Taking the auspices

I notice birds.

White-headed Munia
Hildegard & Alexander were White-Headed Nuns

I began to notice birds back around 1992, when my then-husband and I brought a pair of tiny exotic finches into our home. We named them Hildegard and Alexander. Two years later, we added zebra finches whom we called Papageno and Rosamund to our flock. I used to refer to them as the home entertainment center because watching their interactions was better than TV.

I began to notice outside birds, and of course, I still do. That pair of finches inaugurated a life-long love affair with our avian friends. Wherever I go, I’m attuned to the presence of birds. Even seeing some house sparrows brightens my day. I was thrilled the other day when I spotted a pair of goldfinches feeding on what I think were echinacea flowers outside a 7-11.

The Romans also noticed birds. The word “auspices” comes from Latin and is a contraction of “avis” and “specere”, literally, to look at birds. They divined by laying out a sacred space and watching the sky for the movement of particular birds. They also consulted sacred chickens (never insult the sacred chickens, it’s bad luck).

Taking the auspices relies mainly on watching for unusual patterns of bird activity. But I look at the normal bird activity in my East Coast U.S. city and think about the gods who are patrons of the birds I see.

rock_dove_rwd2Take pigeons, for example. Pigeons have a bad rep, but they are technically feral rock doves. Their ancestors were domesticated for thousands of years, for their meat and for their companionship. Doves belong to Venus and Aphrodite, so that includes the humble urban pigeon and the fancier mourning dove, one of my favorite birds with its soft subtle colors and hollow crooning call.

I think songbirds, too, belong to Venus, though that’s my own headcanon (or UPG, if you prefer). That includes the invasive house sparrows and starlings and the native sparrows and goldfinches who populate the city, and the juncos who winter here. I’d assign her the cardinal, too, who pair-bonds as devotedly as the dove.

fredenbaum-100719-15652-kanadagans
Large and loud

We also have a lot of Canada geese who used to winter here and then just never went home. (I’ve started calling them Chesapeake geese.) Geese belong to Juno and were kept at her temple in Rome, where they warned the citizens of a Gaulish invasion. Juno was given the title “Moneta”, the warner or admonisher, in gratitude; because coins were struck at the temple, currency acquired the name “money”.

Crows and ravens belong to Apollo. I don’t see ravens in my urban neighborhood, but there are lots of crows. I have a probably bad habit of cawing back at them when I hear their slightly nasal “awk, awk” coming from overhead.

The eagle belongs to Jupiter. I have actually seen bald eagles near my workplace, because it lies close to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. I once watched in astonishment as a mockingbird attacked a bald eagle, swooping and even ramming the much larger bird, which simply sat there atop the power lines with a long-suffering air. I would tend to associate other raptors with Jupiter, too. We have a peregrine falcon nest atop one of our skyscrapers that has been in use for decades, and I’ve seen smaller hawks, too.

longwood_2012_10_20_1074_28867391559029You might be surprised to know that a bird I see frequently and all over the city is the Northern mockingbird. This is entirely my headcanon, but I can’t help thinking a bird whose scientific name is Mimus polyglottis, and who can imitate everything from another species of bird to those obnoxious car alarms that go through half a dozen noises, has to belong to Mercury. They are clever and also fearless, whether of humans or of other birds; threaten a mocker’s territory at your own risk.

As trees belong to Silvanus, flowers to Flora, the seasons to Vertumnus, so the birds belong to different gods and embody their presence. And I wonder what gods or spirits or numina (to borrow a very useful Roman word) watch over the companion birds in our lives? The highly popular cockatiel, budgerigar, and zebra finch all hail originally from Australia; other popular birds come from Africa and South America. I am grateful to those unknown numina for the birds who have shared my home.

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My boy

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