Winter Birds of the Apocalypse, Number 2 – The Bohemian Waxwing


The Bohemian Waxwing

Named for their exotic appearance, but not so known in Bohemia, where loucheness is blamed on the gypsies instead, this poshed-up monicker replaced their previous colloquial name of the Devil Bird.

Medieval folk witnessing dramatic occasional appearances of flocks of two types of unusual birds into their manor felt it natural to regard their appearances as omens. Since one type had beaks which made the sign of the cross and the other a gaudy, debauched appearance it was obvious which was going to get the bad press..

Waxwings arrive in flocks as the light fades in late autumn. They clump in the upper branches of bare small trees, where in winter sun, their plumage can seem almost fluorescent. Eye stripes , gloss-painted wing bars and an exaggerated quiff complete the satanic(or new romantic, depending on your era) appeal.

Waxwings have taken to frequenting supermarket car parks during the Winter Shopping Festival. Crowding into weedy ornamental sallows they offer an ongoing commentary on events, like clockwork Jeff Koons installations, or brightly painted cousins of the singing crows in Dumbo.

Either way the devil -birds seem to observing something..

And waiting.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No4 – The Pintail

The pintail is a long tailed duck, but not THE long-tailed duck.

No, it is one of the many medievally-named ducks discriminated originally as menu items for potlatch feasting Tudors. While their enemies and vassals starved at their doors,  large-bellied despots bought loyalty with annual meals of prodigious meatiness,  largely sourced from the watery places that fringed their feudal domains. While the swan, the goose, the pike, the roach, the gadwall, the shoveller, the widgeon, the pigeon, the dace and the plaice may have had the fecundity to survive the appetite of the British ruling classes, the pintail did not and discretely declined.

It now appears seldom, singly, or in pairs, on the fringes of garrulous displays of wildfowl.

At the show-grounds of the Wildfowl Trust ancestors of the Tudors feed the ducks their own prodigious potlatches. The birds display themselves shamelessly by floodlight- human appetites for spectacle, and,perhaps, penance , are simultaneously met.

At the edges of the feast are ghostly pintail, the narrow white stripe on their facial plumage – indicating perhaps a trace of archetypal trauma- their streamlined svelte shapes pointing contrast at the gross, tubby ducks belching around them,  as they seek, among the detritus of food pellets and breadcrumbs, the last few freshwater shrimps choking amongst the algal blooms.

Winter Birds of the Apocalypse No.1 – The Ptarmigan

Ptarmigan are the only bird commonly known by their Gaelic name. And with a classical Greek spelling for it, more common vernacular transcriptions having failed the early ornithologists’ need for affectation.

‘Tarmachan’  is Gaelic for croaker, and these birds truly lack affectation.

In the strange cosmologies into which we young ecologists were inducted there were niches ( ‘nitch’ as my professor insisted , presumably to distinguish the term from the classically affected statue space it had metaphorically escaped from). These were ecological spaces – Into each niche evolution would squeeze  out something unique to fit .

The ptarmigans niche, then, would be the last bird to survive before the Big Chill on Snowball Earth.

At the moment thousands of these birds cling to the upper slopes of the Cairngorm plateau, cowering under rocks on top of mountains, using their lee for protection. When the wind drops they fly uphill to the exposed ridges to harvest the few dry shoots that have been scoured out by the wind-blast.

At other times, and in other places,  they dig down under the snow and stay until daylight returns. This may be for some weeks in Svalbard, where they tough out the winter in a state of torpor.

Their biggest predator is frost, which can seal them into their snowholes if it freezes a cap on the top.

They have splayed feather-covered toes, which act as insulated snowshoes, as, neck withdrawn for extra insulation , they sidle across the frozen lands like refugees from South Park.

They will outlast us without needing to ask why.