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Fantasy Birdwatching: Of Crows, Swans, and Nightjars

By Julia Bergen

Birds have intrigued our imaginations for…well ever, so it’s no surprise that fantasy novels are full of magical birds.  Today we’re going to find some of those feathered modern dinosaurs.

Grab your binoculars and lace up your walking shoes, we’re heading into the wilderness to get a peek at some of the most magical birds in fantasy.

Where to spot nightjars: The Nightjar by Deborah Hewitt

When Alice Wyndham was little, she constantly saw nightjars, little brown birds, but they were invisible to everyone else. Realizing this wasn’t normal, she forced herself not to see them and became determined to lead a sensible, boring life. Then one day, a mysterious package arrives with a feather inside, which causes her to start seeing nightjars again. It turns out the nightjars are people’s souls, which can only be seen by aviarists like her. A trained aviarist can interpret someone’s nightjar to be able to understand their soul or even change it.

Tips for a good nightjar spotting: Be born an aviarist (sorry, it’s not something you can just become)

Where to spot swans: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Based off the fairy tale, “The Six Swans,” Sorcha grew up with her beloved six brothers and her distant father. When her father marries a beautiful but evil enchantress, she wants to make sure her child inherits, so she attempts to turn her step-children into swans. Sorcha escapes, but she is desperate to save her brothers. So, she makes a deal with the fair folk that she’ll make six shirts out of nettles to turn her brothers back into humans, and that while she’s making them she can’t speak or word or they’ll be swans forever.

Tips for a good swan spotting: Show up on the one day a year the swans return to Sorcha and turn back into humans

Where to spot crows: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

In Game of Thrones, the TV show, it’s called the three-eyed raven but in the books the crow is where the magic’s really at! After being pushed out of a tower, Bran Stark, begins having dreams of a three-eyed crow that promises to teach him how to fly. When he’s forced to leave his home, he decides to head to the dangerous realm “North of the Wall” to find the three-eyed crow and discover its mysteries.

Tips for a good crow spotting: Get pushed out of a tower, though maybe it isn’t worth it just to see a crow

Where to spot owls: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Adaya

Antonio grows up in New Mexico with his parents, his brothers, and Ultima, and old shaman woman, or curandera, who lives with them. Ultima is a mentor figure for Antonio, guiding him toward good decisions. Ultima is constantly accompanied by her owl, who represents her soul. The owl is always protecting Ultima as well as the rest of the family. The owl’s song in particular makes the family feel at peace. Ultima herself is full of the supernatural, and she teaches her understanding of the connection between life, death, and nature, to Antonio.

Tips for a good owl spotting: Be kind to the elderly

Where to find eagles: The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien

There are a lot of magical birds in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the most magical are the Great Eagles, guardians of animal life and buddies with Gandalf. They’re top notch at rescue missions; in The Hobbit they rescue Bilbo and company from orcs and goblins, and in the Lord of the Rings trilogy they rescue Gandalf from Isengard. They’re huge creatures, and are incredibly intelligent, with supernatural vision.

Tips for a good eagle spotting: Be buddies with Gandalf and need some rescuing

Where are the phoenixes you ask? Well it’s simple. Given their fire affinities and load-bearing capacities we believe they’re more appropriately classified as… DRAGONS.

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