How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

A lamentation of swans

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Exactly one week from right now, I’ll be suited up as a raven for the world premiere of a flamenco performance, Zorro in the Land of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. This show is a mix of Spanish flamenco music with Ojibwa lore, in which ravens represent  message-bearers and truth-tellers. Six of us women form the raven chorus, or, as we like to call ourselves, the murder.

Just as a group of ravens is known as a murder, so a group of swans can be called a lamentation. Poetic, no?

Birds are a natural creature to portray through dance because of their symbolic qualities as well as their movements. (Our raven dances feature large black shawls–common to flamenco and Ojibwa dance, while also being representative of wings–and some of our choreography is meant to mimic the swooping of the flock). So it’s no wonder that one of the most famous ballets of all time is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, made possibly even more famous by last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Black Swan.

One can’t but help think of the gracefulness of swans when watching the long limbs of Gillian Murphy as Odette, the white swan:

The pas de quatre is similarly avian:

Natalie Portman gives her all as the black swan:

And then there’s this Chinese version of Swan Lake, which is just ridiculous. In all the best ways.

Children of Lir


Irish writers are blessed not only with rhythm and “the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” that Frank McCourt acclaims at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes (“the happy childhood is hardly worth your while,” he says) but also an incredibly rich ancestry of myth and legend. In her 1904 book Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory compiled and edited a large number of these myths.

I first read Lady Gregory’s version of Fate of the Children of Lir in an Irish Literature class in college and was completely smitten. The eponymous children in this story are Fionnuala and her three brothers Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn. After Lir, their father, is widowed he remarries a woman named Aoife. Her jealousy over Lir’s love for his children causes her to turn them into swans. She dooms them to spend nine hundred years in that form, three hundred years in each of three lakes/seas, until blessed by a monk.

Swans are popular in folklore around the world. In Hinduism they are revered for their ability to pass through water without getting wet, metaphorizing a saint’s ability to pass through the world without getting attached. Swans were the mascot of the Spanish-language Modernismo poetry movement from the late nineteen to early twentieth century (Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez published the poem “Wring the swan’s neck” in 1910 to symbolize the end of Modernismo). Wagner’s operas Lohengrin and Parsifal both feature swans prominently.

A surprisingly large number of swan stories are of transformation. The Ugly Duckling recounts the misfortune of a young bird who is harassed until he grows into his adult body of a beautiful swan. Zeus takes on the form of a swan in his rape of Leda, begetting Helen of Troy. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, based on old German and Russian legend, princess Odette is turned into a white swan, Odile to a black swan, and Natalie Portman to an Oscar winner.

Children of Lir statue in Dublin

Both innocent and elegant, large but fragile, swans are easily romanticized. Humans disguised as swans hide their terrible curses in muted throats and withstand centuries of punishment with grace. No wonder then, that the story of the children of Lir resonates so deeply with the Irish people who similarly suffered for nine hundred years under British oppression.

A tribute to the children of Lir and the people of Ireland stands in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square. This statue, added to the park in 1971, symbolizes rebirth and resurrection. For just as the children of Lir ultimately turned back to their human selves after nine hundred years, the Irish are now free of the reign to which they were so long bound.