On Being a Bird (Now With Bonus Stream of Consciousness!)

So last night I managed to make up for delaying my skin spirit ritual from last weekend. What I’ve been doing the past few months has amounted to me going to the pile of skins in the ritual room and letting one or two of them volunteer to dance or otherwise work with me. Last night when I went up, I was a bit surprised that the pheasant skin, one of only two bird skins that I have, made the most “noise”. I’ve had this skin for the better part of a decade, and most of the time he’d just been hanging on the wall by a string. However, when we moved to Portland, he insisted on being placed with the rest of the critters.

I picked him up and then lay down on the floor on my back with the pheasant spread out on my chest and stomach. He had me visualize my body as that of a bird:

Hollow bones, scaled feet with three toes and a heel, wings tucked up against a deep-chested body, feathers all over (modified scales), including a tail. Sensitive skin and delicate muscles to move feathers, crest, tail, fluff the body to stay warm. Stretch out the wings, wind resistance. Wings not important in the same way as legs–when on ground, feet and beak used to pick up things. Wings for locomotion. Like the two pairs of limbs were reversed. Stretching wings wide, then tuck close to body again. Food in beak, chew, then down gullet. Tip of beak pointed for precision pecking. Skin itchy, scaly, mites, take a dust bath to get rid of them. Slick with rain water. Intelligence to avoid predators, find food, mate, raise young. But die eventually–food, roadkill, shot. Pellets hit, tumble down as thunder crashes.

It was really an incredible experience. I’m so used to working with mammals in shapeshifting and other magic that this unusual experience really struck me. Birds may be warm-blooded, but in some ways they’re just as alien as reptiles. Not that this is a bad thing; it’s just mind-boggling to really be confronted by it. I’ll do a minor shift to Hawk when I call East/Air, but that’s mainly stretching wings in warm sunlight and clear blue sky. At least with the mammals I’ve worked with I’m still dealing with a quadruped whose forelegs are there for grasping or moving things as well as locomotion. It felt odd to keep my “wings” tucked in unless I was flying. And it amazed me how delicate the motor control over the feathers was. Most people can’t make their skin move independently of muscle, yet birds can move specific sections of feathers as opposed to the whole thing just with certain motions of skin and muscle. Even horses can twitch their skin to shoo away flies. Among humans, you’re talented if you can wiggle your ears. Other than that, it’s mainly lips, nose and eyelids that move.

Of course, birds are more body-expressive than humans. Birds pay attention to the whole body, not just facial expression (which is limited by the rigid beak). There’s so much more that I want to learn about what it is to be a bird with this sort of magic. While I’ve experimented with various totems over the years, my more intense workings have primarily been mammalian. If the pheasant skin decides to keep working with me, I look forward to the experiences ahead!

I’m actually not surprised that I ended up working with Pheasant. It’s still my Air month, and in addition, a large portion of Saturday was dedicated to a ritual involving the spirit of a free-range chicken I prepared, and Chicken, the cousin of Pheasant. Last night’s ritual only seems more appropriate for all that.

5 thoughts on “On Being a Bird (Now With Bonus Stream of Consciousness!)

  1. I am so much more used to bird than I am even to mammal sometimes, it is a second (first?) nature for me, and I am always delighted to read of other people starting to work with them more often.

    There is definitely something alien about them, especially – I feel – when you first get used to it. Eventually it becomes not about what is different, but about the surprising similarities despite a world of difference between ‘warm-blooded human’ and ‘warm-blooded bird.’

    I shapeshift to bird naturally, and then to mammal because it’s often easier for where I need to go (sometimes to get to the Underworlds, I swim below an Amazon-style river, as a river dolphin). Some of the most unusual birds I’ve worked with in terms of shapeshifting have been the Hoatzin, many of the Birds of Paradise, the Powerful Owl (which just *saw* differently to us, and was an amazing experience) and the Shoebill Stork. I’m probably forgetting some, since I’ve been working with birds (to the exclusion of other animal types actually, ah well) for as long as I was interested in shamanism.

    Pheasant – for me – is a strong energy, and pheasant is one of the gutsiest birds in the bird kingdom when it comes to defending territory and not being afraid of any other creature, no matter how big it is. Or perhaps being afraid, but not actually caring. My grandmother used to own a pheasant, and many other birds for that matter, and so my memories are tied up in sitting by a creature as a small child that wasn’t afraid to show me how much it hated the cage and me… until of course I started to feed it berries and insects.

  2. I second Ravenari – I’m much more used to bird than mammal, and it’s fascinating to read of someone else’s experience with bird, especially since it’s got such contrast for you against what you’re used to!

    It’s fascinating how similar your experience of bird is to mine, and yet there are differences (like the beak, mostly). And you’ve described and notice things that are so second nature for me that I don’t even really notice them – the minute muscular control, the feather control, and the body-expressiveness.

    Yay birdness! Thank you for sharing. :>

  3. I haven’t worked with birds in any spiritual way, but I’ve lived with them for years (budgies in the house, the wild folks outside) and you’re right about how alien they can seem sometimes. Their bloodlines are so *old* . . . they’re the dinosaurs that survived, in truth. I find that more than a little awe-inspiring sometimes.

  4. Ravenari–That’s really interesting that “bird” is more familiar than “mammal”; I’d imagine there probably aren’t too many folks who can say that! I like your anecdote about the pheasant; I really don’t know too much about them, but that makes a good bit of sense. I’m going to be doing some research today to find out a bit more on the natural history end of things.

    Makhsihed–I like being bird, actually. It’s different, but it was a really cool experience. One of my favorite things about any form of shapeshifting (magical or otherwise) is experiencing the differences in sensory input (or at least the mind and spirit’s approximation thereof). I was actually kind of surprised by the skin and muscle control–when I’ve shifted to wolf, and my “hackles” go up, so to speak, it’s more an instinctive reaction. With birds, the subtle movements seem a lot more controlled and voluntary. I want to do more bird work and keep comparing it to mammal experiences.

    Stacey–I love that they’re finding all sorts of evidence for dinosaurs, at least later ones, having feathers. I saw a really cool picture of a feathered raptor-type dino–with blue jay markings! Maybe the dinos are just wearing camouflage these days….

  5. “With birds, the subtle movements seem a lot more controlled and voluntary.”

    Definitely with the wings, though the sensation of birds ‘fluffing up’ because of the cold or illness is almost – to me – like a yawn, something that comes over you and you have to do it, even though you can exert some control over it. It’s a unique feeling.

    I’ve been more familiar with bird since being a young child (feline came later). I was obsessed with brolgas, herons, storks and jabiru in particular, and so they sort of laid the foundation for where my interest would lie. I still have that obsession with the entire heron family, and also with storks and anything else has a long neck, a long beak, long legs, and an ability to look completely fierce at the same time. Lol.

    I feel a sort of familiarity whenever I work with reptile too (particularly goanna), and I feel that this might be because of my comfort factor with birds.

    I have never – at this point – been able to get ‘fish’ though. I remember you once writing about your experiences with salmon, and at this point in my own life, beyond eating and giving thanks, I’ve never really done anything extensive with fish except draw salmon once a long time ago.

    If you keep working with birds, I think you will find that it’s really not the differences you notice, but the similarities. 🙂

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