Omens came one after another, in retrospect—a flaming sign in the sky, a lightning-struck temple, a woman crying in the street, lakes boiled by wind. The seventh omen was a bird, caught in the nets of a fisherman, which looked like a crane. On the bird's head was a mirror. They brought the bird to the king, Motecuhzuma, and when he looked into the mirror, he saw stars even though the noon sun was above. He looked into the mirror again and saw a host of warriors rushing towards him in battle, accompanied by strange deer and other creatures. Other omens followed, and then the Spanish themselves, but the crane with a mirror diadem carries a special message to us: the birds know more about our future then we do.
Augury, the divination practices governing communication between gods and politicians in Ancient Rome, often involved the interpretations of bird flight patterns, bird songs, and bird dances over food. “Taking the auspices” was a required ritual before any public function; the word “auspices” comes from Latin “diviner by birds.” Within the auguristic world, anything from a sneeze to a lightning strike could be a sign, favorable (auspicious!) or unfavorable (inauspicious!), which could determine the viability of a particular future action, but the bird signs, at least, were codified, regular, and legible. Augurs had books which were less oracles than they were how-to guides with tricks of the trade and records of past results, not so much prophets as they were translators of the gods’ secret language of bird movements. No wonder they eventually faced competition from much more dramatically magical diviners, the haruspicium, who read animal entrails to tell the future.
The birds that come as omens speak to their human readers of a world of signs and understanding beyond the human, one in which the machinations of nature conspire to bring us messages about the unknowable. Though the magic of superstition has been augmented with scientific discourses of rationality, birds still carry the weight of meaning in their hollow bones. Certain birds are ominous (omen-nous), like the big black city crows that wreck trash bags in Japanese cities. (I love them, but I’m a foreigner.) Other birds are blessings, like when a little bird (“Birdie Sanders”) landed on Bernie Sanders’s podium during the 2016 presidential primary, marking him (in the mind of his fans) as the progressive messiah. I watched an episode of Painting with Bob Ross where a bird flies in to help him paint and his gentle demeanor allows the bird to calmly perch on the easel. (The cats I was watching with just about lost their damn minds.) We trust these birds to know more than we do, about the future and about human nature.
If we could project their brains into visibility, view them through little mirror crowns, maybe we wouldn't need the books of the augurs. Maybe we could learn what the birds know. But we’d need better wizards than Motecuhzuma had to read those images.