Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ornicopia 7: One Swallow Does Not Make A Spring

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

977.  Did Socrates ever speak of birds?  The last words of the Greek philosopher (470? – 399 B.C.) referred to a bird:  “I owe a cock to Aesculapius;  do not forget to pay it.”

Asclepius (child of Apollo and Coronis) and his daughter Hygiea.  Marble relief from Therme, Greece, end of 5th century B.C.  Istanbul Archeological Museums.  "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods .  . ."

978.  What effect did Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and scientist, have on the study of ornithology?   Aristotle (384-382 B.C.) described the food territories of eagles and ravens about 350 B.C.  He studied the anatomy of birds, their eggs, and many of their habits.  It is not surprising that his bird studies as well as those in other phases of natural history were full of errors and unfounded theories.  Nevertheless, for centuries his words were regarded as truth and they continued to influence the western world for more than 2,000 years.  Aristotle believed that masses of birds hibernated in winter and this superstition became so deeply rooted in folklore and literature that it was hotly debated as late as the time of Linnaeus, Buffon and Gilbert White.  William Bartram (1739-1823) was the first distinguished writer to express strongly in literature the absurdity of this notion, and he backed up his opinion with personal observation.  


Raphael, Detail from The School of Athens (Plato and Aristotle), 1510-11, Apostolic Palace, Vatican, Rome 

        In spite of his shortcomings, Aristotle contributed much to the study of birds. He detected, among other things, the red palpitating speck in an egg incubated for 36 hours and recognized it without the aid of a magnifying lens as the beginning of a living embryo.  

Candled egg revealing incubating embryo 

        Today his remark, “One swallow does not make a spring” from his Nichomachean Ethics is frequently quoted, as it has been throughout the centuries since he wrote it, though in popular usage summer frequently replaces spring.


Barn Swallow in Westchester County, New York, Spring 2011

Text excerpted from:  1001 Questions Answered About Birds by Allan D. Cruickshank and Helen G. Cruickshank (Toronto, General Publishing Company, 1958).

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