Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spirit Sunday: Inauguratio—when we look to the birds for signs

Black Vulture or Carrion Crow, by John James Audubon

This is our week of inauguration in Washington. At home, though, we’ve had an ice storm; the trees wear sequins, and there is a steady drumbeat of melt.

It seems right that I’m looking at my suet feeder as I consider what’s to come. The small songbirds make fearful, surreptitious visits—a flutter, some quick nibbles, but they seem to prefer the regular birdseed I don’t have to offer today. They get their sustenance in a fast flutter, and then they escape as quickly as they can.

It’s not this way with the starlings. They’re larger than the other birds that visit, and they bully the songbirds away. They even bully each other away. They want more—more fat, more seed, more room at the wire mesh suet holder. They act like it’s their due.

I don’t actually begrudge the starlings their sustenance. I just wish they could change their nature—share the resources. Take turns. Understand that here, there is plenty for all. In fact, I have another block of suet ready to go when this one is consumed.

But it is in the nature of the starling to show its dominance—to use its advantages to crowd out the other birds.The starlings make sure they get theirs.

The word “inauguration” relates to the birds, as it turns out. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the word comes from the Latin inaugurationem/inauguratio, meaning “consecration,” or originally “installment under good omens.” Specifically, the entry says that it is a “noun of action from the past participle stem of inaugurare ‘take omens from the flight of birds; consecrate or install when omens are favorable.’”

Because words and their origins are endlessly fascinating, the entry goes on to explain (citing William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities of 1842) inauguratio, a ceremony to obtain “the sanction of the gods to something which had been decreed by man.” Specifically, this is the ceremony by which things or people were consecrated to the gods in ancient times.

During the inauguratio, the priests would observe the actions of the birds, and if these actions appeared to be favorable, the decree would be thought to have godly sanction.

Further investigation (because I can lose whole days to this kind of thing) reveals that one important sign was the direction from which birds called or flew. According to “On Auguries” by M. Horatius Piscinus, at Societas Via Romana, if the action of the birds came from the right, that was a good augury in Greece—but bad in Rome. 

To read the signs, priests would divide the sky into sections that had specific relevance, according to Piscinus; they would observe the section where the birds were most numerous or from which actions or sounds emanated. A flute would be used throughout the augury ceremony, possibly to attract birds. Incidentally, only the actions of certain birds were thought to be relevant—eagles, vultures, storks, osprey, owls, ravens, crows, and chickens among them.

That’s all very different from the ceremony that will happen on Friday here in the United States. Birds have no place in the official proceedings. Instead, the point of the activities is the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next—a regular event that is the hallmark of our democracy.

I generally watch this important event on TV, but I’m afraid I’m busy on Friday. I have a date with the birds. While the inauguration is going on, I’ll be conducting my own as I walk through a certain meadow that rests alongside a river.

In Missouri in January, I can expect to see any number of birds. The last time I was at this spot, I was lucky enough to see huge kettles of vultures circling, exactly like slow black cyclones. Some might see vultures as a bad augury, but I don’t. When my older son was born, huge group of vultures had settled in the trees—a committee, volt, or venue of them. Vultures are ungainly and unbeautiful on the ground or in branches, but when they take flight, they are majestic; there is no bird more graceful in flight.

Some songbirds I might spot in a Missouri winter field: the downy woodpecker, the Eastern bluebird, the American goldfinch. An upside-down white-breasted nuthatch, hunting for seeds. A black-capped fellow insistent on his name: chickadee-dee-dee. Relevant to the day for me? Pairs of mourning doves—lovers, cooing to one another in their sad syncopation.

I’m of a mind to focus closer to home for a bit. We don’t need birds to tell us that we are entering troubled times as a nation. So I’ll be reading signs here. Who will visit my feeder? What will balance at the very tip of a depleted seedhead in my favorite meadow? And will I be visited by vultures, the useful scavengers that take away sources of stench and decay and then rise up, sublime?

I hope so. Truth be told, I prefer them even to eagles.

Sources consulted:

“Backyard Birds.” Missouri Department of Conservation,

“inauguration (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary,

Piscinus, M. Horatius. “On Auguries.” Societas Via Romana,

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