‘Where are all the dead birds?’
Birds are an enduring symbol of death across many cultures. So why, asks Toby Fehily, are they rarely seen dead themselves?
At Jewish school, I was told there was no such thing as heaven. Instead there was the Olam Ha-Ba, the ‘world to come’, when the messiah would arrive and resurrect the dead. I was taught that if I got cremated, the messiah would have to take time out from his messianic duties to glue me back together.
It was meant to be dissuading, but I found the whole idea touching. For years, I couldn’t shake from my head the image of a bearded, robed man whistling to himself while sitting cross-legged on the ground, spending years, maybe centuries, piecing together billions of ash particles just to make a single thing whole again.
My religious education didn’t stick, however, and as much as I like the idea, I don’t believe in an afterlife. At the same time, I don’t take solace from science and a materialist view of existence, so I try my best not to think about death, or at least to pretend as much as I can that it won’t affect me. Faith and truth have nothing to do with it; it’s just a workaround that seems to be doing the trick for now.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about birds. A month ago I moved to a house on the coast, and the birds are everywhere: pelicans, plovers, starlings, sparrows, turnstones, terns and, whenever there’s food, sudden abundances of silver gulls. The house itself was already occupied when I arrived, a family of galahs had made a home in a hole in the wall.
The more birds I saw, the more I wanted to know. I learned about their plumage, their calls, their migratory patterns. I also learned of a near universal association between birds and death across almost all the religions, mythologies, folklores and traditions of the world.
Often birds are seen as portents. Blackbirds, bitterns, nighthawks, roosters, vultures and swallows are all, in some way, omens of death. In some cases, the portent isn’t the bird itself, but what it does: a crow flying over a house in Wales or a whip-poor-will landing on a house in Virginia or a turkey standing under a great oak in South Carolina.
In the year 14 CE, the Roman emperor Augustus died not long after an encounter with an owl – ‘an omen dreadful to mortals,’ according to Ovid. The emperor’s body was thrown into a funeral pyre, whereupon another bird, an eagle, was released to conduct his soul to the gods.
Augustus wasn’t the only Roman emperor whose soul was carried aloft by an eagle, and the Romans weren’t the only people to burden birds with the role of escorting spirits to the afterlife. For pre-Christian Syrians, the task fell to eagles; for the Noongar people of south-west Australia, it’s up to ravens. In Hawaiian mythology, the job is shared by three birds named Halulu, Kiwa’a and Iwa.
Yet despite the many different ties that bind birds and death, we rarely see dead birds, at least not as many as we would expect. So where are all the dead birds? When they grow old or ill and can no longer lift their wings, who carries them, and to where?
I could tell you where the bodies are. I could tell you why they’re hard to find. I could tell you and you’d say ‘how interesting’ and you’d file the fact away at the back of your brain. But a fact like that fails to answer a harder question: why is one of our most ubiquitous, universal and enduring symbols of death so rarely seen dead?
I was out the front of my house watching a pair of willie wagtails chase each other around a tree when I learned about the Paris attacks. I could still hear their chitters as I went inside and spent most of the day watching live news coverage. Journalist Justin Pierce was at the Bataclan when gunmen stormed in. ‘They came in with what looked like Kalashnikovs and fired blindly on the crowd,’ he told the BBC. ‘They were shooting at us like if we were birds.’
Like many others, I now think about death when I see birds, and I see birds all the time. But dead birds make me think about something else entirely. It’s not the possibility that with enough lift – with just a few more flaps of their wings – some birds can reach a place where they stay aloft forever, but the miracle of them taking flight in the first place.