The animals of which we are most fond are often those that are the most physically lovely. This is not always the case, however: one of the most cherished birds in the forests and woodlands of Australia is the Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica), a bird of un-noteworthy size whose colouration consists in its entirety of pale grey, light brown, black for the beak and feet, and in front of the eyes a dash of white so minimal that it’s as if even this was abandoned hastily for fear of unseemly ostentation. Likewise I can’t imagine that many people would consider the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) to be a particularly aesthetically pleasing animal – but is there anybody in the world who doesn’t long to see one?
What makes these animals – and many others – attractive to us is not their physical appearance, but something else entirely: in the case of the Grey Shrike-thrush, it’s the fact that it has one of loveliest songs of all Australian birds; for the Blue Whale, it’s the animal’s spectacular size that so awes and exhilarates us. Of course, beauty is as ever in the eye of the beholder, and can be a curiously malleable thing: an animal, or an object, or even a person, can be ignored or disdained at first glance and then slowly – or even abruptly – become beautiful to us once it’s found its way into our affections. I think the Grey Shrike-thrush is one of the prettiest birds in Australia – but if it screeched like a parrot, or yelped like an eagle, I don’t think I would give it a second glance.
On the other hand, a bird’s song, or a whale’s size, are still physical manifestations of that animal: in appreciating them we’re still placing high regard on some aesthetic aspect of the animal. What, though, of animals that we appreciate for entirely different reasons? What of animals who are attractive to us purely by association?
One of my favourite birds is the Siberian Jay. It’s a rather nondescript bird – in fact it shares more than a few physical similarities with the Grey Shrike-thrush, with its plumage consisting largely of shades of grey and brown. At around thirty centimetres from beak to tail it’s a little larger than the Grey Shrike-thrush, and it’s stockier in appearance, and over the base of its wings it boasts feathers which are rather an attractive shade of russet-orange, and its head is black. Really, though, it’s just as unprepossessing as the Grey Shrike-thrush; more so, perhaps: it can’t even lay claim to a beautiful song.
Yet I cherish the memory of this bird nonetheless. I’ve seen it twice, or more accurately numerous times but in two specific periods of my life: in 2003, and in 2008. Both times I was in the Finnish Arctic, in a national park called Lemmenjoki National Park. The Siberian Jay may have been the first bird I saw in the Arctic: it’s attentive to its surroundings, and ceaselessly curious, and if it sees a human it will approach, hopping through the branches or along the ground to observe from a close but safe distance. If frightened, or distracted by something new to investigate, it will retreat, flapping through the trees on the short, rounded wings whose design – ideal for flying in confined spaces – it shares with every other bird that lives in a forest habitat.
It seems a friendly bird, but to what extent is that a condition of the bird itself? During both of the brief periods of my life in which I’ve seen it, I’ve been on holiday in an area – the Arctic – which is almost unimaginably exotic for somebody raised in Australia. I was happy to be there. Surely, then, I was predisposed to regard any animal through that emotional filter – particularly a bird, a group of animals of which (as you will surely have realised by now if you’ve been reading this blog) I am particularly fond.
When we love a thing, whatever that thing may be, it’s difficult to imagine anybody having any other reaction to it. The second time I was in the Arctic I was astonished to learn in a museum that the indigenous Sami people of the region have traditionally regarded the Siberian Jay as an omen of death. By then I was already truly besotted by the bird, and it saddened me on a strangely personal level that it should ever have been so regarded. Yet I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I’ve only been to the Arctic twice, both times as a holiday, and both times during the relatively mild early-autumn month of September. I had the comforts of the modern world: huts, heating, and the knowledge that even two-hundred metres above the Arctic Circle help was only a phone call away. My experience of the Arctic, although utterly, wonderfully alien to anything I’d previously experienced, was not in the slightest bit difficult or challenging.
As such it was not in any way comparable to the lives of those people who for thousands of years created a culture and folklore that enabled them to survive and explain that environment. From the swarming insects in summer to the brutally cold and dark days of winter, a life of subsistence in the far north of Europe must have been almost impossibly hard. I can’t explain why the Siberian Jay should have earned its particular reputation in the Sami culture, but I can imagine how a people living in one of the most challenging environments on earth would be inclined to have an infinitely grimmer perspective on that environment than myself, a mere visitor. For me, the Arctic – with its extraordinary stillness, and air so crisp that even the slightest sound resonated through the forest – is a place of pure beauty. For Sami in pre-modern times it was undoubtedly beautiful, too, but also dangerous, and tiring, and constraining.
We live in different times now, though. The Sami still herd reindeer, as they always have, but now with the aid of helicopters and quad-bikes; and more modern folklore takes a kinder attitude to the Siberian Jay: nowadays, apparently, superstition bestows misfortune upon anybody who should harm a Siberian Jay. A Swedish researcher quoted in a New York Times article from 2002 relayed the belief that a gun used to shoot a Siberian Jay is thereafter rendered useless.
Personal attitudes can change, too. There are people to whom I was once indifferent and who I now regard fondly; similarly there are casual acquaintances – fewer, I hope – whose company I once enjoyed but who have subsequently slipped in my affections. When I was a child the one bird I adored above all others was the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), a bird I now regard with disdain at best. It’s unlikely that any such changes in attitude are attributable to the recipients – human, bird, whatever – of our attention; more likely these inhabitants of the world have continued much as they always have, and the change is instead within us. A Siberian Jay is not inherently a friendly bird – it’s my own cheerful demeanour upon encountering it that renders it so. An animal is neither beautiful nor unattractive, lucky nor unlucky – it simply is.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org