The Fourth River

Tributaries: “Practical Augury”

By on September 13, 2017

By Carrie Laben


It’s one of the most laid-back forms of fortune telling. No special potions or smokes required, no messy entrails, no cards to shuffle and no tea cups to rinse. Just tip your head back and look up at the sky, watch the birds in flight. Something nearly every human has done at some point anyway, just for fun.

You have to know what you’re looking for. The direction of flight matters; so do the calls. You must know how to pick your spot and when to go there (not when there is lightning, never when a volcano is erupting nearby.) You must know how to tell an eagle from an owl from a woodpecker from a raven. Each will tell you something different. You also have to know what the birds are willing to tell you. They will not tell you the outcome of your battles, the fate of your city, who to marry or the gender of you baby. First of all they don’t know; they are birds. Secondly they don’t care; they are birds.

The first, and simplest, auspice to learn is this: how to find a hawk. Pigeons or blackbirds fleeing a predator on the ground, a feral cat or a weasel or a small child, will spring straight up and get as much height as they can in an instant. Height will not save them from a fellow bird, so faced with a hawk they take off sideways, the whole flock in one direction or scattering horizontally to cover. If twenty pigeons go suddenly from peaceful crumb-picking to heading left at speed, look to your right for a falcon, nature’s answer to the fighter jet. When every sparrow at the feeder shares an impulse to get into a hedge this instant, scan your trees for an accipter, one of the long lean hawks built by evolution for bird hunting among the branches. Or maybe they just got nervous. That happens sometimes too.

Maybe one whacks into your window, fooled in a moment of panic by reflections of trees, or maybe the hawk really is there and she succeeds in snagging a meal that was slower than its companions. Then she will pluck the down to drift away in the wind. The falcon will drop feathers from the roof of a nearby building and they will blow across the sidewalk like small things alive on their own, fetch up against fences like trash. This will tell you something about your eventual fate, but nothing you didn’t already know.



Carrie Laben’s work has previously appeared in venues like Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, Montana Naturalist, and Birding. Carrie holds an MFA from the University of Montana and in 2015 received an Anne Labastille Memorial Writer’s Residency.