The ancient world teemed with birds; now we think with them | Aeon Essays

Birds have always been important ‘markers’, associated with particular seasons, times and places. In the ancient world, weather and seasonal changes were matters of vital consequence for agriculture, travel, trade and the rounds of domestic life, and birds served as a standard point of reference in calibrating and interpreting the cycles of the year. In Works and Days (c700 BCE), one of the earliest works in European literature, Hesiod refers to the migrations of the crane, cuckoo and swallow as timely reminders to farmers for different seasonal tasks on the land. For example, on the departing cranes in autumn:

Take note when you hear the clarion calls of the crane,
Who yearly cries out from the clouds above.
He gives the signal for ploughing
And marks the season of rainy winter.
Similarly, the cuckoo is the wakeup call for farmers to look lively in the spring:

When the cuckoo is first heard from the spreading oak-leaves
And gladdens men’s hearts across the wide world …
then the late ploughman can catch up the early one.
Keep all this in mind and don’t fail to observe
The greening of grey spring and the season of rain.
Now as then, Hesiod notes, the swallow was the most common seasonal marker:

Next comes the swallow …
Returning to humankind in the light of spring.
And it’s best to prune your vines before she comes.
The comic playwright Aristophanes has more homely advice in his fantasy play, The Birds:

Here comes the swallow – time to sell those winter woollens
And buy yourself something more summery.
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