Clellie Lynch: What's in a bird's crest?

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Before sunrise in the cool of the morn when the tall trees surrounding the house are inky silhouettes in the faintest of daylight, catbirds begin to sing, barely taking a breath as they continually belt out a series of seemingly disjointed notes. Occasionally, I hear robins, goldfinches and the phoebe already well into starting a second family. Soon other resident avians awake: bluejays, cardinals and titmice. The day is warming up (still to get much warmer in the next few days!) as I work in the garden weeding and watering, thinning and trimming. Three cedar waxwings fly over emitting that very high pitched zeeet, zeeet, zeeet, more of a sly and shy "it's only me" than a brilliant "here I am" intricate song.

Four of the birds I see this summer morning have crests, pointy crests like triangular dunce caps. Most of the time when you see these common four — cardinal, bluejay, titmouse or waxwing — the crest is held erect. Sometimes, though, you may focus through the binoculars on an odd-looking, round-headed bird only to watch the crest slowly rise.

The crest is a group of longer feathers found on the top of a bird's head that may be held erect like a crown. It may be the same color and texture as the rest of the bird's feathers or it may be completely different as in the sulfur-crested cockatoo or the gray-crowned crane. Some crests are recumbent, i.e. the feathers are straight and may lie down upon the head; others are recursive, i.e. they are noticeable even when not fanned out. Still others may be a single feather that dangles either backward like plumes or forward like fascinators.

In our local four, these crown feathers are almost always erect, giving the bird that distinct pointy-headed appearance. These soft and bendable feathers may be moved at will, perhaps for communicating with other members of its family or species, for attracting a mate, or for scaring off an intruder.

The headress of cardinals, blue jays, waxwings and titmice is quite discreet compared to others that have flashy crowns, some like tiaras, other like dazzling "look at me" feathery hats, so flamboyant they are incorporated into the species' name. Think crested eagle, gray-crowned crane, great crested grebe, great crested flycatcher.

If you imagine the crests of the aforementioned four as triangular dunce or party caps, other local species' millinery is more discreet: flycatchers with rounded, back-of-the-head pill boxes, or kinglets whose crowns may appear, especially during mating season, like spiky red or gold beanies. The only warbler with a stand-up crown is the ovenbird, a crewcut-like feature usually observed in the spring. And let's not forget our pileated woodpecker with a red crest so prominent that when flying it looks like a prehistoric pterodactyl.

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Our pillboxed flycatchers have a mere hint of a crown compared to the southerly royal flycatcher with its semicircular topnotch of dazzling red (male) or gold (female) and dotted black feathers fanned out like an Aztec headdress. The Aztecean artisan must have been an ornithologist, too. Brilliant as our colorful hummingbirds here in the states are with basically round heads, south of the border you may come across coquettes, tiny hummers with absolutely splendid crowns. The war god, Huitzilopochtli, is a hummingbird, for the Aztecs recognized the aggressiveness of this little wonder.

The tufted duck has a distinguished crown with long feathers spilling off the back of the head. On the other hand, the great crested grebe in breeding season not only has double impressive feathery crests on the head, it has an amazing ruff to rival any dude among the 17th century, linen and lace Amsterdam fops. The double-crested cormorant, though, keeps such a low crest profile, I've observed those white crests only once.

Our pigeons may be dull and drab, but around the world you have extraordinarily brilliant pigeons, some orange, some bright green, some with feathery crowns to rival the tiaras of the cranes. And our gallinaceous birds too tend to be quietly plumed so as to remain hidden in the reeds and marshes. But what about those western quails with singular forward plumes that rival the fascinators at royal weddings? Obviously the bird came well before the fascinator for the fascinators are made with feathers.

Were only crested birds so revered as to become part and parcel of a family crest? Is that the origin of the armigerous crests? Maybe originally, but as the world grew and and people assigned anthropomorphic attributes to different species, families/clans/tribes chose birds — or animals or objects — that represented the attributes they desired. At first, they decorated helmets, headgear and shields with these identifiers, eventually moving toward decorating houses and clothing with an elaborate family crest.

Falcons or hawks represented men of action; cormorants, wisdom and watchfulness; swans, harmony; pelicans, charity; ibises, patience; cranes, vigilance; and eagles, represent fortitude and magnanimity of mind. The eagle is the most common symbol for a country (at least 25) though more for its power and strength than magnanimity of mind! Russia's is a double-headed eagle; Germany's is a black eagle. Panama looks to the harpy eagle while Nigeria's symbol is a red eagle. We, of course, have the bald eagle.

In Ireland, swallows decorated the crests of families (McGill, McCoy) who had been dispossessed of land. No bird for the McKeever clan. That name, my maiden name, means "son of a boar" symbolizing being fiercely combative. This trait's certainly been lost in time in my family, unless perhaps it evolved into being a bit competitive. Perhaps the catbird would serve since we are rarely silent.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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