Augury: The Bird Signs

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bird behaviorAmong my favorite topics of contemplation is how birds and bird images permeate the human psyche. I have mentioned in a past newsletter that I always look for and pay attention to the bird images and references at church. Bird watching during church is a great pastime for me. I have never been to a church service where there is not a bird reference. Pay attention to all the bird images, references, and metaphors for just one day and I think you will be astounded. So many products use birds to invoke qualities manufacturers want associated with their products, or sports teams, flags, national symbols, and references to eggs, feathers, bird song, and flying. Not a day goes by when we are not subjected to bird references or the birds themselves. Some may not pay attention to the signs, but they are always there. I have been reading a book titled The Secret language of Birds: A Treasury of Myths, Folklore & Inspirational True Stories by Adele Nozedar which is a fascinating collection of bird lore. I just finished the chapters on Augury. 'What is augury', I hear you chirp.

Augury is the practice of divining messages from the gods (or God) by means of observing the natural world, especially birds. Many cultures have viewed birds as intermediaries between the earthly and heavenly realms and have developed some form of augury. Augury usually is different than fortune telling because it is used in the moment to divine if a present course of action is prudent.

nightingale song birdAncient Romans had a very extensive form of augury and it took on great importance. Whenever a Roman official needed confirmation about a policy, an augury was scheduled. An augur usually performed their augury on a hill top. An area was mapped out on the hill and great attention was taken to the compass direction. During the augury many things were noted such as whether the birds made sounds, which direction were they flying, what kind of birds were they, and if they made any changes of direction. The augur would also pay close attention to weather elements and cloud formations. Caged chickens were also part of the augury and would be observed with particular attention to their eating. The augur would ask yes or no questions and then make note of all the natural phenomenon. After many long hours or days of observation, the official would receive the advice of the augur. Whenever it was time to install new government leaders an augury was always held to make sure the installment had the proper timing. This is the meaning of the word inauguration.

The ancient Greeks also had a form of augury which was far less rigid than the Roman form. Their concept of augury interpreted the observations of the birds and the natural world like the Romans, but it lacked the rules set forth by the Romans. In Roman Augury, certain actions like birds flying in a certain quadrant of the sky could only mean one thing. The Greeks had a more free-form style. A Greek Augur was considered an expert in bird omens.

faa birds around jet optThe author purports a personal form of augury. By keeping track of your bird observations and observations of your personal life, she claims that connections can be made. Just this morning on the bird walk, Julie was telling me about her son's augury. He was anxiously awaiting news about his acceptance into the pilot training at the Air Force Academy. Only two days remained until the cut off date. He looked outside of his window and there was a peregrine falcon (Air Force Mascot) perched nearby. He later received word of his acceptance. This is what the author would call personal augury. She claims the birds she sees correlate with visitors she receives.

Several years ago, former Wild Bird Center Staffer Scott Severs and I attended the funeral of a close friend and birder in Fort Collins. Both Scott and I had worked on Suzanne's thesis work studying sharp-shinned hawks on the western slope of Colorado. In fact, I first met Scott during field work for the sharp-shinned hawk study. When I was in the Peace Corps, Suzanne and I would spend our school breaks bird watching in Kenya. Scott and I arrived at the church in Fort Collins for the afternoon service. We parked on the street and were arranging ourselves next to the car when Scott exclaimed 'sharpie'. A sharp-shinned hawk flew just over our heads and continued down the street and out of sight. It filled me with a sense of wonder. All through the service I thought about the bird and Suzanne. Was that bird a message? That flyby gave me a calm feeling and lessened my loss.

visotsky gamletYou may be wondering what my view of augury is after this dramatic experience at the funeral. Do the actions and reactions of the natural world influence mine? I have always made certain decisions in my life by a more organic process rather than a cold examination of the facts. What I mean is that for certain things you have to rely on your 'gut reaction'. Towards the end of the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Hamlet has this exchange with his friend Horatio about a pending fencing match.
Horatio: If your mind dislike any thing, obey it. I will forestall their
repair hither, and say you are not fit.
Hamlet: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come-the
readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't
to leave betimes, let be.
Hamlet puts aside his feelings for a more fatalistic approach. As you may know, this fencing bout didn't turn out too well for Hamlet, but it may not have changed the outcome ultimately. Should we always go with our 'gut reaction'? Is that reaction formed in connection to our surroundings and the natural world?
We are not apart from the natural world. We dwell in it and are connected to it in the most intricate and intimate ways. I believe that a spiritual presence does permeate the physical world and as such, both humans and birds are spiritual beings. But do the birds exist just to send me messages? That idea seems to be the height of arrogance. Do I believe in augury? Not really, at least not to the extent of the Romans. Do I believe that the natural world, including the birds, could help one who listens to guide their life and live in a more fulfilling way? To that concept, I remain cautiously optimistic.
As Hamlet says, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'

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