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