Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Birds and St. Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is the premier festival of romantic love in American culture. Whether you love it or hate it, celebrate it with a date or attend an anti-Valentine event, the occasion is hard to ignore.

The day is named for an early Christian martyr, who may have lived in the third century. At least three different Valentines are included in early martyrologies on the date of February 14. The Golden Legend - hardly a reliable source - has a colorful account of his martyrdom. Because of the lack of hard evidence for his life and death, St. Valentine's Day was removed from the official list of Catholic feast days during the calendar reform of 1969. (Instead, February 14 is now the feast of Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs and inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet.)

Much speculation exists as to why the feast of an obscure saint became a holiday devoted to romance, or how specific practices arose. Several theories are described here. One legend associated with the date is that birds paired with their mates in the middle of February. This belief appears to have arisen in the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer imagined such an occasion in his Parliament of Fowles:

309 For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
310 Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
311 Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
In the "parliament" that follows we can see examples of the ideas of romantic love that were becoming common in the late Middle Ages. For example, Nature commands the birds:
626 Than wol I doon hir this favour, that she
627 Shal have right him on whom hir herte is set,
628 And he hir that his herte hath on hir knet.
Very few species are actually pairing up and nesting at this time of year. Among the few that do is the bald eagle, which is again the subject of a de-listing effort. Other hawks and owls that stay on territory for the winter months may do so as well. Great horned owls are easier to find in the winter precisely because they are preparing to breed. And the ubiquitous urban rock pigeons and house sparrows breed all year round, so they may be seen pairing at this time of year as well.

In truth, the dedication of this day to love, and the association of birds with the event, probably has more to do with its place in the cycle of seasons. February is a time when people - especially in colder regions - start looking forward to the end of winter. The natural world is full of indications that spring is coming, and one of the most obvious - for those who pay attention - is that some birds start to sing again. Chaucer makes this point, by having the birds sing the following at the end of the poem:
680 `Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
681 That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
682 And driven awey the longe nightes blake!

683 `Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte; --
684 Thus singen smale foules for thy sake --
685 Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
686 That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

687 `Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,
688 Sith ech of hem recovered hath his make;
689 Ful blisful may they singen whan they wake;
690 Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
691 That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
692 And driven away the longe nightes blake.'
Happy Valentine's Day.