Murder Most Fowl

ducklings

Spring is upon us, the surest sign of which is the sudden appearance of Mallard ducklings at our neighborhood pond. This summer, there are two groups of ducklings–an older set of eight, and a younger set of nine. My dog and I love stopping mid-walk to watch them paddle calmly across the water’s surface in search of food (although my dog just cannot understand why they do not want to play with her). Their parents patiently herd them, guiding them away from other ducks and birds (and nosy dogs).

dog with ducklings

Last night, however, was different. My daughter had joined us for our evening walk, and was gleefully throwing seed into the water for the ducklings to eat. Suddenly, though, across the small holding pond (adjacent to the larger pond and where the duck families prefer to graze), there arose a commotion. The mother of the younger group of ducklings was under attack.

My dog wasn’t loose. Nor were there any other dogs in the vicinity. No water snakes or snapping turtles had crept up unawares upon the hen.

No, she was being attacked by her own kind–other Mallards. Four drakes, to be specific.

It was quite horrific. She tried escaping through the tall grass surrounding the holding pond, desperate to not allow too much distance between her and the ducklings while not placing them in harm’s way. The drakes followed her. She tried settling in the middle of the pond, but the drakes surrounded her. At one point, she disappeared for what seemed like an eternity as the drakes pushed her completely under the water.

Finally, she abandoned her ducklings, flying away as quickly as she could, with one drake still in pursuit.

Kiddo was in tears. I was in shock. (The dog just wanted to chase something, anything.)

My first thought was that the drakes were part of a family unit, and that they were protecting the territory for the other set of ducklings. However, I come to this park frequently, and I’ve often seen the younger set of ducklings in the smaller pond while the older set explores the much larger pond.

Nor were the mother and father of the older ducklings participating in the attack in any way.

And once the exhausted and drake-pecked mother flew away, the three remaining drakes just chilled at the pond. They did not go after the ducklings (who were huddled along the rushes at the pond’s edge).

When I got home, I did a little research.

 

No, they weren’t fighting over territory.

They were fighting for mating rights. But rather than fight one another, they were attacking the female, endangering her life–and indirectly, the lives of her ducklings.

Some websites had an interesting way of downplaying the violence of what I had witnessed. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) noted that “groups of males with no obvious duties often mate forcibly with females that appear to be unattached. This anti-social phase is short-lived and ends once moulting is underway” (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/mallard/breeding/).

Ahem. “mate forcibly” is not quite the same as “nearly drown the female in an attempt to mate”.

Many websites omitted any references to the mating ritual, noting only that the males move away from the females once they have successfully mated.

Just a brief warning, though–I learned a LOT about duck sex, so if that makes you a bit squeamish, you should probably stop reading at this point.

evolution of beautyMore enlightening was Susannah Cahalan’s New York Post article, “The Horrible Thing You Never Knew about Ducks”. Turns out an entire chapter in a recent book, The Evolution of Beauty, has been devoted to what my daughter and I witnessed last night.

Prum opens his chapter on duck sex (never thought I’d be reading up on this particular topic!) with an interesting literary allusion, writing that “The drama of duck sex brings to mind the ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus took sexual possession of the lovely young Leda after assuming the physical form of a swan . . . . Although often referred to as ‘the Rape of Leda,’ it has usually been depicted with a note of sexual ambiguity, there being an element of mutual desire mixed in with the suddenness of the act” (Prum 150). Needless to say, I was up in arms after reading this. It’s a variation on the whole “I know what she really wants but she can’t say it” phenomenon with which we still struggle.

After briefly summarizing the ornithologists’ preferences of using “forced copulation” instead of “rape” when talking about non-human animals (Prum 157), though, Prum offers this observation:

Screen Shot 2018-05-25 at 11.14.13 AM(Prum 157)

His conclusion focuses not on the individual female, or even the female gender of the species, but more broadly the species as a whole, noting that “sexual violence is a selfish male evolutionary strategy that is at odds with the evolutionary interests of its female victims and possibly with the evolutionary interests of the entire species” (159). Well, we’re making some progress (I think?).

Prum notes that female Mallards can be seriously harmed–even killed–by the males as they attempt to copulate with her (158). Females have developed some defense mechanisms to resist. Patricia Brennan at Yale University has done quite a bit of work on duck sex as well, noting that

“The male duck’s penis is spiral-shaped: like a corkscrew, it twists in a counter-clockwise direction so that sperm will target the oviduct on the female’s left-hand side. In almost all birds only the left ovary is functional, but in a 2007 study, Brennan and colleagues noticed that in ducks the female’s vagina twists in the opposite direction. . . . while the males are evolving long and flexible penises to help them force copulations, the females are using their complex vaginal anatomy to take back control over which sperm fertilises their eggs. When a female wants to mate with her chosen partner, she can make the process easier by relaxing the muscles around the vagina entrance.” (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18316-ducks-fight-the-battle-of-the-sexes-in-their-genitals/)

I can’t help but imagine a type of Vagina dentata–the trope of the vagina lined with teeth, armed against the unsuspecting penis.

But another medieval text came to mind–that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. This fourteenth-century dream vision centers on the selection of mates at an annual gathering of birds–held on Valentine’s Day, naturally–over which Nature herself presides. The focus is on the dialogue of three tercels (eagles) as they each in turn address a formel egle (“female eagle”) with the goal of persuading her to choose them as her beloved. It’s a lovely poem, and it’s fun to see the courtly speeches of medieval knights placed into the beaks of birds, but at the same time, the poem offers some interesting perspectives on gender. I won’t rehash those here. Rather, my interest is on the ducks in this poem.

As the dreaming narrator arrives at the place where the Parliament is to take place, they make note of how the birds have been spatially arranged:

That is to sey, the foules of ravyne
Were hyest set; and than the foules smale,
That eten as hem nature wolde enclyne,
As worm or thing of whiche I telle no tale;
And water-foul sat loweste in the dale;
But foul that liveth by seed sat on the grene,
And that so fele, that wonder was to sene. (323-29)

The birds of prey are highest, as they are meat eaters; below them are those birds that eat lesser animals, such as worms. Birds that forage on seeds are next. Waterfowl are the lowest on the avian hierarchy (this arrangement reflects the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being).

The narrator then elaborates on the types of birds, offering brief description for each species. For example, the goshawk is “the tyraunt with his fethres donne / And greye” (334-35). Some birds have very positive associations assigned to them, while others are negative. Some are just neutral.

The male duck has an interesting entry: “The drake, stroyer of his owne kinde” (360).

I’ve never really noticed this line until today.

Now, this poem emphasizes choice. When the parliament is about to begin, Nature establishes the rules:

by order shul ye chese,
After your kinde, everich as yow lyketh,
And, as your hap is, shul ye winne or lese (400-402)

What I find interesting about these lines is that those making choices are in no way guaranteed that they will receive their choices. Some will win, but some will lose. Some will be accepted and thus mate successfully, while others will be rebuffed. This is Nature’s way. Yet the ending of the poem itself undermines this idea somewhat, because when the female eagle is ultimately called upon to make her choice among the three male eagles, she delays. The implication is that she wants to refuse all of them, but she feels that she cannot do so. Of course, the eagles all are anthropomorphized in their speech, and so it’s a reflection of socially constructed gender roles among humans. Nonetheless, it is dangerous for her to do so in this world.

Perhaps some of you will have seen this meme that has recently been circulating around social media:

headline

Why does Chaucer name the drake the destroyer of his own kind? I’ve looked through some of the bestiaries, and they offer no insight–they simply repeat Isidore’s suggestion that the etymology of their name is due to their habit of perpetually swimming.

But what if Chaucer, like my daughter and myself, was out for a walk–through the countryside or even through the streets of London–and came across a similar situation? With such a practiced eye for observing the nuances of human behavior, what would Chaucer have noticed?

Ducks are, I am learning, quite unusual birds. As many biologists have noted, most birds do not have penises–Prum reports that 97% of all bird species lack this particular organ (160). Instead, most birds–including some species of ducks–rub their swollen cloacas against that of their mate, and sperm is transferred from the male to the female, et cetera.

Female mallards fight back, argues Prum, because they are attempting to control who fathers their offspring–what traits will be passed along to the next generation and thus ensure or compromise that next generation’s survival and viability (158-59). A similar argument has been made for the figure of Dame Ragnell in the anonymous poem The Wedding of Dame Ragnell and Sir Gawain, in fact.

So why is the drake the destroyer of his own kind? Given what has been happening as a result of toxic masculinity in America and throughout the world on a nearly-daily basis, do we really have to even ask any more?

drakesThis morning, my dog and I headed back to the pond. The four drakes had the holding pond all to themselves.

Much to my relief, the mother had been reunited with her nine ducklings, and they were now swimming in the adjacent larger pond.

Two of the older ducklings, however, from the set of eight, were following this family, peeping nervously. Each time they came within a foot of the hen and her brood, she chased them away.

orphansWhen we later passed by the same spot, the family had moved on, but the two older ducklings were still huddled together. Neither their siblings nor their mother was in sight.

My hope is that they merely became separated and will find their mother once more.

But perhaps the drakes found a new target.

 

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Flooding of Memories

Years ago, one of my poetry professors told us to take an opening line from a published poem and to then write our own poem to go with it. I chose the first line of Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries” (first published, I believe, in his collection The Spirit Level: Poems):

It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.

Today, this line has come back to me several times throughout the day. I’d share with you the poem that I wrote, but I have no idea where it is. Whereas Heaney’s poem offered a glimpse into the everyday life of civilians in Northern Ireland, I recall that I was inspired by a summer hiking in North Carolina and Tennessee–the same summer in which I discovered efts hiding beneath rocks and branches. It seemed as if the rain would never stop, and I forgot, for a time, what dry socks felt like.

So you may have already guessed that it’s been raining a lot here in Colorado.

Walking along the sidewalks of my campus, I found I had to navigate carefully, for stretched across the pavement were hundreds of earthworms. Several trees on campus are in the process of dropping needles and twigs that are about the same length and width as the worms, and while I am indifferent to stepping on these, I wanted to avoid stepping on a worm. They may have minuscule brains, but they do have nervous systems and are capable of feeling pain. (Yes, I try to avoid stepping on other critters–ants, beetles, spiders, etc. I still feel terribly guilty about the massasauga rattlesnake that I ran over with my bicycle as a teenager. It blended in so well to the gravelly road that I did not see it until I was already halfway over it.)

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

–Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits (1881)

I’ve always thought that earthworms came to the surface during rainstorms seeking refuge from their flooded tunnels, so I was surprised to learn that they “are unable to drown like a human would, and they can even survive several days fully submerged in water” (“Why Do Earthworms Surface After Rain?”). Rather, scientists suggest that earthworms take advantage of the moist conditions to migrate–they can travel above soil faster and do not have to fear the heat of the sun. Another possibility (both are discussed in the article linked above) is that the vibrations of the rain resemble the vibrations made by predators, and that earthworms surface to avoid becoming a mole’s dinner.

_Der Naturen Bloeme_, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, Folio 136r, ca. 1350. Two worms rising out of the soil.

I’m intrigued by the idea of worm migration, particularly since water has often played a major role in human migrations. I often have my students look at Matthew Paris’s 1250 Map of Britain, and one of the things that they tend to notice right away is the proliferation of towns along the rivers (not to mention the worm-like appearances of the rivers).

The fear of drowning, though, does not appear as often as one might expect in medieval literature. Custance, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, is placed in “a ship al steerelees” (439); however, she is provided with ample provisions (a good thing since she floats in that boat for years). She briefly expresses her fear of drowning, equating the submersion of her body under the waves with the consumption of her body and soul by the devil, when she cries out to the Lord to protect her:

Me fro the feend and fro his clawes kepe,
That day that I shal drenchen in the depe. (454-55)

The waves are briefly “wilde” (468), suggesting that she experiences storms, but the text does not linger on the fear produced by the threatening waves.

Another medieval text, King Horn, features the dangers of the seas, for when the titular hero’s father is killed by Saracens, Horn is spared (due to his great beauty)–only to be placed, along with his twelve companions, in a boat. The Saracens tell him:

Tharvore thu most to stere,
Thu and thine ifere;
To schupe schulle ye funde,
And sinke to the grunde. (105-08)

The appearance of the protagonist in a rudderless boat is a common device in medieval romance (and we can trace it back further to the classical story of Danaë and Perseus), but my encounter with the worms braving the sidewalks in the rain has piqued my interest in these scenes and the expression of emotion. For example, in King Horn, the children are very frightened:

The se that schup so fasste drof
The children dradde therof. (123-24)

But as with Chaucer’s Custance, the narrator does not linger on the experience. Why might that be?

Manuscript images dealing with Noah’s flood depict the drowned in great detail. Take a look at this fourteenth-century depiction:

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Image 229 From the Holkham Bible Picture Book of c.1320-30, BL AddMss 47682, fol 8r (http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=229)

Look at how calm the dead are:

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.18.56 PM

The awkward position of the hands and the open mouth of the man at the bottom suggests that he is in some distress, but the woman floating above him seems to have a serene look on her face (although I wonder about the curled toes and the uncomfortable angle of her left hand . . . ). The gentle undulations of the waves only add to the calm atmosphere of the water, especially when contrasted against the busy and angular background behind the ship as well as the patterning on the ship itself.

Another depiction of the drowned appears in the Bible pictures by William de Brailes:

These dead are much greater in number (not to mention orderly–there are clear layers of humans, birds, and domestic livestock), but they still look peaceful, almost as if they are slumbering:

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.29.25 PMSome of the bodies at the top almost resemble merpeople due to the lines of the waves. Speaking of which, these waves are more dangerous, threatening to break out of the image’s frame and almost evoking arms seeking the living to draw beneath the waves. (Perhaps this is why no Ark appears in the image?)

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.32.12 PM

I’m sure I could find many more medieval images of those drowned in the Biblical story of the Flood (and for those interested in the topic, the incomparable Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written a blog post on another manuscript depiction of Noah’s flood at http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2013/05/intercatastrophe-overwhelmed-outside.html), but I won’t.

I wonder, though, if there’s something to the seeming gap between the living expressing their fear while at sea and those who have come to their watery grave. I recall hearing John Block Friedman speak a few years ago on werewolves and their transformation–he was interested in the lack of detail as to the actual transformation–manuscript images only depicted the before and the after–and I wonder if there’s something similar going on here. That is, I imagine drowning to be a terrible and frightening way to die (and so I’m glad to hear that worms cannot drown during rain storms). Perhaps, given the importance of maritime trade in England, drowning was a very real threat, but the agony of either drowning or watching another person drown was just too much for medieval authors and artists to imagine.

The allure of traveling by sea, despite its dangers, was too great for those living in the medieval period–the ability to rely on currents of wind and water rather than one’s own power, to see any enemies from afar rather than wondering if they lay in wait in the underbrush surrounding medieval roads. So too are earthworms driven above ground to migrate from one patch of soil to another. I don’t know if they are aware of the inherent dangers–from the tread of indifferent soles to animals in search of a quick meal. No doubt they can feel the vibrations as we approach them. Nonetheless, they–and we–are driven to chance these perilous paths.

Creepy Crawlies

This afternoon, my daughter eagerly summoned me to the tree in our front yard. Crawling across the dark bark was a vibrantly yellow caterpillar.

Our afternoon visitor

Our afternoon visitor

Neither of us had seen a caterpillar like this before, so I grabbed my laptop and googled “yellow fuzzy caterpillar.” Meanwhile, it crawled from the trunk of the tree out into the grass at least a foot away. I didn’t realize caterpillars could move so quickly!

American dagger moth (Acronicta americana)

American dagger moth (Acronicta americana)

Turns out this is the American dagger moth (Acronicta americana), a common species to Colorado.

The moth into which the caterpillar will transform

The moth into which the caterpillar will transform

I maneuvered it onto a fallen piece of bark so that we could look at it more carefully. My daughter was chiding me the entire time to be careful–that is, she wasn’t concerned that I might get hurt (some people have developed rashes after touching this species of caterpillar), but rather that I might hurt the caterpillar. She then determined, through her “instincts,” that the caterpillar wanted to go over into the flowerbed by the house, so she dutifully carried it over to a rock. Apparently she was right, for rather than hightail it back into the grass, the caterpillar then spent several minutes crawling up and down across the brick facade. Perhaps it was checking out the view?

Having lost interest in the caterpillar, my daughter then decided she wanted to be a cat, and she brought out a tennis ball so that we could play fetch. This went on for a while (including some variations where she was an invisible kitty, the grass was actually the road, etc.), but suddenly she balked at fetching. No, she didn’t suddenly realize that dogs, not cats, like to fetch. Rather, there was a bee on the sidewalk.

Now, I’m glad that my daughter knows to be cautious around bees. She’s not been stung, but I can recall several painful stings from bees, wasps, and hornets in my childhood. This particular bee, however, was on its back, struggling to gain a foothold on something, anything.

“You can go around it,” I told her, “and I’ll find a stick to help it.”

“Why?” she asked. “The bee won’t help you.”

No fear for my safety. No fear for the bee’s safety (who was happy introduced to a neighboring flower). Yes, I did launch into a miniature lecture on the merits of the bee. And yes, my daughter quickly lost interest in the bee and its merits. She didn’t care that without the bee, we would not have flowers or the foods that result from flowering plants.

I was struck, however, by her comment that my kindness to the bee would not be returned. Why should it matter? And why was she so concerned about the caterpillar but wanted a wide berth of the bee?

There’s certainly an aesthetic appeal for the former, which was bright yellow and more importantly, incredibly fuzzy; we were both tempted to stroke the little creature to ascertain its softness. Although the spikes on its back may have been potentially harmful and it was fairly fast for a creepy crawlie, the caterpillar’s actions were smooth and regular. No erratic movements, no sudden darts.

But bees are beautiful creatures as well.

They too can be bright yellow, with fuzzy thoraces. Of course, I don’t think I can explain away the ominous stinger, but at the same time, it is a defense mechanism of the bee, rather than a weapon of aggression. If we are mindful of our surroundings, we can easily avoid giving a bee cause to sting us.

In The Parliament of Fowls, a fourteenth-century poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, the dreamer poet encounters a lovely garden, drawing careful attention to the types of trees and most importantly, the flowers therein:

A gardyn saw I ful of blosmy bowes
Upon a ryver, in a grene mede,
There as swetnesse everemore inow is,
With floures white, blewe, yelwe, and rede,
And colde welle-stremes, nothyng dede,
That swymmen ful of smale fishes lighte,
With fynnes rede and skales sylver bryghte.
190 On every bow the bryddes herde I synge,
With voys of aungel in here armonye (183-91)

He makes note of the birds, the deer, and the rabbits, but there’s no mention of insects of any kind, least of all the bees which would make the diverse blossoms possible.

People were aware of insects during the Middle Ages, of course, but whereas large animals were accorded large amounts of textual space (for example, the Aberdeen Bestiary devotes three pages to the lion), smaller creatures merited less space. As a result, the Aberdeen Bestiary ignores the biodiversity of the insect species and lists only a handful of insects (the caterpillar, the bug, and the silkworm) alongside arachnids (spiders, scorpions, and ticks) and annelids (worms, etc.)–and does so in just two pages.

Folio 72r of the Aberdeen Bestiary, https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/72r.hti

Folio 72r of the Aberdeen Bestiary, https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/translat/72r.hti. Caterpillars are described near the bottom of the page.

This particular bestiary does not mention bees, but it does have a brief mention of the caterpillar:

The caterpillar is a leaf worm, often found enveloped in a cabbage or a vine; it gets its name from erodere, ‘to eat away’. Plautus recalls it in this way: ‘She imitates the wicked and worthless beast, wrapped in vine leaves’ (Cistellaria, 728-30). It folds itself up and does not fly about like the locust, which hurries from place to place, in all directions, leaving things half-eaten, but stays amid the fruit that is destined to be destroyed and, munching slowly, consumes everything.

Other bestiaries mention the bee, drawing on classical authors such as Pliny the Elder, who notes in Book 11 of his Natural History that

[bees] belong to neither the wild or domesticated class of animals. Of all insects, bees alone were created for the sake of man. They collect honey, make wax, build structures, work hard, and have a government and leaders.

I’m struck by the parallels drawn by Pliny between human societies and those of bees (Isidore of Seville in the seventh century will note that bees wage war much like humans), as well as the anthropocentric perspective that bees exist only for humanity’s usage.

Of course, bees do appear elsewhere in medieval literature. For example, there is an Anglo-Saxon metrical charm designed to prevent bees from swarming (the Anglo-Saxons, like many other cultures, kept bees). Here’s Karl Young’s translation:

This charm offers a different perspective than that of Pliny, one which raises bees to the same level as humans–they are both “mastered” by the earth–in part by acknowledging the bees as “wise” creatures who are capable of harm to humans but yet may be persuaded to do otherwise.

So where am I going with all this? Are my thoughts as unpredictable as the fluttering butterfly, struggling against the whims of the errant breeze to move from flower to flower, or are they more purposeful, intent on getting at the nectar of the flower while inadvertently spreading pollen? I think the end result, for me at least, is that I will continue to find ways to help my daughter see anew the natural world around her, that she may appreciate the bee as much as the caterpillar.

What’s Up, Cicadas?

We’ve all heard them. Every warm summer afternoon, they’re there. We may not see them, but we definitely hear them. Morning, afternoon, evening, night. But how many of you have ever really looked at a cicada? Not the husk that we often find clinging to a tree, but the insect–full of life–itself. They’re quite beautiful. Look at those wings–fragile panes of glass, yet strong enough for flight. The rich shades of color, varying from blue, green, brown, yellow, and orange.

Not that I spend much time looking at cicadas, mind you. I’ve seen many over the years, but I’ve heard so many more that I tend to automatically block them out (like the crickets chirping outside of my childhood bedroom). That intense, constant, pulsing noise.

But yesterday afternoon, as I left campus, the cicadas were in full song. This morning, the droning of an overhead airplane was suddenly replaced by their monotonous symphony.

Which reminds me of my daughter’s favorite joke, taught to her by my husband:

Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Knock, knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Kiddo: Philip Glass.

(It usually goes on for quite longer, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

But it got me thinking about noise–white or otherwise.

One of my favorite authors is James Joyce, particularly his Finnegan’s Wake. The best way to experience it, I’ve found, is to just randomly open the book to any page and read it (preferably aloud and in the company of literary friends). There’s so much noise–rich noise–on each page. Of course, this is part of the joke–Joyce apparently used to wake his wife, Nora, late at night with his laughter, for he was busy putting random and bizarre things into the text to keep scholars busy for eternity. But at the same time, reading the Wake is much like experiencing life.

Every second of our lives, we are bombarded with sensory detail. Every second. But we learn to filter out the data which is not meaningful to us. We look for patterns. We look for “meaning.” I’ll look at a page of the Wake and find a thread pertaining to the medieval Grail legend, or the romance of Tristan and Isolde. Another friend, looking at the same page, will see something different. I might even see different things on the same page at a later date because when I come back to the text, I am a different person. (Joyce’s metaphors of water and writing–incredible!)

So the cicadas tend to be an easy noise to block out. It’s repetitive, and since I’m not a cicada, it’s meaningless. I’m not their intended audience.

But today, I’m curious. Why do the cicadas make so much noise? Especially for such long periods of time?

What I learned is that, not surprisingly, the noise is produced by males looking to attract mates. One male can produce a sound as loud as 100 decibels (roughly equivalent to the noise produced by a lawn mower). What was surprising, though, is that there is another purpose to the high-pitched sound. The song is painful for birds–a major predator of cicadas–and so it also acts as a defense mechanism (Source: Luo, C., & Wei, C. (2015). “Stridulatory sound-production and its function in females of the cicada Subpsaltria yangi.” PLoS One, 10[2]). The cicadas tend to cluster together to make their song even louder. According to National Geographic, some can even be heard from a mile away!

Yet why is it such a constant sound? Why so little variation?

I can’t really think of many depictions of insect noise in literature. One that immediately comes to mind is a moment early in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

The air was full of the smell of flowers, and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering of birds, and there were no people, no wagons, there was no stir of life, nothing going on. (Chapter 1)

I love the onomatopoeia of “buzzing” and “twittering,” and the use of gerunds to convey the action, but still–even for a master wordsmith such as Twain, this description of insect sounds falls a bit flat. Later (Chapter 36), Twain compares the inhabitants of London to insects, but here, with the possible exception of the sheer sound of “swarm,” he focuses largely on the movements:

The populace was an ever flocking and drifting swarm of rags, and splendors, of nodding plumes and shining armor.

Bird song, on the other hand, is richly depicted in the arts. Growing up, I was enamored of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, particularly “Spring” with its evocation of birds. Check out the strings around 00:53 in the clip below.

Not surprisingly, birdsong is a common feature in medieval literature. In the Old English The Seafarer, for example, each bird makes a different sound, and they are pleasing to the narrator (not that they need to be–my point is that medieval people paid attention to and described bird song, but not that of insects–that I’m aware of). I’ve bolded the words that correspond to the sounds made by each type of bird:

                                    Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene,          ganotes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg          fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende          fore medodrince. (19b-22b)

[At times the swan’s song
I took to myself as pleasure,          the gannet’s noise
and the voice of the curlew          instead of the laughter of men,
the singing gull          instead of the drinking of mead.] (trans. Sean Miller)

The word “hleoþor” can also be translated as “melody,” but given the pure sound of this word and its aural similarity to “hleahtor” (“laughter”) in the next line, “noise” strikes me as more appropriate.

Of course, if you get too many birds in one place, chaos is the result, as depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place. (309-15)

One of my favorite depictions of bird song in Middle English literature, though, is the twelfth- or thirteenth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale.

Harley MS 4751 f47r

iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one niȝtingale.
Þat plait was stif & starc & strong,
sum wile softe & lud among;
an aiþer aȝen oþer sval,
& let þat [vue]le mod ut al.
& eiþer seide of oþeres custe
þat alre-worste þat hi wuste:
& hure & hure of oþere[s] songe
hi holde plaiding suþe stronge. (3-12)

The narrator comes across two birds–the aforementioned owl (“hule”) and nightingale, and imagines a prolonged quarrel between the two. Of course, it’s all allegorical and very anthropocentric, but I can see how someone, coming unexpectedly across two loud species of birds, could imagine that they were quarreling.

But still, no insects. No cree-cree-cree (or however you would imagine a cicada to sound). To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the cicada’s song was considered beautiful and is often referenced in their literature. One example comes from the Dictionary of Literary Symbols (ed. Michael Ferber, 2000):

Socrates in the Phaedrus praises the setting of his conversation for its fresh air and “the shrill summery music of the cicada choir” (230c). He later warns that he and Phaedrus must beware of “their bewitching siren song” and tells the legend that cicadas were once human: they are descendants of humans who were so enchanted with music when they first heard it that they sang continually, without stopping to eat and drink, until they died.

Given the prevalence of insects worldwide, it’s certain that medieval people experienced insects. So why no mention to them in the literature? Why did the positive associations of the ancients shift? (Plagues and insect-induced famines may be part of the answer. The spread of Christianity might be another.)

The song of the cicada is not actually as repetitive and monotonous as we might think. Our ears are not sophisticated enough to hear the distinctions. While I’m quite sure that I’m not missing out on any hidden fluctuations in the noise from the fluorescent lights in my office, I wonder what melodies I miss out on in the cicada song?