This week we have been joined by a solitary stranger from the north. Probably blown south-west on last week’s northerly storm winds a wigeon has arrived. The appearance of this diminutive figure prompts us to find out a little more about this little duck and we discover his place in the legend of the Seven Whistlers and its association with the end of the world (but, perhaps, not as we know it).
“4h February, Friday.
The thermometer falls with the waking sun
and the spirit seems to shrivel with the cold.
Then the Bearley rooks take flight from their inky roost;
assured blue-black wings beat the blood-red raging dawn.
The body feels smaller;
the spirit larger.”
In this episode I refer to the following books:
Edward A Armstrong's (1958) The Folklore of Birds (Collins New Naturalist Library 39) published by Collins.
BB (2008) The Naturalist’s Bedside Book published by Merlin Unwin Books.
Stefan Buczacki’s (2002) Fauna Britannica published by Hamlyn
Walter Černy’s (2000) Field Guide in Colour to British Birds published by Silverdale Books.
Rob Hume (2007) RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe (revised edn.) published by Dorling Kindersley.
Recording of Wigeon calls by Stanislas Wroza on 01.01.2022 at Radonvilliers, Aube, Grand Est, France and downloaded from the xeno-canto site. Full recording details and credits:
Stanislas Wroza, XC695711. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/695711.
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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In the back of the storms that rolled in on last week's wolf-toothed northerlies, a solitary wigeon appeared on the wind-sung waters of the moorings. He is a little smaller than the other ducks, a trim neat figure. His body, the colour of arctic skies, light greys and whites. A flush of orangy pink on his breast, His head and neck, a beautifully warm rich reddy brown, the colour of chestnut-glow when they are peeled from their spiky cases. A yellow lemon stripe on his forehead gives him a cootish appearance; a colourful, dandified cousin without the chippy assertiveness. The coots' stripes can lend the impression of a frown and aggression. This stripe, simply accentuates the curve of the head offering a similar profile to the rook. I find there is something rather appealing almost touchingly friendly, about a round skulled bird. Perhaps it is because that was the way I drew birds when I was a lad, tennis ball round heads, round eyes and a beak stuck on it. Perhaps it is because that shape is a little more anthropomorphic.
Cerny's The Collins Field Guide to British Birds lists them as a bird of the north; Northern Scandanavia, Russia, Iceland. Distribution maps show their range leading high up into the Arctic north, although they migrate southward during winter. They are not uncommon here, although more usually found in Scotland or along the east facing coasts, but it is unusual to see a solitary bird like this.
Ornithologist, Rob Hume, writes of their tendency to prefer the company of dense flocks and describes how:
"the Wigeon form close flocks on the water while feeding, advancng across salt marsh or meadow in a tight-packed mass.Such a flock looks richly colourful and adds to the effect with constant loud calls."
He goes on to observe that:
"Wigeon are generally shy and fly off when approached, large numbers forming wheeling flocks circling above a marsh or heading for the safety of a resevoir."
Hume also notes that, unusually, when feeding on the ground - short grass or foraging in shallow water seeds, shoots and roots - the entire flock usually all face in the same direction.
The great old naturalist and countryman BB wrote fondly about wigeon. He describes how on one bitter winter's night on the marshlands on the east coast of Scotland:
"The little wigeon were burrowing about in the grass like moles and sometimes were barely visible. The cock wigeon is surely one of the prettiest of our ducks, though it must be admitted that our old friend the drake mallard is a mighty fine fellow when in the pink of condition..."
But he also noted their companionable nature, on wing and land and how thet prefer to congregate and forage (or fly) in 'great companies.'
Our strange visitor from the north is certainly on his own here. Like the coot who shared the splintered winter's ice with us last year and who still (if it is the same one) pops up from time to time. There's no assuring, bustle and whistling company of the flock for our small visitor from the north here. There are no wheeling flights with his own kind above the great stretches of muddy flats speared with samphire and lacy with pillows of sea lavendar of the coastal esturies and salt marshes and under those great rolling eastern skies. What was his journey? How hard did he struggle to keep up with his flock? What did he feel when they drifted out of sight, beyond the strength of his wings? Did he cry out on those bullying, indifferent winds for his voice to be turned back on him - racing away from safety and home? He would hav felt the drive to regain the flock - the instinct burning in his tired wings, but how did he process that? Would we have recognised it with the emotions that boil in the cauldron of our lives?
The ducks have already paired. Has he left behind his mate? Or is he a juvenile, as yet, unbonded. Perhaps that is why he might have been closer to the edges of the flock as it wheeled on the stormy wind - and was therefore more vulnerable to be swept off?
The blessing is that he is, if not accepted by the mallards here, he is certainly tolerated. I have not seen any attempts to drive him off or bullying - apart from the usual squabbles around food which is nothing more than normal flock behaviour here. He keeps himself to himself, but has no problems being in the vicinity of the others. Yesterday, he was foraging the grass in a pack. The mallards seem to treat him as they do the moorhens that scuttle around them, almost unnoticed.
He is alone. That must be hard, but, as far as I can detect, he is not showing any signs of stress behaviour and seems relaxed. Like most non-humans, he has the advantage of us. We have become conditioned so much that if something is not right we need to change it, he just seems to roll with the changes, adapt, change, flight of feet and wing, adapt to suit the new conditions and get on with being alive.
And so, for a while, we have with us a little stranger with us.
Stefan Buczaki' Fauna Britannica lists local names given to the wigeon. Unsurprisingly, most of them relate to the north and eastern regions - although a couple come from Ireland. Also unsurprisingly a number refer to the bird's appearance.
Whew - probably refers to the distinctive whistle
Bald pate, cock winder, easterlings, golden head, grass whew, lady duck, lady fowl, pandle whew, whew duck, whewer, whim, whistler, winder, yellow pall.
Buczaki notes that:
"They have been called 'wigeons' (sometimes spelt with a dg) since the early 16th century, the name probably imitative of their call."
He goes on to observe
"Probably because they were easy prey for duck-hunters, the name also came to be used in the eighteenth century to mean a stupid person."
The wigeon's scientific name Mareca penelope points to links with mythology. Its species name Penelope relates to Homer's Penelope the long suffering and faithful wife of Odysseus.
Penelope's parents were Prince Icarius of Sparta and the nymph Periboea.
Periboea hid her infant daughter (Penelope) as soon as she was born, knowing that Icarius had wanted a son. As soon as Icarius discovered the baby girl, he threw her into the sea to drown.
However, a family of ducks rescued her and fed her. Seeing this as an omen, Icarius named the child Penelope (after the Greek word for penelops meaning "duck") and raised her as his favourite child.
Armstrong's Folklore of Birds associates the wigeon with the Seven Whistler myth. The legend crops up across Britain and Europe. The myth is complex and pluriform and, for us, more frustratingly undefined. In some places it is believed to be the souls of unchristened babies, others link it with the 'Wander Jew' mythology, while others, identify it as an omen of a coming death. Armstrong notes that
"After a colliery disaster at Wigan people reminded each other that the Seven Whistlers had been heard, and in Leicestershire minrs used to refuse to enter a pit after hearing the birds, believing that a calamity was imminent. In South Shrophsire and Worcestershirethe Seven Whistlers are said tobe six birds in search of another. When they find him it will be the end of the world."
Tonight, out there, in the thick February darkness is our timid little wigeon the seventh bird for which his six brothers are searching? I love a myth in which the end of the world pivots not on some cataclysmic human action or the apocalyptic sweep of the divine hand, but the culmination of an avian drama that has nothing to do with theatrical stage constructed by human thought upon which we "strut and fret." And, of all the birds, it is the little wigeon - timid, shy, diminutive. Delicately plucking the grass stems beside the water. A bird few have probably even heard of. A bird whose name had become used as a term of abuse and denigration! Will the reconciliation of this little bundle of life with its companions really signal the end of the world? There's a part of me that dares to hope so. That the madness we are creating and seem to be so utterly incapable of finding the will (or is it courage) to stop it, won't be the cause of the final cataclysmic apocalypse, but instead our fate hangs on the thread of an altogether different drama that is being played out across creation - six small ducks thrown across the unforgiving dark green arctic skies simply looking for the seventh. That the end of the world will not come about through the willful ignorance of madness and hubris, or the clunk of a divine gavel of judgement ringing through the disapproving silence of some heavenly court, but that the end of the world will be the glorious culmination of the healing of seven duck-shaped souls that have spent an eternity crying out on the wild north winds the heartache of their grief for a sundered relationship and their lost companion, a lifetime seeking for the healing of restoration for the one who was lost to rejoin them.
My God, who of us among us, cannot see that, if the world must end, let it end like that? A lost duck restored and welcomed back to his flock. What if the ancient writer of the book of Job was right all along? That after all, creation wasn't really all about us humans? That there are other stories, other dramas, other plans to be unfolded of which we know nothing? And that, the cumination of this world will not be in a cataclysm of fire, and certainly not a whimper, but with six little wigeon finding their lost friend? Oh!!! If there has to be a culmination of all this, if there is some telelogical imperative underlying this green and blue globe cast loose in space, let it be this. Let our worlds come to an end like that!! A cataclysm of joy and restoration.
And if, by any remote chance, the Seven Whistlers are those seven little wigeons, may their voice sound to us not like an omen of doom, but of hope. Hope that one day, this world will end. Not in devastation and despair, but in re-union and restoration. For listen, on the soft wind swells of the night, those distant whistles. Can you hear them?
Isn't there something strangely familiar about that haunting call?
Isn't that song they sing also our song? The cry of our hearts, calling out into the darkness?
Blown on the back of the cold northwind - our worldless ache for those we have lost, the lives we have left. To be re-united once more with those we have lost and still miss - sundered relationships to be healed; A cry to be welcomed home with outstretched arms?
Out there tonight, the little wigeon dozes alone in the dark under a night sky of racing clouds.
Sleep well little soul and may some day your cry be heard and answered.
And may you too sleep well tonight and may the cries of your heart, borne on the night wind, be also heard and answered.