I had a bit of a sore throat yesterday. I was worried it was the strep infection my housemates have been trading around for the past week or so, so I went to the Student Health Center for a culture and decided to cheer myself up by walking through Pioneer Cemetery on the way there.
The cemetery is gorgeous, especially in early spring when all the bulbs are rotating, the lilacs burst into bloom and the roses start to bud. My favorite part, though, is the avenue of tall Douglas firs on the north end of the cemetery. It is a truly sacred space, and on my morning walk, I observed something sacred happen. The air was thick with floral scents, and moist though the sun had started to shine brightly through the firs. An attractive young man was doing his tai chi exercises smack dab in the middle of the path, flanked on either side by these long rows of enormous trees. As I drew near to him, I could see that there were dozens of tiny yellow birds flitting all around him, almost as if he were in a Disney movie. It was a magical moment, full of connection to his surroundings. Unfortunately, I was starting to run late for my 10:30 appointment, so I bustled off.
Later, I took the same path home and–to my surprise–the yellow birds were still there. I tried to get a better look at them as I walked down the path, but they would dart to a further branch as I drew nearer–not at all as comfortable as they were around the tai chi man. So as I continued my walk, I did what I could to calm my energy and ground. By the time I’d reached the other end of the graveyard, one particular bird drew quite near and stayed near, so I was really able to observe him. And, oh! Was he ever gorgeous. The rich yellow and black of the goldfinches from back home, but with a bright orange face! I was wonderstruck and gaped at the bird until I noticed a passerby snicker at me. Chagrined, I drew myself together and went back home.
I later identified this beautiful bird as a Western Tanager, and learned that even though I’d never seen one before, let alone dozens, there was probably a rational reason for so many of them lingering in the cemetery: Western Tanagers begin to breed in May and June, and they prefer to nest in relatively open coniferous forests or mixed woodlands full of mature trees. While the cemetery may not be a forest in itself, Eugene could qualify as mixed woodlands, we’ve got plenty of forest surrounding us, and the Pioneer pines are definitely mature. If I were able to see the tops of the trees, I’m sure I’d find a host of flimsy little nests from this “season” of tanagers.
Still, rational reason or not, this is not the first time in recent months that I’ve been thoroughly surprised by yellow birds, and I’m starting to wonder if they mean something.
I’m finding that random internet sites report that yellow birds can be harbingers of a period of good luck, or notice that a rich man will visit–the more yellow on the bird, the more rich the man. I’m also finding that the Amish use yellow birds on their hex signs as symbols of good fortune and to ward off evil. Canaries in general have been yellow since we stared domesticating them, and they’re usually considered happy symbols. A modern band uses them as a symbol of someone’s one true love or soulmate.
This is all fine and good; folklore should not be ignored, after all. Yet, I think that ornithomancy could benefit from a careful consideration of ornithology. For example, I noticed on this rather commercial website that the author looked at what was known about the bird’s flight patterns, color, diet, feathering, and habitat to determine her own symbolic correspondences. That seems rather productive, to me.
This particular bird likes to group in a ‘season’ when nesting, which speaks to a communal focus and an ability to balance: after all, an influx of a species into an area means certain resources will be used more quickly and might be used up before the species is done with the space. They seem to prefer more “open” spaces such as clearings instead of thick forest, which perhaps means they can relate to a time when everything is easily visible and apparent. They nest in “protecting” conifer limbs, and nestle their little cup nests snugly into little junctures in the ends of branches, which seems so domestic and safe. Their color–at least the orange faces–is largely determined by their diet: the orange comes from bugs they eat. So there’s a little resonance of the “you are what you eat” message there. The yellow is so bright and cheery, one can’t help but smile, so there’s a joy connection. It’s also an air color, and the bird is strongly an air creature, so it could be an excellent “air energy” symbol. From what I observed of it’s flight, it was happy to make short little jaunts, but they were pretty good about flying in a very straight, even path–and catching a bug with each new flight. So there’s some connection with clear purpose with this bird.
So what do I make of my experience with the Western Tanager? Well, maybe I’m about to enter a phase in my life where purpose becomes clearer–where I can look at my surroundings and challenges and see them in clear proportion and in their true place in my life. Maybe it’s a time where I’ll feel more safe and secure in my home and with my friends and family, and be able to evenly gauge my impact upon my environments. Maybe I’ll be able to consume what I need to make the best me I can be. Maybe I’ll be happier for all of this. I don’t really know.