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Author and naturalist Jacek Karczewski talks about the sexual habits of birds, their symbolism in Europe, ...
2022-03-03 09:00:00

Feathered Flirts, Avian Advances
An Interview About Birds

“Two Mallards near a Snow-Covered Lotus”, Ohara Koson, circa 1925-1936, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)
Feathered Flirts, Avian Advances
Feathered Flirts, Avian Advances

So many birds, so many customs! Some are unfalteringly faithful, loving their mates until death do them part, while others cheat left, right and centre. Some drop their chicks into other birds’ nests and some defend their young with all their might. They have been mythologized, turned into symbols, and some have even become national emblems. Birds turn out to be more human-like than we, humans, would think them to be. Jacek Karczewski, author of the book Zobacz ptaka. Opowieści po drodze [See the Bird: Stories on the Way], talks about all things avian.

Read in 13 minutes

Stasia Budzisz: Many people believe birds to be a species of one monolithic pattern of behaviour. After all, they all do pretty much the same thing: they fly, go to the toilet in the least predictable moments, prey on mice and insects, avoid humans, and sing. However, in your books, you prove that each and every one of them does things differently. It turns out that birds have their particular preferences when it comes to lovemaking and in choosing lovers. Some birds are hermaphroditic, some homosexual or polyamorous, while others mate for life, divorce, or just plain cheat on their partners.

Jacek Karczewski: Birds can be very passionate! But each bird to their own. Sparrows, for example, make love a lot, even up to 100 times a day. And it’s very dynamic, too, time after time. One erotic experience can last more than 10 minutes. No wonder that, until recently, they were consumed as aphrodisiacs. The sparrow’s brain was considered to be the most potent. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the recent decline in their population? Larks, on the other hand, mate just once for every time they lay their eggs: that’s twice, thrice a year. That’s how many times they procreate in one season. In their case, we can speak of purposeful procreation: intercourse always leads to starting a family. Many owls start having sex long before laying their first egg, and their favourite foreplay happens on a bed of corpses – preferably those of voles, but other kinds of animals will also do. No need for outrage, we also have dates in restaurants with schnitzel and steak on the menu. The way to the heart is through the stomach. As for other birds, I once watched a pair of storks that regularly made love in their nest throughout the summer once their young had left it.

I’ve heard that you like geese and ducks best. Is it true that mallards are outright sex demons?

Indeed, I love geese and ducks. The latter are the kind of birds who live in the here and now: fast, without splitting feathers. They’re practical, keeping both feet on the ground, although they spend most of their time in the water. They’re often colourful and gorgeous to look at. We tend to neglect them, maybe because we’re so used to shooting them. And you’re right, some mallards are sexual maniacs, especially when operating in a group. Sometimes, they brutally rape the females and almost drown the abused duck during the commotion.

Sex often leads to babies, which is why storks come to mind straight away. In your latest book, you write that storks can be shockingly brutal towards their young. When there are too many eggs in the nest, the parents might push some of them out; you could call it an abortion. More than that, they sometimes throw a hatched chick out onto the concrete below. Quite notably, they do it to the males. Selective abortion of sorts.

Storks are proper predators. They’ll eat pretty much anything that cannot run away in time, as long as they can swallow it: large insects, earthworms, moles, voles, mice, as well as frogs and fish. But whatever it is they find to eat, storks know they can run out of it. They lay eggs in April and if there isn’t enough food for all the babies, the parents already know it by then. In such cases, they get rid of the excessive offspring. The chicks hatch in late May or early June, and once resources dry out, the parents have to choose: they can either raise five weak children, or two strong birds who have a shot at surviving the ultimate test that is migration to Africa on their own wings. That’s when they choose to push out some of their babies. Why do they remove only the male chicks, though? Well, females are much more important for the survival of the species.

“Tree sparrow with boy”, Ohara Koson, circa 1900-1936, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)
“Tree sparrow with boy”, Ohara Koson, circa 1900-1936, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)

You also mentioned the brutality of swallows, well capable of dropping their eggs in other birdsnests. Humans would compare this behaviour to using a baby box.

I wouldn’t call it brutal to lay eggs in other birds’ nests, it is more of a forethought. Birds, of all animals, should know that it isn’t wise to keep all your eggs in one basket. In some swallow species, laying eggs in other birds’ nests was observed – and I understand that’s what you’re calling a baby box. However, infanticide can also take place in swallow colonies. The deed is committed by desperate males who don’t want to miss out on mating season. Once all females have found their mates, built their nests and begun incubating their eggs, the male that failed to find a partner starts to panic. After all, he didn’t fly 10,000 kilometres from Africa only to come back empty-handed. So he demolishes another bird’s nest, pushes out the eggs or chicks and waits – or maybe starts hitting on the female whose home he just destroyed. The deviously attacked couple usually fail to recover from the trauma and split up. Then she finds herself in a hopeless position and often ends up starting a new family with the ‘psychopath’ who ruined her nest in the first place. Does she know it’s him? Or maybe it’s their version of Stockholm syndrome? Those scoundrels tend to be very clever. When they demolish the nest, they make sure to go unnoticed. But perhaps it was no accident that he failed to find a girlfriend in the first place?

Bird-centred imagery has become the canon of tacky illustrations or expressions of love, just to mention cooing doves and silent swans. These symbols are so worn-out that they’ve become ridiculous.

Just in case, let’s specify: only our paintings, tapestries, knick-knacks and other trinkets can be worn-out and ridiculous, not the real doves or swans. Those are magnificent creatures. If we weren’t so used to the sight of swans around our municipal ponds, we’d watch every single one agape, dumbstruck and astonished. The image of draped, romanticized swans might have been the first product of Western pop culture that became wildly successful around the globe. It all started in ancient Greece. Swans were the birds of Apollo, the god of art, beauty and light, as well as pleasure and an enjoyable life. Every autumn, Apollo would fly away, carried by his swans, to Hyperborea, the land of eternal joy. Come spring, the whole hedonistic bunch would return. Let’s not forget that Zeus, the most important deity of the Greek pantheon, took on the form of a swan to seduce Leda. He succeeded and nine months later, Helen of Troy hatched from the egg. The scene of Leda’s seduction is the second most frequently sculpted and painted, right after the crucifixion of Christ.

Truth be told, some of those works are impressive. I was most moved by the one by François Boucher. In ancient Greece, not a day would pass without someone turning into a swan, or so it seems. No wonder these pristine birds became the indispensable decoration of wedding cakes and bedroom paintings. They are so long, so imposingly large, so bold, straight out of some Freudian dream. Also, many swans mate for life. Doves are just as faithful and much more tender towards each other, I think. The staple figures of speech, such as ‘lovey-dovey’ or ‘lovebirds’ drew inspiration from the behaviour of turtle doves. They once used to be the most common of all European pigeons, and most likely also became the original symbol of peace and the Holy Spirit.

If we take a closer look at our culture, even just in Europe, we notice that birds are an incredibly common trope. However, this is not reflected in everyday life. For ages, humans have been running away from nature, not wanting to be part of it. When did this all begin?

The flight from nature is a peculiarity of the past 200 years. Since the dawn of time, we have been one with nature. Day birds, trusting by nature, winged and gifted with gorgeous voices and stunning beauty, were more important to us than any other creatures. The Slavs believed that after we die, our souls fly away to a place called Iriy, and to do so, they take the form of birds – or at least use their help, holding onto the legs or wings of geese, for example. Then the souls would rest in that Slavic paradise until they were ready to take on another incarnation. The birds participated in the process, too: when the time came, they would carry the souls back to Earth and place them on the bellies of pregnant women for the cycle to begin anew.

Everything changed once we started to surround ourselves with technology. Birds no longer seemed divine creatures to us, as we took over the roles of gods ourselves. Our deities no longer had the voice of wild geese, they had lost their eagle heads and phoenix wings, and started to look an awful lot like our priests, fathers and leaders. During this shift of our attitudes towards animals, we went through several earthquakes that gave start to the great monotheistic religions of the modern world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which all announced their extreme anthropocentric doctrine claim that “Man is the crown of creation.” Then the Enlightenment arrived with its flagship claims, “I think, therefore I am” and “I speak, therefore I am”, which placed animals in the position they occupy to this day: those who don’t speak do not feel either, and even if they exist, their existence has no value. Of course, we owe a lot to the Enlightenment morally, it was a cruel era. It was responsible for promoting racism and slavery, among other concepts.

Another milestone towards the utilitarian treatment of animals and all of nature was the widespread use of firearms. While they were invented to kill people, they soon gave us a sense of absolute power over wild animals, including birds that used to be more elusive thanks to their ability to fly. The last great milestone was the emergence of behaviourism in the first part of the 20th century. It was not only a methodology but also a certain kind of philosophy, bringing all living creatures – even the previously ‘divine’ humans, not to mention animals – down to the role of thoughtless, albeit teachable, bioautomata. This new idea won the world over in a flash, inspiring fascism and concentration camps that were first tested out on animals. It was also when industrial farming and mass production of meat began. To faster produce more meat, we came up with broilers: almost unmoving chickens bred only to sit in one place, eat and gain mass. Even if they wanted to do anything more than that, they can’t: the birds are kept in impossibly crowded cages and at high temperatures.

“Two Geese on a River”, Ohara Koson, circa 1900-1930, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)
“Two Geese on a River”, Ohara Koson, circa 1900-1930, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)

In your book, you wrote that the Earth is inhabited by eight billion humans who produce 23 billion hens and chickens. The proportion is horrifying.

The horrifying proportion is that humans and the animals we keep just for consumption make for 97% of the biomass of all animals in the world. Wildlife makes for the remaining 3%. 10,000 years ago, it was the opposite.

You use the word ‘biomass’, and in Zobacz ptaka, you mention juvenile specimens preying in ruderal habitats.” To the average language user, this sounds like an obscure code. What causes the apprehension to discuss nature in more humanitarian language?

The fear of being accused of anthropomorphizing – that is, attributing the behaviour, reactions and emotions reserved for humans to animals. Such an approach disqualifies you as a professional. When I was writing my first book, Jej wysokość gęś [Her Highness the Goose], I made a point not to use the word ‘specimen’ even once. But after receiving the proofread manuscript, I discovered that my editor had crossed out almost all my synonyms and replaced them with the very word I had tried so hard to avoid, saying he wanted to make my book sound more professional. But were we to call any human a ‘specimen’, we would be accused of treating that person inhumanely and patronizingly. For some reason, when it comes to animals, such an attitude is acceptable. We do everything in our might to separate ourselves from nature. We speak of animals in such a way on purpose: it gives us a moral advantage over them, stripping them off reason, will, and above all, their ability to feel any kind of emotion and our empathy towards them. We are experiencing a triple crisis of knowledge, values and role models. The language we use to speak about nature seems to be the strongest pillar in supporting this crisis. What we use is a bureaucratic, unfriendly, exclusive newspeak. To see its effects, just go out to your housing estate and look at what is happening to the trees, to home gardens, or ask a random passer-by whether they have ever seen a yellowhammer or a great partridge, what the benefits of an oak tree alley are, or even where the oxygen we breathe comes from.

Zobacz ptaka is a collection of 51 bird portraits in which the word specimenappears twice and, of course, serves as an example of the language we should strive to avoid. You’ve admitted that its the only book you ever wanted to write.

About 15 years ago, I was still an idealist. As a member of the Polish Birds Association, I had this ideé fixe of saving the world. I was very naive. I believed people really love nature, and if they don’t, they’re simply not aware of it yet and need a guide to lead them to it. I was convinced our organization could do just that. This was how I came up with the idea of a reader-friendly book about neighbourhood birds, the ones we see just outside our window, in streets, parks and gardens. I wanted those everyday birds to make people pay more attention to nature. After all, there isn’t a better medium than the colourful, singing, eccentric, crazy birds… The idea was one thing, but life proved to be quite another, and so before that book saw the light of day, I wrote two more. Zobacz ptaka is also very important to me on a personal level: I promised myself that I wouldn’t call myself an author until I wrote my third book. I had never considered book writing to be a career path for me in the first place. I was only ever going to save the world.

Its a bit of magical thinking, and you never exclude it from your books completely. It brings to mind the belief in birds of power. One of these even appears on Polands coat of arms, and Poles have grown accustomed to the theory that it depicts a white-tailed eagle. You, however, put this into doubt. Why so?

The bird depicted on the Polish coat of arms flew so far away from any possible original that it could be inspired by any large, eagle-like bird of prey. I think there are four serious candidates. The first one is the white-tailed eagle, of course – but it could just as well be the lesser spotted eagle. According to historians, the Polish coat of arms was first used in 1295, at the beginning of the Piast dynasty, during the rule of Przemysł II. Back then, our ancestors often kept lesser spotted eagles in their homesteads, and wild eagles were also more than happy to roam close to human settlements.

Were the wild ones useful to us at all?

Sure. They ate the rodents that used to plague the settlements. Lesser spotted eagles were also considered good omens, kind of disaster repellents. They were also used in fortune-telling. If you wanted to know what to do, you went outside and made a decision based on the birds’ behaviour. Spotted eagles controlled the population of mice and rats around the settlements, while doubling as oracles. Who wouldn’t want to have a domesticated oracle at home?

What about the two other candidates?

They are the osprey and the golden eagle, the latter being the eaglest of them all. Since the dawn of time, many different cultures have considered the golden eagle to be the sacred bird of power. During early Christian times, it was the bird of Jesus and John the Baptist. We must keep in mind that in ancient Europe, everyone wanted to have the eagle on their side to be reckoned with. Just like the Vikings, who inspired as much fear as admiration. It was thought: if the eagles grace them with their favour, why wouldn’t they help us, too? So everyone wanted a piece of the superbird’s power. It was the Roman coat of arms, modelled on the golden eagle, that inspired the entire collection of more or less ornamental images that became totems of wealthy cities, families, tribes, and nations – the Piast dynasty in Poland was likely one of them. Nowadays, 10 European countries boast an eagle on their coat of arms, and half of the 200 existing nations around the globe have a bird of some sort on theirs, from hummingbirds to ostriches.

“Peacock on a Cherry Blossom Tree”, Ohara Koson, circa 1900-1930, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)
“Peacock on a Cherry Blossom Tree”, Ohara Koson, circa 1900-1930, Rijksmuseum (CC BY 4.0)

More and more often, I think that a different bird would fit Poland’s coat of arms better. I mean the peacock, especially now that we have risen from our kneesand are busy putting on airs.

I understand this new symbolism of the peacock, very different from its original meaning. But I wouldn’t want to force that bird onto the Polish coat of arms. I admire peacocks. The way they move and dance in all their otherworldly magnificence. Once you let go of all the stereotypes, you see nothing but pure, vivid beauty. Peacocks are absolute miracles of nature. I would stick with the white-tailed eagle. It’s an impressive creature, one of the strongest and largest birds of prey in the world, with a wingspan of up to two-and-a-half metres. We like to show it off and say how brave it is. We think it to be a symbol of strength and nobility. Still, the typical white-tailed eagle spends most of its time doing nothing at all. It sits in a tree and only croaks now and again. Once it goes hunting, it never misses a chance to steal a chick from another bird’s nest or rob those who have already caught their prey. It does whatever it can not to hunt at all, making do with carcasses. It won’t turn its beak up at human remains, either. But that’s not all. It was recently discovered that, from an evolutionary perspective, the white-tailed eagle is not an eagle at all. Genetically, it is more closely related to the common buzzard than it is to eagles. Here you go, that’s the truth about Poland’s noble bird. Its reputation has little to do with reality. I think it makes for a very appropriate Polish emblem.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Stasia Budzisz

is a reporter and translator from Russian who graduated in Polish and Russian studies and also attended the Polish School of Reportage. A Kashubian by descent, she specializes in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. She is the author of a work of reportage titled “Pokazucha, Na gruzińskich zasadach” [Pokazucha: On Georgian Principles], and is now working on a book about her native Kashubia.