by Juliette Jones
Some of the most profound bonds and loving relationships I have been privileged to enjoy have been with animals. Animals communicate in a universal language and remain close to the oneness of being in ways that bespeak life’s very soul. I see animals as part of the divine body and integral to human wholeness. They support us in every way—through companionship, service and even the sacrifice of their lives.
People who truly understand animals know the depth and power of their communication skills. It is impossible to hear their language if we regard ourselves as separate from and superior to the oneness of life, as well as the great creative process that binds all life together. The more deeply we love the natural world and understand our inseparable connectedness to animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, the more likely we are to be connected to the wide spectrum of animal awareness.
The great spiritual philosopher Rudolf Steiner believed that focused observation of the natural world during childhood was a trigger for unlocking spiritual insight. This was certainly true in my own case. Like most children, given the chance, I loved to dig in the dark humus in my backyard, smell the earth, and observe the mystery of ants, birds and other creatures, as they communicated with one another during food gathering, construction projects and caring for their young.
Depth perception is integral to sensing the sacred, and animals represent a union of the conscious with the unconscious. They hold an enormous place in ancient and universal mythos, through which they are seen as deities or as literal creations of the divine which bear significance as signs, familiars and messengers and recognized as helpers, both in healing and awakening of internal, magical insight.
This is especially true of birds which appear in the sacred texts of older cultures. Birds have the ability to fly, thus lifting themselves above the earthly realm. Mythical deities such as Quetzalcoatl, a flying creature inhabiting the realm between earth and sky, appeared in the Aztec creation mythos. The story of the phoenix, like the bird itself, was resurrected across Egyptian, Greek and Arab cultures. According to legend, the phoenix lives in the physical world for centuries, then bursts into flames out of which it is reborn from its own ashes. In Jewish symbolism, the phoenix became known as the Mitcham and, because of its connection with death and resurrection, often appeared on early Christian tombs.
Birds as Signs, Signals and Familiars
It is obvious how birds appear as signs and signals in the context of the natural world. Migration is a good example. When birds migrate, this behavior signals seasonal change. If birds congregate in a certain place, this is a sign of a habitat friendly to their species. However, one must have a much deeper understanding of birds to fully relate to the depth of their role as signs or familiars. It helps to live with them or observe them in an intimate natural context.
Birds are governed by instincts and reflex. To share space with a bird awakens wonder and enchantment. One must develop an inner stillness and heighted sensitivity to motion and sound. These skills help us develop deeper inner sensitivities and wisdom. When we are attuned to a bird’s faculties of perception, this helps to improve our own.
“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”
— Henry Ward Beecher
Birds in general have superior outer vision, essential to their physical survival, but they also have super-sensory vision which the uninitiated cannot seem to fathom. Indigenous cultures have clearly picked up on this and understand the concept of animals as totems, as well as the spiritual influence of animal energies. Remember Merlin, the wizard of Camelot legend who kept a Great Horned owl on his work table? Being in close range to such a bird would surely keep one in touch with extraordinary energies and help to develop new levels of perception.
An early impression of the bird kingdom arrived on a day my mother took me to have childhood pictures taken at a photographic studio. After we finished with these photos, the photographer took me back to her aviary where she raised parakeets. Being close to the birds was intriguing and became even more so when she opened a nest box and placed a little bald, pink hatchling in my cupped hands. I was overcome with compassion and awe. It looked like a tiny extra-terrestrial, and in the back of my mind, a silent thought prevailed: “I will always protect your kind.” I never mentioned anything about this internal experience, but soon my mother purchased two parakeets, and I became their caretaker. From that point forward, I seemed to be in the company of birds—in one way or another—for most of my life.
For many years, I kept an African Gray Parrot whom I renamed Admiral Bird because he came to me as a rescue animal and never had a name beyond “Bird.” He had been kept in a small cage and was terribly anxious, angry and frightened when I first knew him, and this had made him into a “feather plucker” which damaged what would have been a regal appearance. He was the most intelligent animal I have ever known and possessed tremendous communicative and psychic power.
I immediately purchased a large cage and had an expert clip his wings, so he could not fly upward to get away. Whenever I was home, I let him go free, and he grew to enjoy his new world. “Bird” could speak three languages—natural parrot sounds, gibberish (imitating the unintelligible substance of human conversation) and a lingual ability to make independent noises like whistles, squeaks or mechanical sounds. His vocabulary spanned hundreds of human words, and he knew how to properly use them. “Good morning” meant uncover me. If I didn’t respond quickly enough, he began to call my name until I responded appropriately. “Bird go sleepy-bye” was the signal that he wanted to be covered for the evening.
My mother had once cared for him while I was on vacation and taught him some specific words which he picked up in the precise tone of her voice. One day, after she had passed away, I was wishing I could talk with her once again. Bird, who hadn’t repeated her teachings in years, began to call my name in perfect imitation of her voice and repeated other specific words she had taught him.
Birds require a tremendous amount of attention and work in captivity to keep them clean, and happy, so I wouldn’t recommend anyone choose a bird for a pet unless they have studied the species carefully and are prepared for the commitment required. In my opinion, many birds are far too social and intelligent to be kept in cages, but once captive, cannot fend for themselves in the wild. Admiral Bird went to an avian sanctuary when, at the time, I developed an incapacitating illness, but I will always feel connected to him, as well as the bird kingdom as a whole.
Buddha and the Swan
One day, Siddhartha (the Buddha) saw a swan that had been shot with an arrow fall to the ground. Though injured, the animal was still alive. He obtained some sap from nearby leaves and placed it on the wound to stop the bleeding. Then, he comforted the bird, “Fear not, I will look after you until you are able to fly again.” Just then, his cousin Devadatta appeared and demanded the bird as his property because he had shot it. The Buddha replied, “Were this bird dead, I would give it to you, but since it is alive, it belongs to me.” They took the matter to be settled by the sages, “A life must belong to the one who tries to save it. A life cannot belong to one who would destroy it. The wounded swan belongs to Siddhartha.”