Avian mythology through the ages

CHILDREN flanking Pope Francis released two doves from the window of the Apostolic Palace in front of an audience of 10,000. Doves symbolise peace; His Holiness pleaded for the violence in Syria to end. The gesture was not peaceful.

A large crow and a gull swooped down and attacked the ‘papal’ pigeons. Feathers flew, as a dove tried to free its wing from a lethal bill. Photos of the attack ‘went viral’. The birds lost a feather or two, in their encounter with the forces of darkness, but sustained no serious injury.

Were Satan and Beelzebub listening in on the papal message, disguised as a crow and a gull?

The dove and a crow, the raven, figure prominently in religious iconography. Following the Genesis flood, Noah ‘sent forth a raven, which went to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth’. Then, he released a dove, which ‘came in to him in the evening and lo, in her mouth, was an olive leaf ’.

Ravens would become birds of ill omen, hanging around battlefields and execution sites in medieval times, scavenging the dead.

Another crow is Ireland’s most hated bird; tradition has it that the magpie refused to enter the ark and sat out the flood on its roof. Noah removed half of its black plumage as punishment. A mourner at funerals, it insults the deceased by appearing half-dressed. That Oliver Cromwell brought it to Ireland is a myth. Cromwell came in 1649; magpies were first recorded, in Wexford, in 1676.

The dove became the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the highest honour bestowed on a non-human creature. No bird features more prominently in western art. No wonder the jealous Vatican crow had it in for doves. In former times, avian misbehaviour wasn’t tolerated. The wren’s alarm call betrayed St. Stephen, by drawing the attention of soldiers to the bush in which the saint was hiding. So in Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe, the little bird was hunted down, and killed, on the martyr’s feast day.

In 1474, a cockerel, which had laid eggs, was tied to a stake, watched by a huge crowd in Basel. Before the fire was lit, the bird’s belly was slit open, revealing three more eggs. Although hens sometimes have external male features, this seemed a case of demoniacal possession. According to the medieval bestiaries, an egg laid by a cock hatches into a reptile known as a basilisk, the king of serpents, which can kill with a single glance.

Gulls don’t feature in demonology; they are not black and, until the 20th century, lived inconspicuously along the coast. But what has science to say about the Vatican attack?

The species involved were the hooded crow, known in Munster as the ‘scald’ crow, and the herring gull, a follower of trawlers and frequenter of fishing ports.

‘Hoodies’ are highly adaptable scavengers able to turn their ‘hands,’ or bills, to anything.

Indeed, they are among the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom, with mental abilities comparable to those of chimpanzees, our nearest relatives.

Herring gulls, too, have learned to exploit the man-made environment. They invaded town dumps to scavenge on waste, a highly successful venture, until an epidemic of botulism decimated them two decades ago. Camping on the Blaskets, I watched a herring gull catch rabbits near the tent each morning. It would quarter the ground, pouncing on victims emerging from burrows.

The same bird appeared every day; it had become a specialist killer. Our Vatican gull has learned to exploit another resource; scraps discarded by the hordes of tourists visiting the square.

A gleaming white dove, emerging from the hand of a child, may look like an offering of food to a bird. Street pigeons frequent most European cities, including Rome, but crows and gulls seldom attack them. Did the gleaming white plumage of these artificially bred ones trigger deep, primordial instincts in their attackers?


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