Backyard Chirper

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Love the idea of Valentine’s Day? Thank birds

albatross-112012St. Valentine’s Day gets a lot of criticism for being a manufactured holiday that’s designed by corporations to get people to spend money. While businesses might pump up the holiday a bit, there’s actually an interesting origin story for the modern interpretation that’s associated with birds.

For centuries, St. Valentine’s Day was just a day to feast in celebration to honor a martyred priest in Rome. It wasn’t until a 1382 poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (of The Canterbury Tales fame) that Valentine’s Day and love were mentioned together. Here’s an excerpt from Parlement of Foules (translated into more modern English):

“For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

Birds have a strong reputation for being a species known for their unique relationships to one another and no one knew this better than Geoffrey Chaucer. When he wrote the poem on the first anniversary engagement of the King and Queen of England, it was a time when romance was a prominent theme and few things represent true love better than birds.

As you can tell from the excerpt, Chaucer is pointing out that St. Valentine’s Day is the start of breeding season when birds start mating with one another. However, February 14, the day commonly associated with St. Valentine’s Day, is likely too early for birds to start mating in England since it’s too cold, so he was probably talking about a different day. Nonetheless, his talk of a fictional tradition of love and birds choosing one another (which before then was no tradition at all), stuck with St. Valentine’s Day.

It’s no coincidence that Chaucer chose birds as a representation of love because many birds exhibit the characteristics of love we commonly associate with our relationships.

Laysan Albatrosses are perfect examples because they’re among the many birds that breed for life with one mate. They don’t start breeding until about eight or nine years old, but for about four years before that, they form a bond with their mate through intricate dances (similar to us dating and marrying). Then, they keep that bond until one of the pairs dies. Here’s what Audubon reports happens when one dies:

“If they do lose their mate, they will go through a year or two of a mourning period,” says John Klavitter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at Midway Atoll. “After that, they will do a courtship dance to try to find another mate.”

Bald Eagles, Mute Swans and Atlantic Puffins all show similar traits when it comes to strong lifelong bonds. Sure, there’s the occasional act of infidelity and divorce happening among the birds, but overall, the bond between birds is strong.

So, although today is a day that’s been blow out of proportions by companies, let us return to the simpleness of the holiday and show our appreciation for those we love, including our backyard friends.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

1 Comment

  1. Oh How I wish all could learn from these simpler day’s. We all could should take a cue from Mother Nature!

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