Why do swallows have forked tails and herons have bent necks? Why do robins have red breasts? And why are crows and ravens black? For the simple, unscientific answers to such questions, one doesn’t have to look far. Folklore offers some interesting answers.
Such stories are sometimes referred to as etiological myths. They’re common in many cultures, and are often referred to as “just-so” or pourquoi (French for “why”) stories. The famous British author and poet Rudyard Kipling actually published a book in 1902 called Just So Stories for Little Children that offers responses on an assortment of things, including the origins of the leopard’s spots and the camel’s hump. You’ve probably heard of such explanations. Well, similar tales also exist throughout the world to account for the characteristics of certain birds.
So why exactly does the swallow have a forked tale? Well, according to a Palestinian folktale, the bird narrowly escaped from the striking serpent’s bite, losing part of its tail feathers (1). For the Buriat, those feathers were detached by an arrow flung by the sky god Tengri (2). Also, in a similar story from Namibia, Africa, the heron managed to evade an attacking jackal, but the incident left the bird with a crooked neck (3). Somehow, these traits, through a kind of unnatural selection, apparently have been passed down ever since.
Many “just-so” stories account for the color of a particular bird’s feathers. The Pima have a legend that relates how the bluebird bathed in a lake for several mornings, eventually shedding its unattractive feathers and growing beautiful blue ones in their place (4, 5). The Cherokee have a similar story about a “magic red pool” that transformed the cardinal, thought to be originally brown (6). A darker tale from Wales reports that the European robin got its red breast—burned from hellfire—while compassionately tending to the damned (7).
Fire does seem to play a role in lots of these etiological accounts. According to the Brule Sioux, crows were originally white, and owe their black plumage to a charring incident involving an angry council of Native American hunters and their campfire (8). The idea of soot, ash, or smoke being responsible for a bird’s color is remarkably widespread, too, ranging from an old account in Brescia, Italy, of blackbirds in chimneys to the Cherokee’s story about ravens transformed inside a hollow tree struck by lightning (9).
Tales like these indicate how the human mind can easily misconstrue aspects of biological development and/or evolution. Perhaps one of the strangest cases involving such misunderstandings, though, arose centuries ago. We will look next week at the bird some people thought was a fish.
- McNamee, G. (editor). The Serpent’s Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2000. pp. 52-54.
- Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 139.
- Knappert, J. The Book of African Fables. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. p. 38.
- Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. (editors). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. pp. 346-347.
- Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
- Martin, L.C. p. 23.
- Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 51.
- Erdoes, R., Ortiz, A. pp. 395-396.
- Tate, P. pp. 1, 116.