It is mentioned in Homer's epic the Odyssey, where an eagle appears three times, each time flying to the right, gripping a dead dove in its talons. This augury was interpreted as meaning Odysseus was returning home and would deal with his wife's suitors.
These days, ornithomancy is hardly used at all - in fact, there are very few books easily available on the subject of divination by birds.
However, for Yule I was given one called Birds: Divine Messengers. This isn't about the ancient art of ornithomancy as practiced by the Romans. Instead, it is a lovely book about the folklore, mythology and meaning of birds, together with a personal system devised by author Andrea Wansbury to find the messages birds bring to help us transform our lives for the better.
Birds can appear to us in dreams or images that catch our eye as well as by flying past us or landing in our gardens. In the book, Andrea says that we should pay attention to birds that stand out for one reason or another - perhaps because they keep appearing, behave in a strange way, land very close to us or even tap on our window.
Publisher Findhorn press says: "Birds teach us precious and timeless universal principles, spiritual truths and divine wisdom: the tools and ideals we all need to know and grasp as we embark on our spiritual journeys... They teach us spiritual ideals not only through their unique characteristics, their eggs and their feathers, but also through mythological stories and folklores... Each bird brings its own specific message; this book explains how to recognise when birds are delivering a personal message and the importance of applying this guidance to our lives."
For me, one of the most useful parts of Birds: Divine Messengersis its long appendix listing about 100 birds from all over the world with their meanings. This could be handy for taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatch if you want to discover any messages the birds you see might be bringing, as well as taking part in the conservation project survey. Here are a few examples:
House sparrow: consolidation
I don't necessarily agree with every meaning Andrea ascribes to each bird. For example, she lists the cuckoo as giving the message of "trust" and says: "A cuckoo is saying you need to trust more".
Personally, I don't feel comfortable with that interpretation. To me, a cuckoo is primarily a sign of spring - and according to some legends, it warns of trickery. In other tales it is a symbol of female suffering. The medieval word "cuckold", for a man whose wife has been unfaithful, is derived from the name of the cuckoo. Considering that cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests and the first thing cuckoo chicks do is throw the rest of their foster parents' eggs out of the nest, I would never associate a cuckoo with trust.
Mind you, I can see a use for the book's interpretation:
"No, husband dearest, that cuckoo you can hear singing in the woods doesn't mean I've been shagging your mates. Look, this book says the cuckoo means trust. You can trust me, darling, in all things..."As with all forms of divination, it is always important to consider what a sign or symbol means to you personally rather than just going by the meanings given in books.
Links and previous related posts:
Birds: Divine Messengers