The Tree, The Squirrel, The Superflight: On The Propitious Flight of Finches
If you live in the northern half of the United States or Canada you will know that the trees there produce fruit, seeds, and nuts that hang out all winter. Sometimes still on the branches and sometimes on the ground at the base of the trees.
Trees produce different amounts from year to year based on a number of factors but the years when there is massive production there is what is called a “mast year”. Scientists are pretty confident that trees evolved into a relationship with squirrels who eat tree seeds and nuts. The thought is that even though squirrels can and do spread tree seeds (that might grow more trees) trees limit the production of seeds/nuts/fruits from year to year to prevent squirrel populations from booming and eating all the seeds. The tracking of seed/nut/fruit production to the squirrel population is so clear and the research points to it being causal not correlational.
But of course squirrels are not the only creature in the wild that eat seeds, nuts, and fruit from trees all winter. Birds do as well.
Right now a very rare event is happening. A superflight.
A superflight is time when every. single. species. of. boreal. finch is moving south for food at the same time. It is called an irruption. Birds rely on many of the same food sources as squirrels do but this year is a meager year for seeds, nuts, and fruit production. The opposite of a mast year called a “crop year”.
Birds, unlike squirrels, are much more mobile and are flying south for food in droves due to this crop year and also human crops not doing as well this year in the northern half of North America. But also it was an amazing breeding year because the spring of 2020 so many bird spaces were less disturbed due to the pandemic and also a boom of budworms. But when all these birds ate all those budworms there was even less food to go around in the north.
So the honorary finch, the Redbreasted Nuthatch, foretells the irruption of finches and they were on the go in the late summer and early fall. But then Purple Finches followed by huge flocks of Pine Siskins. Rolling into the fall were Evening Grosbeaks along with Common and Hoary Redpolls and Red and White Winged Crossbills. Lawrence’s Goldfinches are pouring into Arizona from Northern California and Oregon. Cassin’s Finches are showing up further east than ever. Blue Jays and Bohemian Waxwings are also on the go with the finches.
Right now is an incredible time to go outside and watch birds. You’ll see a massive amount of them in all their feathered peregrinations.
There was a time when the flights of birds would be known to a people in a particular place and they would have known that bird movement might well be related to crop health or maybe even health itself. The movement of birds could be a good omen.
For the ancient Romans there was a religious figure called an ‘augur’ who foretold events and interpreted signs for the public. The word augur comes from the Latin word for bird (avis) and the word for talking or singing (garrire – note this shows in a word like ‘garrulous’). And this is because the augur relied heavily on the flights and songs of birds for his foretellings.
Soon there will be an inauguration.
Inauguration has that word ‘augur’ in it. Ancestrally, an inauguration is the moment where installment of somebody or something would happen under good omens. Under the propitious flights of birds.
Now I’m no augur and can’t read any meanings into this superflight of finches at all. Nor would I make any case whatsoever that this irruption of finches foretells anything about the incoming president of the United States at all.
But I only make the point that the persistence of this old, old word is an invitation to remember that which you and I have probably never had the lived experience of and be awestruck about it: that the living world, birds in particular, were so tied into your capacity of feeding yourself and good fortune that you needed to name a job and a person to look after this for an entire community. Such was their relations.
Would that it might be so again. But certainly go out and see this fast, thick, pulse of finched longing. Rare indeed.
This relation to the living world, to the animal world, is fundamental to the mission of Primal Derma. That this understanding of the lives and deaths and movements of the living world inform our days here.
I’m grateful that you allow for your skincare provider to aid in this kind of wondering.
If this brings up any kind of questions or comments – please send them along. I’d be thrilled to respond as fully as I can.
Until soon enough,
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