Birds of the New World

By Nelson, John | The Antioch Review, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Birds of the New World


Nelson, John, The Antioch Review


In the sixth century, according to a story written three centuries later, St. Brendan the Navigator led some Irish monks on a westward voyage to the Promised Land of the Saints. The monks got lost in fog, ran aground, put ashore on an island that turned into a gigantic whale, fought off beasts and incendiary demons, and neared the stinking edge of Hell. At several points they found refuge on an island called the Paradise of Birds. Here, a great flock of white birds rhythmically flapped their wings and sang hymns at vespers. One bird, speaking Latin, explained that the birds were Lucifer's fallen angels, placed on the island by a merciful God. The bird told Brendan it would take the monks seven years to reach the Promised Land of the Saints.

Back at sea, the monks were rescued by another bird, which killed a flying griffin that had attacked their boat. Beside a wide river in a beautiful land, a young man told them that God had prolonged their voyage so they would discover many wonders in their quest. He urged them to sail back to Ireland, for it was prophesied that Brendan would soon die, but he promised that the Promised Land would be found by Brendan's descendants, who would need a new home at some future time when Christians faced persecution. Brendan never got to his destination, but some modern scholars speculate that, almost five hundred years before the Vikings and nine hundred before Columbus, the monks might have reached the shores of North America. In 1977 a modern navigator built a replica of their boat and sailed across the Atlantic to Newfoundland to demonstrate that such a voyage was possible.

Christopher Columbus never landed on the Paradise of Birds, but on his way to India he was heartened by the small birds that appeared around his ships--signs that land was close. He'd come to fear failure and mutiny on his first trans-Atlantic voyage, and he set his final course by following flocks of birds migrating south in October. In the Caribbean he watched storm-petrels that seemed to walk on water as they fed on plankton in the bow waves, while magnificent frigate birds, or man-of-war birds, pirated fish from boobies. Among the Spanish explorers, says historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, Columbus stood out for his "rapturous descriptions" of nature in the New World. On San Salvador he was entranced by the whir of hovering hummingbirds, which he first mistook for insects. Birdsong in the Bahamas, he wrote in his journal, was "like April in Andalusia; the only thing wanting was to hear the song of the nightingale." In Cuba he did hear his nightingale, or so he thought, since the European nightingale has never been reliably reported in the Western Hemisphere. He returned to Barcelona with caged rainbow-colored macaws along with Indians in native dress.

Most explorers and immigrants from Europe met the birds of North America as they moved from east to west, but the first human inhabitants had come from the far north, spreading south and east across the continent, and to the tip of South America, in a long, gradual, punctuated dispersion that resulted in what Tim Flannery has called "an astonishing variety of human societies." These first New Worlders came to know the birds of America as prey, vital clues to seasonal changes, and spiritual ancestors or kin. The distinctive birds of each region became powerful inspirations and cultural symbols for the tribes that settled there--ravens in the Pacific Northwest, snipe and herons in Iroquois lands, and the red-headed woodpecker in the Southeast, where the Cherokee distinguished 110 kinds of birds. Trade in bird feathers and other goods sometimes brought distant tribes together; the Iroquois in Canada bartered buckskins with more southerly tribes for the bills of now extinct ivory-billed woodpeckers, to be used as coronets for warriors. Each tribe had its own names, often onomatopoetic, for its local birds, and these names were passed on to European pioneers, like John White, artist and governor of the "lost colony" on Roanoke Island, who recorded Algonquin names for birds, and Captain John Smith, who listed eighty-six native names for birds in the Northeast. …

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