• Reading Level 5
Science | Geography | PSHE

Stunning photos reveal magical world of birds

Do birds have magical powers? The best birdlife photos of the year were released this weekend, reminding many of the beauty, power and mystery of these incredible creatures. A sea eagle locked in combat with a fox. Puffins battling in the snow. Swans courting in the mist. A warbler making rainbows with its breath and a shag plummeting into dark watery depths. These are a few of the breathtaking moments captured by the finalists for the title of Bird Photographer of the Year 2021. The judges selected the best photos from over 22,000 submitted from 73 countries. Money raised from the competition will support wildlife conservation, as bird numbers fall across the UK and worldwide. We love birds. The RSPB has 1.1 million members and is one of the world’s largest conservation organisations. Globally, there are millions of twitchers, birders and photographers documenting our feathered friends. But for centuries, they were feared as mysterious creatures of magic and prophesy. Soaring between the Earth and the sky, birds appear to travel from the land of the living to the world of the supernatural. Sailors believed gulls to be the souls of those lost at sea, the Aztecs thought hummingbirds were the spirits of dead warriors. In many cultures, birds were psychopomps, ferrying souls to the afterlife. Birds are often messengers with ill news. The ancient Greeks called the owl a “terrible harbinger” of death. And in China, its hoot is a warning that a tomb will soon be needed. In European folklore, ravens, crows and magpies spell imminent doom for those who see them. Not all birds are bad omens. The dove was a sign of love and fertility in the ancient world and in the Christian tradition became a heavenly messenger and a symbol of peace. Swallows and cuckoos are often a sign of good luck and the stork famously brings newborn babies to expecting families. For the Romans, birdwatching was a serious business. Augury predicted the future from the behaviour of birds and an expert would take the auspices before any major decision. A false reading could be punished by death. Birdwatcher Marianne Taylor says it is easy to see why our ancestors believed birds had magical powers. They appear from nowhere and “literally soar out of our reach” into the sky. They can fly faster then we can see and detect prey over great distances. “As far as we’re concerned,” says Taylor, “they do have superpowers!” And the more we learn about these abilities, the more remarkable they appear. Recent research shows that migrating birds use “massive magnetic maps” to cross continents, but we still don’t fully understand how they read them. Other birds, like finches, have powerful UV vision to help them forage and find mates. And exciting research at Cambridge University suggests birds actually can do magic. Psychologist Nicola Clayton works with magician Clive Wilkins to teach corvids magic tricks. It turns out that the “hidden ball routine” is a familiar trick for these birds, who often use the black art of misdirection and a “sleight of beak” to hide their food. So do birds have magical powers? Birds of paradise Of course not, say some. Superstitious nonsense! Birds are graceful creatures with remarkable abilities. But you don’t need to believe in magic to enjoy their beauty. Our ancestors did not know how birds flew or where they came from and they told wonderful stories to explain these mysteries. We know better. Instead of fearing birds, we can be inspired by them. Others say birds are magical! Whether they really are dead souls or messengers from beyond is beside the point. We dream of having the superpowers of birds. When we see a bird in flight, we are looking at one of the greatest achievements in nature. Their sense of freedom, their iridescent plumage and their joyous song are the closest things to magic in the natural world. KeywordsRSPB - The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, founded in 1889, is Britain's largest conservation charity.

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