“Tweeting” Before Twitter

tweet

For more than two thousand years, birds have played a critical role in the conduit of human communications. People have used winged messengers for delivering notes to their lovers, relaying time-sensitive news to fellow reporters, and dispatching crucial strategic information to troops during wartime—saving perhaps thousands of lives in the process! One could say that long before instant messaging and social media, these were the original, old-school forms of “tweeting.”

A Little Bird Told Me…

Many of us today are acquainted with fictional accounts of bird messengers, such as the owls in the Harry Potter books and films or the ravens in the Game of Thrones TV series / A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Parrots feature prominently in Chinese folk tales. In one story from Szechwan province a talking parrot plays matchmaker between a beautiful servant girl and an unmarried aristocrat (1, 2). In other stories, such birds frequently divulge partners’ infidelities (3, 4). All in all, despite the fictional nature of these depictions, the idea of humans using avian messengers is not far-fetched.

Birds have long been known to report the goings-on of folks to others and at least thought to have the ability to do so. The author of one book in the Old Testament exhibits a wariness towards birds for this reason, stating that they could potentially disclose what one has said back to the powerful and affluent (Ecclesiastes 10:20). According to Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would return regularly to report back to him the news and events of the day (5). And the Greek god Apollo supposedly learned about his lover’s unfaithfulness from a raven (6).

Avian Express Messaging Systems

While a few species of birds can be taught to speak human languages, training birds to carry written messages has been widely demonstrated as the most practical means of long-range communication. In the South Pacific, islanders have used frigatebirds to transmit attached messages between locations separated by sea (7, 8, 9). More than a century ago, a few folks in France explored the possibility of using swallows to carry letters and military-related notes (10). However, the most celebrated avian courier traditionally has been the dove or pigeon, with a history dating back to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome (11).

Throughout centuries in Europe and the Middle East, people have employed pigeons for transferring information. The ancient Greek city-states used them for relaying results of Olympic events (12). In the twelfth century, the Sultan of Bagdad established communications via pigeons between territories in Syria, Egypt, and what is today Iraq (13). Later, in the 1800s, P.J. Reuters, founder of the news agency that bears his name, briefly relied on pigeons to pass stock price info from the European cities of Brussels and Aachen (14).

War Pigeons

Relaying wartime messages was perhaps the most important use of pigeons. The French utilized them extensively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 (15). By the time of both World Wars, many countries, including the United States, either had a war pigeon program or were developing one. When other forms of communication could be easily compromised, these birds proved quite reliable and as a result prevented countless casualties. Of the WWI pigeons, Cher Ami is probably the most famous, completing his mission despite suffering several serious injuries from enemy fire, including losing one leg (16). G.I. Joe ranks as the most illustrious war pigeon of WWII. Arriving in just the nick of time, the bird’s message thwarted a planned U.S. bombardment of an Italian town recently held by the Germans, sparing the lives of allied soldiers and residents there (17).

As to the homing pigeons’ incredible ability to navigate to their “home” site, scientists have proposed several hypotheses. The birds may use a variety of “compass” and “mapping” methods (18). Some research indicates that pigeons find following the streets and highways below helpful for navigational purposes (19). And a study published in early 2013 suggests that the birds rely on low-frequency sound waves to “map” their way to their destination (20). As more research accumulates during the next few years, a greater understanding of this amazing skill is sure to emerge.

Sources:

  1. Yolen, J. (editor) Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 90-94.
  2. Roberts, M. Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979. pp. 9-14.
  3. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2004. p. 317.
  4. Tresidder, J. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. p. 153.
  5. Hamilton, E. Mythology. New York: Mentor, Nal Penguin Inc., 1973. p. 308.
  6. Hamilton, E. pp. 279-280.
  7. Werness, H.B. p. 188.
  8. Brinkley, E., Humann, A. in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. Elphick, C., Dunning Jr, J.B., and Sibley, D.A. (editors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf / Chanticleer Press, 2001. 167 ff.
  9. Terres, J.K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980. 402 f.
  10. Harting, J.E. “Training Swallows as Letter Carriers”. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History. Third Series, Vol. XIII. London: West, Newman and Co., 1889. pp. 397-399.
  11. Greelis, J. “Pigeons in Military History”. The American Pigeon Museum: http://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org/military-pigeons.html.
  12. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. “The Use of Pigeons as Messengers in War and The Military Pigeon Systems of Europe”. Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Whitehall Yard. London: W. Mitchell and Co. 1886-1887. p. 111.
  13. Allat, Capt. H.T.W. p. 111.
  14. “Chronology: Reuters, from pigeons to multimedia merger”. Reuters (U.S. Edition): http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/19/us-reuters-thomson-chronology-idUSL1849100620080219.
  15. Dash, M. “Closing the Pigeon Gap”, 4/17/2012. Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/closing-the-pigeon-gap-68103438/?no-ist.
  16. Dash, M.
  17. Razes, J. “Pigeons of War”, August 2007. America in WWII magazine: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/pigeons-of-war/.
  18. “All About Birds: Navigation”. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/navigation.
  19. Davies, C. “How do homing pigeons navigate? They follow roads”, 2/5/2004. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1453494/How-do-homing-pigeons-navigate-They-follow-roads.html.
  20. Ghose, T. “Mystery of Lost Homing Pigeons Finally Solved”, 1/30/2013. LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/26714-how-homing-pigeons-navigate.html.
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Talking Turkey: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition

turkey

Although Thanksgiving is today considered a holiday of traditions, one may be surprised by how much the celebration has evolved from its origins and observance in early America. The emphasis on the stuffed turkey ranks among the biggest changes.

Not at the Table?

Today very few birds, if any, can boast of such popular use in holiday iconography as the Meleagris gallapavo. For most Americans, the annual Thanksgiving feast is nearly unimaginable without it, as we often playfully refer to the celebration as “Turkey Day”. But this was not always so. The bird’s place at the dinner table has changed, as have other foods now connected with the holiday.

In fact, the turkey’s role in the initial gathering is questionable at best. Records indicate that a fair amount of game was prepared for the three-day autumnal feast in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the event between the Pilgrim settlers and native Wampanoag people often thought of as the precursor of and model for our Thanksgiving holiday. And first-person accounts from participants Edward Winslow and William Bradford do note that besides venison and fish, “fowle” / “foule” was served (1). As to whether this reference included wild turkeys, experts believe ducks and geese were more likely due to their abundance in that area during the fall (2, 3). Ironically, turkeys from North America were already being consumed in England (4).

A New World Bird Named After an Old World Country

Approximately a century prior to the historic celebration in Plymouth, European explorers had discovered the domesticated turkey in what is today Mexico. When conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards brought these birds back along with them. Strangely enough, the fowl’s similarity to another established galliform led to its eventual namesake. “Guinea fowl, a native of Africa, was known as a turkey in some areas because some of the domesticated stock had been imported from Turkey. Out of this confusion, the American fowls were also called turkeys,” explains zoologist O.P. Breland. He remarks, though, “Just why the North American bird should have completely usurped this title is not recorded.” (5)

The American turkey quickly assumed its spot among prominent feast birds, eventually eclipsing them. For centuries throughout Europe, other large and more abundant fowl had adorned tables during celebratory meals and festive occasions. In England, roasted swan had been popular in such circumstances (6). Domesticated geese had been commonly used as well, especially during autumn (7). And the custom of two children pulling opposite ends of the wishbone or furcula to obtain a granted wish or to determine who would be the first to marry may have even begun with the greylag goose (8). When the turkey grew in popularity, so did the transfer of this ritual.

The Centerpiece of an American Holiday

By the 19th century, the turkey had gained a prominent position within the Thanksgiving meal, thanks primarily to novelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Not only did her efforts persuade President Lincoln in 1863 to declare Thanksgiving a nationally recognized annual holiday, she popularized the turkey’s culinary importance in her writings (9). Without her vision, perhaps Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today would not exist. Of course, the colloquial moniker “Turkey Day” may be an unfortunate indictment that this special occasion, established for expressing gratitude, has perhaps turned into our most gluttonous of pastimes. Oh well. Gobble, gobble!

Sources:

  1. “Primary Sources for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth”. Pilgrim Hall Museum. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.
  2. Armstrong, E. “The First Thanksgiving”, 11/27/2002. The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1127/p13s02-lign.html.
  3. Krulwich, R. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies.”, 11/23/2011. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2010/11/22/131516586/who-brought-the-turkey-the-truth-about-the-first-thanksgiving.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 44.
  5. Breland, O.P. Animal Life and Lore: Revised Edition. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972. p. 148.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D.
  7. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 93.
  8. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 104.
  9. Krulwich, R.

Crystal Balls with Wings?

crows_web Back in the days of yore, if one had limited access to a local clairvoyant, numerologist, or astrologer—no problem. Folks thought they could simply count on the birds nearby for soothsaying purposes. That’s right, people didn’t just look to these creatures for forecasts regarding the seasons and weather; they actually believed their feathered neighbors could predict one’s love life, the birth of a child, changes in financial status, and death.

But why rely on birds? And how were their predictions interpreted? First of all, despite “bird-brained” being rather a pejorative descriptor for a person, several kinds of birds appear to possess characteristics associated with intelligent behavior. For instance, parrots, crows, and magpies can actually learn and speak limited amounts of human language. Also impressive, most birds can swiftly take wing, scanning expansive areas. What potential they have for gathering all sorts of details from the sky, right? The problem is getting the information from those birds. Yet, as history shows, many people thought they had figured out how to do just that.

Ancient Systems of Augury

The reasoning is not entirely flawed. One could imagine that these feathered creatures, due to their day-to-day roaming, may know or sense things that we cannot. People who picked up on observable changes in bird behavior likely experienced success when preparing for or avoiding calamities, such as enemy ambushes and natural disasters. For instance, we know that societies who live closely with nature notice birds’ calls in order to alert themselves to dangers (1, 2). Successful readings in such matters may have inspired more ambitious means of interpretation.

Assuming that birds could be knowledgeable of human affairs, through either observation or proximity to the divine / heavens, our ancestors needed to find a way to decipher the messages. The complex practices ancient peoples worked out for attempting to do this are known as augury. Specially trained individuals, often priests or personnel of religious affiliation, interpreted such things as patterns in bird flight and calls. For instance, the Celtic Druids supposedly paid special attention to the wren’s calls (3). The Romans developed an extremely elaborate system of augury. Criteria included dividing the sky into quadrants for noting the location of birds such as eagles, and identifying random arrangements of dropped feed by pecking chickens. For the Romans, the use of chickens in such manners was deemed especially crucial for determining military action (4). In fact, employing birds for soothsaying purposes was arguably the Roman Empire’s most revered pre-Christian religion.

The beliefs and practices of the past few centuries, of course, are not nearly as elaborate. I remember as a child learning that mourning doves perching on or by a home supposedly portended death for one of its residents, a notion that is actually quite widespread (5). According to other lore, an owl that cries out by a house indicates that someone within the family will soon die (6). In India, people may consider the lone cry of an owl as an ominous sign of imminent death. However, they may also believe that any additional cries up to nine foretell a variety of events, some good, some bad. Two calls, for example, signify success in an upcoming endeavor. And six calls indicate that guests will soon arrive at your home (7, 8).

Tallying the Future

In British and American folklore involving magpies and crows, the actual number of birds, rather than their cries, is central. Below is perhaps the most popular version of numerous rhymes:

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.

As alluded to in a previous post, this saying has been used in several pop songs, such as Patrick Wolf’s “Magpie” and, with slight variation, in The Counting Crows’ “A Murder for One”. The counting rhyme is also the running theme of Roger Burton’s short film series Magpies.

You have likely heard other versions, for an assortment of these rhymes exist. Again, they’re usually associated with magpies and crows, and feature the familiar opening line on sorrow. Since these birds are sometimes linked with the occult, people may have believed the feathered animals had the power to influence their lives. As a result, a wide array of rituals emerged to counteract the negative effects from seeing a single magpie or crow, including offering special greetings and making the sign of the cross over one’s self (9, 10).

Questionable Methodologies

Superstitions involving birds vary. So while one may be the loneliest number and hence equated with grief, that same number is not necessarily of ill consequence when spotting the raven. For instance, according to the ballad “Bill Jones” by British Romantic writer M.G. Lewis, seeing one is actually auspicious, whereas additional ones are considered ominous. He writes, “Why, to find one raven is lucky, ‘tis true; / But it’s certain misfortune to light on two, / And meeting with three is the devil!” (11, 12). On the other hand, of course, the message from that lone avian visitor in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is far from fortunate or comforting.

Obviously, interpretations regarding birds are contingent on the culture, its time period, and the creative flair of locals. Such sayings, thus, are quite diverse and plentiful, but one shouldn’t put much stock—if any—in them. Interestingly, among the learning experiences cited in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Drifting off”, the speaker adds that he had “overrated … the folklore of magpies.” While the notion that birds could help us know our future has an alluring charm to it, most of us know all too well that such beliefs have no basis whatsoever in science. Nevertheless, such ideas can still be fun to entertain.

So the next time you see several crows or magpies strutting around your front yard, appreciate the sheen of their dark feathers in the sunlight and the extensive history of their impact upon the human imagination. Just don’t count on them, though, knowing anything more about your future than a secret never to be known or told. Sources:

  1. “Traditional alert ‘saved Andaman tribes’”. SciDev.Net: http://www.scidev.net/global/news/traditional-alert-saved-andaman-tribes.html.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. pp. 13-14.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 120.
  4. Ingersoll, E. pp. 214-216.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 29.
  6. Newell, V. p. 46.
  7. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 94.
  8. “Owl Mythology Around The World”, British Bird Lovers: http://www.britishbirdlovers.co.uk/articles/owl-mythology-around-the-world.
  9. Tate, P. pp. 77-79.
  10. “Magpies And Superstition”, British Bird Lovers: http://www.britishbirdlovers.co.uk/articles/magpies-and-superstition.
  11. Lewis, M.G. Romantic Tales, Volume 4. London: D.N. Shury, for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808. p. 95.
  12. Ingersoll, E. p. 171.

Avian Meteorology

Snow_grouse_web

Thanks to the latest technology, up-to-the-minute weather forecasts are right at our fingertips. But imagine a world without cable weather networks, smartphones, and the Internet. How about no satellite imaging or Doppler radar? Or even pioneering equipment like mercury barometers or hair-tension hygrometers? How would we manage?

Long before these advances, people obviously needed some means of predicting the weather, even if on a short-term basis. Forecasting was especially critical for agrarian and seafaring communities. As sustenance and survival were at stake, even the most rudimentary forms of meteorology could be helpful for those involved with harvesting crops, fishing, and conducting maritime trade.

Identifying types of cloud formations and wind direction were obvious aids. Another important element of early forecasting, though, involved noticing birds’ reactions to weather conditions. For example, sailors would take heed if seagulls headed inland or stormy petrels gathered near ships, both common indicators that rain was on the way. Agriculturalists would observe the behavior of domesticated birds such as chickens and geese for weather cues (1). The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes tips based on all of the above.

Harbingers of Rain and Drought

The appearance of certain birds were usually taken as positive signs regarding sowing and harvesting. The annual overflowing of the Nile River, responsible for the fertility of flooded soil, became associated with the Egyptian ibis, who arrived as the waters began ascending (2). In Germany a saying arose related to the timeliness of a certain bird’s call: “If the bittern’s cry is heard early, we may have a good harvest” (3). That statement likely is in reference to the bellowing sound emitted by the great bittern, which migrates to parts of Europe.

Of course, unwelcome sightings of fowl exist for the opposite reason. For instance, in some regions of Kenya, pastoralists view cattle egrets as a warning. Mercy Muiruri and Patrick Maundu explain that “… to the Maasai community, the presence of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) is a sign of an impending drought or dry spell. It alerts them to move their herds to areas with greener pasture” (4). Yet to the Scottish residents of Orkney a visiting clamour of rooks, usually associated with rain throughout most of the British mainland, may indicate famine (5).

Rather than foretelling severe conditions, though, many birds are actually thought of as prescient signs of wet weather. The swallow and cuckoo, both common symbols of spring, are often connected with rain, in particular the former when flying close to the ground (6, 7). In parts of Africa, calls from certain species of hornbill and hamerkop are believed to herald showers (8). Several birds, too, are deemed as precursors to storms; however, the woodpecker is perhaps the most renowned worldwide for its association with thunder (9, 10). Such imaginative leaps, I guess, are understandable when considering the poignant rapping of the bird’s repetitive, percussion-like strikes.

More than a Slight Chance of Accuracy?

During the wintertime, birds that appear in locations that experience frozen precipitation are thought of as “snowbirds”. (Florida is a well-known spot for migrating snowbirds, too—but those are of the human variety!) When I grew up in Virginia, I would occasionally hear folks refer to a sighting of dark-eyed juncos on the ground as a sign of inclement weather. Of course, other fowl in North America commonly thought of as “snowbirds” include the snow bunting, pine grosbeak, and common redpoll. In some Native American traditions, a covey of grouse during the winter meant a snowstorm was on the way (11). And according to Ute Indian lore, “To see crows, magpies, and blackbirds in the same tree at once, squabbling and fighting … is a sign that there will be heavy snowfalls the coming winter” (12).

A vast amount of weather lore regarding birds is prevalent throughout the world. How reliable our feathered friends are for forecasting purposes, though, is still debatable. Undoubtedly, they seem to be able to detect atmospheric fluctuations. Researchers have discovered that air pressure changes can affect avian behavior, resulting in certain birds flying lower, avoiding direct headwinds, and modifying their feeding practices (13). So some weather lore at least may actually be insightful.

See for yourself, though. If you can, test out some of the sayings. Also, feel free to share below bird-related weather lore in your area. Comments are welcome. In the meantime, just don’t expect avian meteorologists to ever replace the weather crew and gadgetry at your local TV station.

Sources:

  1. “Weather Proverbs and Prognostics: Birds”, The Old Farmer’s Almanac: http://www.almanac.com/content/weather-proverbs-and-prognostics-birds.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 17.
  3. Daniels, C.L., Stevans, C.M. (editors). Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Volume II. Detroit: Gale Research Company – Book Tower, 1971. p. 587.
  4. Muiruri, M.N., Maundu, P. “Birds, People and Conservation in Kenya.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. p. 288.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 53.
  6. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. pp. 181, 200.
  7. Ingersoll, E. pp. 152, 223-224.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 138, 332.
  9. Armstrong, E.A. p. 109.
  10. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 340.
  11. Daniels, C.L., Stevans, C.M. p. 640.
  12. Daniels, C.L., Stevans, C.M. p. 585.
  13. Miner, J. “It turns out birds have a knack for forecasting weather and adapting to changing elements, Western University researchers find”, 11/19/2013. The London Free Press: http://www.lfpress.com/2013/11/19/western-university-researchers-find-a-link-between-barometric-pressure-and-the-daily-routine-of-birds.

Popular Bird Songs (by People)

flamingo

The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, and The Police. These are just some of the recording artists who have performed songs about or related to birds.

Birdlore elements are easily integrated in music. The magpie, noted for its guile and love of shiny objects, “drops a marble from the sky” as a wake-up call in Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning”, which describes as well a circling vulture and a mockingbird singing stolen tunes from whippoorwills. Also, the counting folklore (e.g., “one for sorrow, two for joy”) associated with magpies is featured with haunting effect at the end of “Magpie” performed by Patrick Wolf and Marianne Faithfull. Similar counting rhymes have been adapted for crows, as used in “A Murder of One” by Counting Crows—a band named not only after birds but also after the folklore sometimes linked to them.

Those Birds—What Range!

Not surprisingly, tunes featuring the fair and feathered span all genres of popular music. We have a bluebird in Judy Garland’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, a nightingale in Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman”, a dove in Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”, and an eagle in Bette Midler’s “The Wind beneath My Wings”. There are jazz numbers such as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, made famous by Frank Sinatra. “Skylark”, later covered by Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane’s version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” are also classics. Country recordings include Tim McGraw’s “Last Dollar (Fly Away)”, Tanya Tucker’s “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”, Dolly Parton’s “Little Bird”, Roy Acuff’s “Sixteen Chickens and a Tambourine”, and, of course, Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry”, the latter’s whippoorwill and robin observed mirroring the crooning narrator’s dejection.

Like performers in country and jazz, musicians in rock, R&B, pop, and folk seem to be drawn to birds, if not more so. Even several bands have found the ideal representation of their collective persona and / or music in avian monikers and imagery. The Byrds, Eagles, The Black Crowes, Flock of Seagulls, Owl City, Cock Robin, Swans, Them Crooked Vultures, The Penguins, and The Cardinals top a long list. Note, too, that many albums feature cover art involving bird designs or photographs. A sample from different genres over the past few decades includes Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism, Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Deftones’ Diamond Eyes, The Who’s Endless Wire, the Patti Smith Group’s Wave, Waylon Jennings’ The Eagle, Rufus Thomas’s Do the Funky Chicken, Linkin Park’s Underground 4, Jimmy Buffett’s Songs You Know By Heart, Superchunk’s Come Pick Me Up, Snow Patrol’s Fallen Empires, and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky.

Something Old, Something New

While songbirds more than get their due, the nightingale definitely ranks as a perennial favorite. It’s featured in recordings by The Everly Brothers, Carole King, the Eagles, Norah Jones, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Demi Lovato. Bluebirds, eagles, doves, cuckoos, geese, blackbirds, and swallows are quite popular, too. Also, mockingbirds have enjoyed an enduring presence in popular music, going back at least to “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word”. That old folksong and lullaby has been performed by countless artists, most notably Nina Simone and Joan Baez. “Mockingbird”, another version written by Inez and Charlie Fox, is based on this tune. Carly Simon and James Taylor scored a major hit with it in the early 1970s. Rapper Eminem also has his own modern, jaded take, “Mockingbird”, loosely derived from the lullaby. Cutting Crew’s “One for the Mockingbird”, on the other hand, is not related at all to the children’s bedtime song.

Several folk songs have over the years spawned interesting interpretations. The Everly Brothers as well as Bob Dylan recorded “The Cuckoo” many decades ago, but other versions, such as ones by Laura Veirs and by Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers, are bringing the classic to new audiences. Lead Belly’s Depression-Era rendition of “Grey Goose” has remained influential as well, at one point inspiring an instrumental rock demo track by members of Nirvana and Screaming Trees (1). Of course, Pete Seeger, one of twentieth-century folk music’s most influential artists, recorded a version of the Lead Belly song long before the Seattle grunge musicians; he also has performed several other folk songs involving bird themes, such as “Turtle Dove” and “I Had a Rooster” (2). Perhaps, though, the oddest twist in the folk music genre comes from the old Australian song “Kookuburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”, which was in the news several years ago. A court ruled that the band Men at Work had used part of the melody in its 1980s hit “Down Under” without obtaining permission (3).

Figurative and Literal, Serious and Silly

The context in most popular songs about birds is often metaphorical, as illustrated by the dreamy optimism of Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle”, the memorializing lyrics of the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song”, and Prince’s melancholic ruminations on volatile love in “When Doves Cry”. Birds, too, are frequently emblematic of romance. Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo”, a song covered by Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, and Iggy Pop, among many others, in turn features lyrics of longing for a female beauty strolling by onlookers. Also, birds can represent a deep yearning or restlessness, symbolized in signature hits as different in style as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”.

Sometimes, though, a song’s use of birds as subject matter can be quite literal. For example, in “I like Birds” The Eels sing of the simple pleasures of watching the avian world. Several recordings by other artists actually incorporate bird sounds within or as track segues or introductions. The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “Across the Universe” as well as Pink Floyd’s “Grantchester Meadows” are early examples of this. Paula’s Cole’s “Mississippi”, Radiohead’s “Codex” / “Give up the Ghost”, Andrew Bird’s “Spare-ohs”, and Kate Bush’s “A Sky of Honey” use this technique as well.

Overall, the emotional and lyrical range, as with all popular music, varies with bird-themed songs. Several tunes are silly and fun. “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots and “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen come to mind. On the other hand, Florence + the Machine’s “Bird Song” is wistful and Kafkaesque. Quite a few classics are uplifting, such as “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers and “Sparrow” by Marvin Gaye. Some, too, are tinged with sadness, as reflected in “The Swallow Song”, an old folk tune that includes these poignant lines: “Watch the swallows as they fly / There is no sorrow like the murmur of their wings.”

Birds, having greatly influenced songwriters and musicians for generations, appear in dozens of popular songs, regardless of genre and time period. The ones named here, of course, are just a few of them. Please feel free to list some more below in the comments section, including any of your favorites.

Sources:

  1. Murray, N. “Grey Goose” (The Jury) in “No Apologies: All 102 Nirvana Songs Ranked”, 2/27/14. Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/no-apologies-all-102-nirvana-songs-ranked-20140227/77-grey-goose-the-jury-0071771.
  2. “Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes (Little and Big)”. Smithsonian Folkways: http://www.folkways.si.edu/pete-seeger/birds-beasts-bugs-and-fishes-little-and-big/american-folk-childrens/music/album/smithsonian.
  3. Associated Press in Sydney. “Men at Work lose appeal over kookaburra riff”, 10/7/11. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/07/men-at-work-lose-appeal.