When a group of white herons, the sort that lives in the Southwest takes off from a pond, perfectly timed and together, it takes our breath away. How do they communicate? We are in love with the beauty of birds and the freedom of wings. Birds live everywhere we do, and they know the secret places that we’ve never seen. They travel alone, in pairs, flocks, and in a confounding murmuration that dazzles the sky. Throughout time, and in many cultures, birds have been part of our art, stories, and music.
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There are numerous species of hummingbirds in the Southwest. We put out feeders because we’re enchanted by them. As a matter of fact, they’ve been enchanting people for centuries and are central to numerous stories and myths. (It’s often believed that they carry messengers to and from the gods.)
The hummingbird was the patron god of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec capital, bearing fire and water. In many Indigenous American societies it’s believed that they are healers, bringing good luck and happiness. Tribes with Hummingbird Clans include the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. Hummingbird is also an important clan crest in some Northwest Coast tribes, and a few are carved on totem poles.
A truly inspiring bird in the Southwest is the kestrel, a small, glorious hawk. Look up—they catch the thermals and ride them. She is a symbol of hunting. The poet, Ted Hughes, described this bird as a sort of supernatural hallucination. Somehow, they’re able to hover in one spot, while searching for prey, even though they’re in a stream of air. In literature, the kestrel is a symbol of absolute freedom and rising above the expectations of others.
We are intrigued by owls. In ancient Greece, an owl was the symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom. (Which is how we ended up creating the cartoon version of a professorial owl, wearing glasses.) In some cultures, including a number of Indigenous American tribes, seeing an owl is a foreshadowing of bad things to come. This belief also runs through many African and Asian cultures. Maybe it’s because owls are aloof—no one thinks they’re playful creatures. (If you live in the Southwest, you protect your small dog or cat from them.)
Then there is the case of buzzards . . . To most people, buzzards are anything but elegant. Still, they have their place, and they create balance. (Eagles are in the same family, but we have an entirely different take on them. That doesn’t seem exactly fair.) In one civilization, the Mayan, buzzards had favorable reviews and were considered to be godlike creatures. Today, when we look up and see them circling, we know an animal has fallen and will soon become a meal. Buzzards are the clean-up crew. One town in the Southwest celebrates the return of the buzzards every spring, the way Capistrano celebrates the return of swallows. (A celebration of buzzards could only happen in this quirky, red rock region.)
The desert cardinal only has red feathers on his chest, but it’s a lovely bird. Folk stories tell us that when we’re feeling blue, a cardinal will suddenly appear to give us advice. Other stories say that when we miss a departed loved one, a cardinal will show up—this means the person is visiting from the other side. All stories around cardinals are positive. They are easy birds to love. Their voice is cheerful and full of hope.
Are we harming wild birds when we put out seeds for them? Absolutely not. Birds and people have had a positive relationship since time began. They’ve lived near our grain storage bins, and our interaction with them has helped increase their range. We’ve been harsh on their environment, so feeding them helps tip the scales a bit.
Wild birds are unbound by laws that we understand. That they can simply take off in flight is a miracle. People dream of flying—birds do it. From the tiniest hummingbird to the most magnificent eagle, the southwest is home to all. When you trek the desert, look up now and then. Watch ravens pair up to move an eagle away from their nest. See hummingbirds above your picnic, attracted by a sweet, red treat. Wild birds are a grace and a blessing.