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Wednesday, 13 February 2008 00:00

Upper world guardians

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We are all fascinated by birds. In addition to being pretty (even buzzards are pretty in their own way), they can sing and fly. Unlike me, many of you can actually sing; so, you will not be as awestruck by that capability as I am. But my guess is that few of you can fly, except in your dreams.

Just how bird flight evolved has been hotly debated in academic circles. For what it’s worth, I suspect that those who maintain that bird life evolved from ancient dinosaurs are going to prevail. I’m not up to date on the scientific literature by any means, but I do recall that the dinosaur-bird relationship was strengthened several years ago by a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

That team unearthed a juvenile dromaeosaur dating back 130 million years, which apparently was the first dinosaur discovered with a body covering that consisted of fossilized feathers and down. Dromaeosaurs constitute a small group of dinosaurs (therepods) that exhibit several shared characteristics, especially modifications of the forelimb that allowed for a flexible seizing function, which researchers theorize was modified through time to create a bird’s “flight stroke.”

Bird flight has no doubt come a long ways since those long-ago days when dromaeosaurs were flapping around trying their best to become airborne. Many modern bird species have become aerial specialists.

Turkey vultures are generally underrated in this regard. They are experts at reading the thermals created as the earth warms each day. Have you ever spotted a flock of vultures riding upwards in the same thermal in a circular flight pattern? That’s called “a kettle of vultures.”

Think of the explosive and thereby elusive flight pattern displayed by a turkey, grouse, or bobwhite. Then there is the ungainly, yet somehow graceful, flight of a great blue heron, arising awkwardly with a croak and then leveling out in a smooth glide.

Among raptors, the peregrine falcon is the speed king. One of the most amazing birds in the world, the peregrine feeds on other birds that it takes in mid-air with a powerful dive that may reach speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the showboats of the bird world. Their wing beats, which stroke the air at more than 70 times a second, are often heard before one actually sees the bird. They hover, they fly backwards or vertically, and they zoom around. Then, just for the pure fun of it, they dive bomb one another.

Barn swallows are the ballet dancers of the bird world. They bring flying to yet another level. I never tire of watching the flight patterns — intricate, endless, ever changing, and yet somehow the same — that they etch against the sky.

One spring day from a high outcrop, I watched a pair of ravens mating over Blue Valley near Highlands. Together, they would go so high up into the air that they looked like dark specks. Then they would plummet in tandem, making tight downward spirals, until it appeared they were going to crash into the valley floor. At the very last microsecond, they’d pull out of their dive and then do it all over again.

Crows go flap, flap, flap, while their northern cousins the ravens can really and truly fly, fly, fly. Another time, I was above Blue Valley watching ravens from the same vantage point when one sailed by and spotted me. The next time he came by he did a full somersault. And then, just for good measure, he came back by again and did a full body roll, flying for a beat or so while upside down.

“Now that’s flying,” he seemed to be telling me.

Little wonder that the ancient Cherokees made the birds the guardians of their Upper World, the realm of peace and light and the hereafter. With their songs and with their flight patterns, the birds continue to lift our spirits every day.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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