“V” is for Vulture—and Virgin Birth, too

vulture_web

Giving birth without conception is usually considered a miraculous affair. However, according to encyclopedia-like manuscripts of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, such acts were not that extraordinary for vultures.

Back then, female vultures were supposedly capable of producing offspring without sexual relations. In some situations, the wind was believed to impregnate the female (1, 2). What’s more, one ancient text even states that a pregnant vulture can obtain a special stone that, by her sitting on it, will free her from pain while she goes about laying her eggs (3).

Mary and the Vulture, Jesus and the Pelican

Fascinating stories like the ones above emerged in the bestiary collections of late medieval Europe. These manuscripts, consisting of illustrations, notes, scriptural citations, and commentaries on numerous creatures, drew upon earlier sources, most notably Physiologus, an ancient text likely composed in second-century CE Egypt (4). Other classics, such as Herodotus’s The History, Pliny’s Natural History, Aelian’s History of the Animals, and the writings of church fathers, including St. Isidore’s Etymologies and St. Ambrose’s Hexameron, also offered ample material (5, 6).

Bestiary authors featured all types of animals—and many kinds of fowl—relating them to Christian themes. As is the case with animals like the dragon and unicorn, some of the avian entries, namely the phoenix, cinnamolgus (cinnamon bird), and charadrius, are mythical. However, most of the listings describe real subjects, such as the aforementioned vulture—but attached to erroneous information. Although detailed observations clearly did not inform the accounts, medieval readers didn’t seem to mind. First, most of the people at the time were likely unaware that the descriptions were inaccurate. Second and most importantly, these folks were consulting the text primarily for spiritual inspiration and ethical guidance. “Concerning the natural world, bestiaries were never intended to be scientific; instead the entries were moralizing and religious allegories,” states Jenneka Janzen of Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands (7).

Several accounts provide what for modern audiences must seem like unfamiliar, if not strangely tenuous, examples of religious symbolism. For instance, the female vulture in many bestiaries not only represents chastity, but the bird—due to the fantastical belief noted earlier—is also connected with the Virgin Mary (8, 9). The pairing, at first glance seems rather odd, but probably not any stranger than that of Christ with the pelican. The reason behind the latter’s association is due to another specious notion. Apparently, blood from a pelican’s wound was once believed capable of reviving the bird’s offspring. Ornithologist Peter Tate does offer a sensible explanation for such a bizarre belief: “Parent pelicans feed their young macerated food from the large pouch under their bill. Early observers clearly thought that it was blood that was being transferred” (10). The mistaken belief in the pelican offering blood to revive its young led to its symbolic association to the atonement of the Crucifixion. Hence, in late medieval paintings (11, 12), the bird is sometimes depicted nesting on or near Jesus’s cross.

Reborn Eagles, Vigilant Cranes

Since bestiaries and their earlier sources were far from factually sound, the texts propagated lots of rather peculiar ideas. For instance, eagles were thought to be emblematic of spiritual rebirth and baptism, for people centuries ago believed that when one of these birds advanced in age, it would soar as far possible towards the sun to sear away the cataracts from its eyes and burn away the remaining plumage from its body. The fiery raptor would then plummet into a spring or lake where it would again rise, as if from some magical fountain of youth, emerging as a renewed version of itself (13, 14). What an amazing but truly fantastical idea! If such a notion were true, of course, reproduction would not be necessary for eagles to survive.

Other accounts avoid reproductive matters altogether, praising a creature for embodying a particular virtue. For instance, the crane, noted for its vigilance, was cited metaphorically as a friend who assists by watching out for others, particularly against the stealthy advances of sin. How did this odd idea take root? Well, before drifting to sleep, a group of these birds were said to designate one of their members as a lookout. To safeguard itself from napping while on duty, the lookout supposedly hoisted a stone in one of its feet. That way, if the crane nodded off, the small rock would fall, thumping the ground and rousing the bird back to attention (15). This story, unlike so many in bestiaries, does have a ring of truth to it. Cranes indeed have the ability to sleep with one leg up; however, the part about sentries and clasped stones is not an accurate portrayal of crane behavior (16).

Overall, medieval writers penned bestiary entries to celebrate spiritual ideals, extol virtuous conduct, and condemn vice—not to provide true-to-experience, naturalistic reports. One today could excuse most of the erroneous descriptions, for the stories, just as they must have centuries ago, do appear to offer some memorable life lessons and religious instruction. And such accounts definitely make for some interesting reading.

Next week’s post will continue to look at the symbolic significance of birds on our culture, but we will move out of the Dark Ages. Instead we’ll focus on the spiritually uplifting effects of birds in general on modern society.

Sources:

  1. Werness, H.B. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2004. p. 425.
  2. Biedermann, H. Dictionary of Symbolism. Hulbert, J. (Translator). New York: Facts on File, 1989 (1992). p. 370.
  3. Curley, M.J. (Translator). Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p. 48.
  4. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 81.
  5. Curley, M.J. pp. xxi, xxix of introduction.
  6. Janzen, J. “Where the Wild Things Are: The Medieval Bestiary,” 8/16/2013. Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth Century. Institute for Cultural Disciplines at Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands: http://medievalfragments.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/where-the-wild-things-are-the-medieval-bestiary/.
  7. Janzen, J.
  8. Werness, H.B.
  9. Biedermann, H.
  10. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 105.
  11. Collections: “Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene.” Philadelphia Museum of Art: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102733.html.
  12. Rosasco, B. “Recent Acquisition: Crucifixion by Jacopo del Casentino,” Princeton University Art Museum: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/story/recent-acquisition-crucifixion-jacopo-del-casentino.
  13. Curley, M.J. p. 12.
  14. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 141.
  15. Heck, C., Cordonnier, R. p. 354.
  16. Johnsgard, P.A. Cranes of the World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983; electronic edition: Lincoln, Nebraska, 2008. p. 72.

The Mysterious Tradition of the Wren Hunt

wren

How would you react if on the day after Christmas a small procession of boys in costume came to your door chanting some bizarre ditty? Although the group may indulge in song, you couldn’t confuse these kids with carolers. After all, besides wearing face paint and masks, they are carrying what appears to be a lifeless bird fastened to a pole.

Upon sight of such a strange mob, one’s first impulse, rather than opening the door, may be to call the authorities. Regardless of whichever decision one makes, you would eventually discover that these so-called “wren boys” are as harmless as Halloween trick-or-treaters. They’re simply asking for money, sometimes requested to bury a small, dead bird. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated, such a practice must seem incredibly odd.

Nothing Says “Thank You” like a Good-Luck Feather

Commonly referred to as the “Wren Hunt” or “Wren Day,” the custom of carrying a wren door-to-door during one of the first days following winter solstice dates back at least several centuries. It was popular in parts of Ireland and Britain (1). At one time, it was also practiced in areas of France (2) and even in St. John’s of Newfoundland, Canada (3).

The bird generally was not harmed or bothered throughout much of the year, except during the time of the Hunt. Boys usually would capture a wren on or around Christmas, with the bird often perishing in the process, though occasionally some would survive (4, 5, 6). On December 26th (St. Stephen’s Day and the usual date for Boxing Day in the United Kingdom), the adolescent boys and young men, donning disguises, would collect money from their stops throughout the village, to be used later to put on a party referred to in Ireland as a “Join” or “Mummer’s Ball” (7).

As mentioned before, the wren boys are known to sing during their money-gathering visits. One of their chants—many versions exist—goes in part something like this:

A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren. (8)

In the past, people who contributed to the boys’ funds were given a feather plucked from the wren, a token considered good luck. But retribution could await those folks who refused charity, for the boys, as a traditional means of cursing the person, would bury the dead bird on his or her property (9). Today, of course, this isn’t a problem, for real wrens fortunately are no longer used (10).

A Saint’s Stoning, an Army’s Betrayal, or a Fairy’s Curse?

As to the origins of this strange practice, they appear to be long buried in history. Some people attribute the custom as a reaction that later developed in response to St. Stephen’s murder, saying that the bird coincidentally disclosed the first Christian martyr to his enemies (11, 12). Do note, however, that Chapters 6 and 7 of Acts in the New Testament make no mention of the bird’s involvement in Stephen’s arrest or subsequent stoning. The only connection between the saint and the bird appears to be the timing of the hunt.

Some folks link the annual capture of the wren to the bird’s supposed role to another act of betrayal.  A host of parallel stories indicate that a wren inadvertently alerted invading enemy forces (e.g., Vikings, Cromwell’s army) to a surprise military attack by Irish defenders, resulting in calamity for the latter (13, 14). Many other such narratives are recorded. Depending on the story, the two factions consist of various parties. Nevertheless, the wren’s treacherous actions remain similar in the accounts.

One tale reported from the Isle of Man is remarkably different. This explanation instead blames the practice on a beautiful femme fatale, who led multitudes of men to drowning with her siren-like voice. In some cases, she is referred to by the name of “Cliona” (15). According to Joseph Train’s nineteenth-century account, a “knight-errant” was almost able to destroy the “fairy” or witch, but she used her supernatural powers to escape, transforming herself into a wren, a form to which she was subsequently condemned every year. This story, unlike others, explains the idea behind the wren feathers as a good luck charm. According to Train, one who possesses a feather from the fairy-wren supposedly will not suffer shipwreck for the following year (16). Thus, such a charm, particularly for coastal fishing communities, was understandably deemed an invaluable talisman.

Taking the Hunt into a New Century

Despite the prevalence of lore surrounding the Wren Hunt’s origins, the custom’s original source remains uncertain. Several scholars have attempted to link the practice to pre-Christian cultures, such as to the Celts. For instance, Ernest Ingersoll thought that Christian missionaries likely “condemned the little songster as a symbol of heathen rites, and encouraged their converts to kill it at the time of the annual Christmas feast as a sign of abnegation of Druidical connections” (17). Edward Armstrong’s The Wren and Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence’s Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol explore in-depth the possibility of this custom springing from ancient connections (18, 19). For the skeptical, though, the exact origins and rationale for the practice cannot be confirmed; and the dearth of available evidence beyond the past few centuries simply fosters speculation.

Tracing the practice’s origins—whether they be only a few centuries old or several millennia—does not pose a problem for the small number of people who today celebrate the Wren Hunt holiday. For them, the occasion is an opportunity to partake in an ancestral tradition with some added modern-day twists. Today in Sligo, Ireland, for example, writer Joe McGowan reports that few boys and young men stop by homes anymore; most instead go to pubs, retirement facilities, and the like to collect money (20). In other places, such as Ireland’s Dingle, the celebration has given way to Wren Day festivals and parades (21). For better or worse, the scenario described earlier of costumed boys and young men at front doorsteps has mostly become a thing of the past.

Sources:

  1. Howe, L. “The Burial of the Wren,” The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 6, No. 22, Jul.–Sep., 1893. p. 231.
  2. Howe, L.
  3. “Folk-lore Scrap-book.” “Hunting the Wren. — In the ‘Evening Herald,’ St. John’s, N. F.” Rev. A. C. Waghorne. The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 6, No. 21, Apr.–Jun., 1893. p. 143.
  4. Howe, L.
  5. Rev. A. C. Waghorne.
  6. Bergen, F.D., “Burial and Holiday Customs and Beliefs of the Irish Peasantry,” The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 8, No. 28, Jan.–Mar., 1895. p. 24.
  7. McGowan, J. “Wrenboys in Ireland,” Sligo Heritage: http://www.sligoheritage.com/archwrenboys.htm.
  8. McGowan, J. [Note: English translation of some Irish dialect rendered here]
  9. Bergen, F.D..
  10. McGowan, J.
  11. McGowan, J.
  12. “Winter/Religious Festivals: Saint Stephen’s Day,” IrishFestivals.net: http://www.irishfestivals.net/saintstephensday.htm.
  13. McGowan, J.
  14. “Winter/Religious Festivals: Saint Stephen’s Day,” IrishFestivals.net.
  15. McGowan, J.
  16. Train, J. An Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man, from the Earliest Times to the Present Date; with a View of its Ancient Laws, Peculiar Customs, and Popular Superstitions, Volume 2. Mary A. Quiggin, North Quay: London, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., Stationers’ Hall Court. 1845. p. 125.
  17. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co. 1923. pp. 120–121.
  18. Armstrong, E.A. The Wren, first edition, New Naturalist monograph. London: Collins, 1955.
  19. Lawrence, E.A. Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol, first edition. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
  20. McGowan, J.
  21. Bray, A., and O’Sullivan, M., Irish Independent. “Music / revelry with the Wren Boys in Dingle,” 12/27/2012. Experience the Dingle Peninsula: http://www.dinglepost.com/post/38941787608/music-revelry-with-the-wren-boys-in-dingle.

Halcyon Days—Here Again?

halcyon

Today marks the first day of the so-called “halcyon days”—or does it?—a period of fifteen days in December first recognized by ancient Mediterranean civilizations for its tranquil weather. During this brief time winds calm and storms typically abate, so that the so-called halcyon birds could supposedly build their nests upon the waters.

Some classical texts indicate that for the first seven days prior to the winter solstice, these birds constructed nests from fish bones, while during the seven days after, they tended to their eggs and hatchlings. Aristotle writes of this process in Book 5, Chapter 8, of his The History of Animals. Several ancient writers reiterate the claim, including Pliny and Plutarch (1). Other sources, as we shall see, appear to dispute the time period, indicating an earlier arrival of the halcyons’ brief mating season.

But are halcyon days something that actually occurs? Aren’t these birds just a mythological concept? Or do they actually have real-life counterparts? Where does the myth end and the truth begin?

When the Winds First became Still

The origin of the halcyon bird goes way back thousands of years. It’s rooted in a mythological love story involving Alcyone and her royal husband Ceyx. The Catalogue of Women (usually attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod, possibly a contemporary of Homer) and Metamorphoses by Roman writer Ovid are two popular sources, among others. Despite several variations in the tale, the crux remains the same. Ceyx perishes in a shipwreck and a distraught Alcyone dashes into the sea. The gods react with compassion, reviving her husband by transforming him into a bird. They, too, of course, turn her into a bird so they are both alive and alike again.

Halcyon days apparently resulted so the two feathered lovers could mate without disturbance on the sea. Such calm periods are noted in Halcyon, a short dialogue sometimes dubiously attributed to Lucian of Samosata. According to Ovid’s account (Book 11 of Metamorphoses) Alcyone’s father Aeolus, the demigod and wind keeper of Homer’s Odyssey (Book 10), halts the winds for several days each year for his daughter. Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Simonides, Pliny and others link the period of tranquility for mating halcyons to Sicily (2). Incidentally, while to the south of Sicily lies Malta, to the north are the Aeolian Islands—the namesake of Alcyone’s father.

The Real Halcyon, New Lore

Although we know today that the halcyon is a mythical creature, the bird interestingly has a real-life counterpart. Since the halcyon is described in several texts, such as in Book 9, Chapter 15, of The History of Animals (Aristotle again), as a blue and green bird comparable in size to a sparrow, the creature later became associated with the kingfisher. In fact, some of the scientific taxonomical names for kingfishers are derived from the word “Halcyon.” However, unlike the mythical halcyon, the common kingfisher nests in burrowed holes along lakes, river banks, and seashores (3).

A host of new lore also ended up developing around the kingfisher, due to the bird’s link to the ancient stories. In fact, the conflation of the Alcyone myth (romantic love associations) and halcyon days (wind associations) with the kingfisher has resulted in some peculiar practices during parts of history. For instance, according to ornithologist Peter Tate, “… the Tartars of Eastern Europe and central Asia believed kingfisher feathers could be turned into powerful love talismans. The method was to throw plucked kingfisher feathers into water, collect all those that floated, and then stroke the hapless object of affection with one of them” (4). In the late nineteenth-century, John Ashton notes an even stranger application: “If a dead Kingfisher were hung up by a cord, it would point its beak to the quarter whence the wind blew” (5). Belief in the dead bird’s wind-detecting ability, as Ashton adds, even found its way in the plays of William Shakespeare (King Lear, Act 2, Scene 2) and Christopher Marlowe (Jew of Malta, Act 1, Scene 1). Several decades later in seventeenth-century England, Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, criticized such practices as scientifically erroneous (6).

Separating Myth from Reality

Much of the lore surrounding the kingfisher, of course, is clearly without merit. Although the birds are monogamous, they can mate several times throughout the year, usually starting in the spring or summer (7).  Also, the idea of halcyon days as a set period of time in December is far from universally accepted in Europe, even in areas near Sicily, where the mating ritual is noted by several ancient sources. In some parts of Europe halcyon days is akin more to what we call Indian summer here in North America, occurring as early as November. For example, when Shakespeare refers to halcyon days in his play The First Part of King Henry VI (Act 1, Scene 2), his Joan of Arc equates it with “St. Martin’s summer.” British folklore scholar Venetia Newell points out, “In France, especially, the kingfisher is associated with St. Martin, whose day (November 11th) often falls within a period of fine weather before the onset of winter” (8). Furthermore, in Malta where kingfishers can reside from August to April, the birds are also associated with St. Martin of Tours rather than the winter solstice (9).

So what are we to make of all this? Have halcyon days passed us by? Perhaps such brief periods are not something actually restricted to a calendar. Perhaps they are simply feelings of serene bliss and beauty, at times contingent upon an experience or setting. They may become available when, as Walt Whitman writes, “all the turbulent passions calm…”, or while, like Ogden Nash states, “… We vegetate, calm, and aesthetic, / On the beach, on the sand, in the sun” (10, 11).

Perhaps in these days of ratcheting pressures involving holiday season preparations, we can still find some respite, no matter who we are or where we live, whether celebrating with others or relaxing in contemplation. With a few deep breaths, our mind—like Alcyone’s mythical nest—occasionally can settle into near stillness upon the oft-turbulent sea of existence. Maybe, in such moments, halcyon days can be found… here and now, again and again.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 21.
  2. Ingersoll, E.
  3. “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online. http://www.avibirds.com/html/Kingfisher.html.
  4. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition, 2008. p. 70.
  5. Ashton, J. Curious Creatures in Zoology with 130 Illustrations throughout the Text. London: John C. Nimmo, 1890. p. 200.
  6. Browne, T. Pseudodoxia Epidemica. 1646; 6th, 1672 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/pseudodoxia/pseudo310.html).
  7. “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online.
  8. Newell, V. The Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., U.K.: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 39.
  9. “Kingfisher”. Malta Independent Online. http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2014-02-07/news/the-kingfisher-3899883521/.
  10. Whitman, W. “Halcyon Days.” Walt Whitman Archive: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/periodical/poems/per.00093.
  11. Nash, F.O. “Pretty Halcyon Days.” Best Poems: http://www.best-poems.net/ogden_nash/poem-13465.html.

“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.

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 mawhichrble from the sky” as a wake-up call in Neko Case’s “Magpie to the Morning,”  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’s “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.