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Saintly Brigid's bird of chisel bill


(Stock image)

(Stock image)

(Stock image)

A silver birch, its bark peeling like pages from an old book, is cover for emerging snowdrops where a tiny petal of magenta is an unknown adventurer.

The snowdrops (galanthus nivalis) are Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower" and springing white hints of February Fairmaids are welcome friends in these cold days.

Today is Candlemas, Feast of the Purification, a traditional religious link to this delicate plant, one of whose ancient names was Mary's Tapers.

Wandering Irish monks are credited with bringing bulbs home in their satchels, having delivered the Christian message in Europe's dark corners.

This also the time of Brigid, saintly abbess of Kildare - or a pagan goddess of the Late Bronze Age. Sean O Suilleabhain, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland suggests Brigid's February honouring "would seem to be a Christianisation of one of the focal points of the agricultural year". Fergus Kelly in Early Irish Farming (School of Celtic Studies) says the Celtic spring festival of Imbolc was associated with "an exalted earth goddess who was transformed into a saint by the early Christian church".

Saint or goddess, Brigid has strong links to birds, namely linnet, lark and oystercatcher. The first pair, traditional trilling heralds of spring, is on the Amber List of conservation concern. The oystercatcher, in visiting flocks from Scotland and Iceland, having nested in Norway and Belgium, is more plentiful and traditionally, in the west of Ireland, is called 'Giolla Brid' or Brigid's page as a sign that this is her remembrance time.

Flocks may have thinned although smaller groups patrol tidelines and grassy swards beside the sea. The name is American, and, though they don't catch oysters these days, they dig for cockles in the sands with their formidable beaks. Mussel beds are also sourced.

The bird has a remarkable beak. Its bone-strength bill is part hammer, part chisel which can chop mussels from rocks, but which has corpuscles at its tip with which it can sense by touch. Oystercatchers forage round the clock. They are sturdy and can be noisy and excitable, engaging in curious 'piping parties' when establishing territory, running around with heads and bills pointed downwards making piping trills with open bills. These ceremonies last several minutes with about a dozen observers.

Oystercatchers, beach magpies or 'strandskata' in Swedish, make a dazzling flight pattern with glossy black head and breast, and white underparts, and live long lives - one bird reached 35 years.


This week readers reported signs of spring with starlings with nesting material at old sites in west Cork; a melodious song thrush entertaining in a Dublin park; pied wagtails under foot, and bicycle wheels, in Blackrock, Co Dublin; bumble bees emerging from winter slumbers and a treecreeper in west Dublin.

Sunday Independent