My husband and I recently returned from a month of birding in and around the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s in a high, dry valley in South Central Mexico where the native habitat is described as thorn scrub. One of the most common little flycatchers is also a brilliantly colored bird, the aptly named vermilion flycatcher.
On our first morning there we spotted this ruby red ornament perched on a bare branch, and I stopped in my tracks to admire it.
Similar in size and shape to our house finch, the 6-inch flycatcher sat horizontally, red head and breast reflecting the strong Oaxacan sun, black mask and wings setting off the dazzling color. The bird glanced from side to side, tilting its head and occasionally raised a short crest to further sparkle in the sun.
I like to think of this flycatcher as the Valentine bird, not only because of the shining red color, but also because, even in the winter months, this species is usually found in pairs. The female, a brownish counterpart with a pale salmon-colored belly, was likely somewhere near by.
The locals call this bird “bien viaje” — literally good travel — but often simply translated as the good luck bird.
The bird was facing me, which, according to Oaxacan lore, is a very good omen. If the bird is turned with its back to you showing its dark wing feathers, however, bad luck could be in the offering.
Flycatchers are constantly scanning their surroundings for flying insects and they tend to keep an eye out for big mammals like people, so nine times out of ten, the birds are looking your way and good luck is bound to follow you.
Birds are among the most popular animals used in mythology and are the source of countless superstitions and allegories. Life, death, luck, and love have all been tied to the tail-feathers of these winged marvels. In Western European culture many birds are linked to bad omens. The owl’s ominous hoot, for example. The term given to a collective group of crows is a “murder” of crows. Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, flocks of blackbirds are frightful.
Some birds have more benign symbolism. We know that doves represent love and peace and are a savior of humanity. Eagles embody strength, swiftness and majesty. Robins suggest joy. The return of swallows symbolizes spring. All valued assets, I admit.
But where are the “good luck” birds in our culture?
For sailors, a sighting of the cumbersome albatross was considered a harbinger of good luck. But when was the last time you saw an albatross and how many of us are sailors?
There is the old saying that it’s good luck if a bird defecates on you, but I see that as more annoyance than evidence of good fortune.
Years ago the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large showy bird of the southeastern United States now assumed to be extinct, was called the “Good Lord Bird.” But that reflected the amazement of anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it.
A bluebird seen in spring is a lucky sign to some. But I’m looking for a bird that one could encounter any day of the year. Something bright and delightful to see. A species of bird that will immediately lift your spirits, chase the clouds away and turn you into a bird watcher over and over again.
Any nominations? Seriously, I’d like to hear from you.
Later during our month in Oaxaca some Whidbey Island friends came for a visit. They love to hike, but weren’t bird watchers. One morning we set off on a four-hour trek along a dusty road between two villages several miles from Oaxaca City. One of the first birds we saw was a bright male vermilion flycatcher. I forced binoculars into my friend’s hands and helped her locate and focus on the bird.
The moment she caught sight of that bird, she gasped and couldn’t put the binoculars down. I’m pretty sure that one look turned her into a birder. And the next time I see her I’m going to ask how her luck has been recently.
Frances Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Craig Johnson is at Craigjohnson@whidbey.com.