Sunday, December 6, 2020

StorySpotting: Birds that never land (Alien Worlds)

 StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Netflix has dropped a new speculative show titled Alien Worlds. Every episode talks about how life would develop on different types of alien planets.

Where was the story spotted?

Alien Worlds, season 1, episode 1 (Atlas)

What happens?

On Atlas, gravity is twice as strong as on Earth, and life has adapted to that. One of the creatures introduced in the episode is a "sky grazer", a flying herbivore that feeds on the floating seeds of plant life. Because of the denser atmosphere of the planet, sky grazers never land in their life - except for then the females lay their eggs. And then, because they can't lift off again due to their body weight, they die.

What's the story?

Besides the mythological reference in the planet's name (which seems to be a running theme), I knew I have read this "never lands" part in folklore before. Turns out, the idea of birds that never have to land pops up in more than one place here on Planet Earth.
And many of those even figured out the breeding problem. 

The most well-known example of a never-landing bird would the the Huma (Homa) of Persian mythology. According to lore, it spends its entire life flying, never touching the ground. Some legends even posit that it has no legs at all. Some sources hold that it drops its eggs from the sky, and they hatch and the chicks take flight before they hit the ground. Unlike the sky grazers in Alien Worlds, the Huma of folklore is said to have a male and a female half, unifying both sexes (and genders) in one body. The Huma is believed to be a good omen and brings luck to those who see it.
In a folktale from Kashmir, a poor woodcutter is helped by a Huma bird that lays a golden egg for him. However, the woodcutter catches the bird and accidentally strangles it instead. He ends up visiting the Huma bird's kingdom in penance, and eventually becomes rich. In another folktale from India, which is a variant of Cupid and Psyche, a poor woodcutter's daughter marries a mysterious husband. When he is spirited away by his evil mother, she has to acquire a Huma egg (here they have nests), and hatch it under her shirt, so that the bird can peck out the snake-eyes of the evil queen. She is helped in her quest by friendly squirrels and bumblebees.

The folklore of Wisconsin has a creature beautifully named the Wild Blue Yonder Eagle, which "soars eternally above the earth and never lands." Instead of building a nest, much like the Homa it also drops its eggs, and they hatch before they reach the ground. The hatchlings immediately know what to do, and start flying as their feathers come in. By the time they are adults, they "have flown in great circles into the Wild Blue Yonder." This is a classic tall tale creature, but it still has a nice ring to it.
(Also, I know it's an expression, and yet I can't help but picture them with blue feathers.)

At the end of the 16th century Samuel de Champlain wrote about his voyages to Central and South America. Among the many wonders he's allegedly seen he mentions a bird named "pacho del ciello" (pájaro del cielo? - sky bird) which never lands, spending its entire life in the sky. It is the size of a sparrow, greenish-brown with a hint of red, and has no legs but a tail almost two feet long. The female lays her eggs on the back of the male, where they are kept warm until they hatch. According to Champlain these birds live in Chile and Peru. Most likely he was referring to exotic birds whose prepared skins did not include the feet as they were used for ornaments. 

The Mashona people of Southern Africa have a similar belief about the bateleur eagle - in their language called Chapungu, "spirit of a departed one." They believe this bird carries away the spirit of important people when they die. The folklore of other cultures in the area holds that this bird never lands either.


There would be a lot of logistical questions around a creature that evolves to never stop flying. It is clearly and idea that has intrigued people here on Earth for a very long time. 
Now I want to see a study go into detail about what all this kind of lifestyle would entail on a biological level...

1 comment:

  1. I don't know of any folktales associated with them, but there are also martlets, birds in British and European heraldry. Martlets have no legs or feet and must always fly.