The American South: Blue Jays and Ol’ Prejudices

bluejays

In To Kill a Mockingbird, siblings Jem and Scout are excited about receiving air rifles as gifts. Atticus, their father, however is less than enthusiastic, having little to say except for one bit of brief but important advice.

“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard,” he counsels, “but I know you’ll go after birds.” While notably declaring off limits the namesake of the novel, Atticus permits his children to take aim at other birds, naming one species in particular. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em.”1 His remark suggests these birds were held in the lowest regard.

Negative sentiment toward blue jays indeed was common in the South. Their occasional consumption of other birds’ eggs and nestlings probably did not help their standing. A bigger problem seems to have been the creatures’ loud and boisterous activity, as stressed in another literary classic of the American South. In William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a group of noisy jays congregating on a mulberry tree annoy one character so much that he hurls a stone at them. His admonition, “Git on back to hell, whar you belong at,”2 is quite telling. It hints at the bird’s dark status in the folklore of the South, where at best the blue jay was thought a hapless trickster figure and at worst, a servant to Satan.

The Devil’s Little Helper                                                                                               

Sporting bright plumage and vocalizing lively raptor-like shrieks and a distinctive pump-handle call, the blue jay is among the most common of avifauna in the continental United States. The bird impressed both Emily Dickinson (poem 51) and Mark Twain (the second and third chapters of A Tramp Abroad)—though the latter did address in humorous fashion the blue jay’s poor moral character. Yet the bird never became as popular or respected as other colorful and widespread species, such as the northern cardinal, eastern bluebird, and American goldfinch. This is evident by the fact that not a single American state has chosen the blue jay as its avian representative.3

In southern states, the bird was scorned, as apparent from that region’s literature and folklore. African-American stories from the South provide some particularly keen insights into the creature’s reputation. These tales generally agreed that this bird made weekly visits to hell.4 In most cases, Br’er Jay or Mister Jay was said to go there to bring either twigs (to fuel the infernal fires) or sand (to gradually extinguish the blazes or fill in the abyss to the underworld). Such trips, often considered punishment or the result of some unwise arrangement with the devil, were believed to occur every Friday afternoon.5, 6

The bird’s plight in these stories is presented with some variety. In one tale, for instance, the blue jay attempts to bring fire to a shivering black man in need of warmth, but the bird’s theft of a flaming rock from hell does not go as planned. When confronted by the devil, the jay ends up agreeing to pay him and his wife back regularly with kindling.7 Other accounts portray the corvid as greedy and unscrupulous, as when the bird makes a bad deal with Satan for some corn.8 Taken as a whole, these tales offer greater perspective on feelings toward the bird, adding to possibly why Atticus Finch singles it out.

An Undeserved Reputation

While in Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece no blue jay is shot and none visits the devil, the bird’s call is heard during the pivotal Halloween night scene, just prior to the novel’s climax. A blue jay, though, is not actually the one making the sounds. Instead, a mockingbird, perched in a tree on Boo Radley’s front lawn, mimics the calls of several birds, including those of the “irascible” blue jay and ominous whippoorwill.9 The songster’s selection foreshadows both the impending volatility and surprise ahead.

As readers soon learn in this coming-of-age classic, things are not always what they seem. Hearsay and impressions can deceive; prejudices and superstition thrive in the darkness. While the book’s message, of course, applies to attitudes about people, it could as well relate to birds such as the blue jay. After all, this much-maligned bird does a lot more than clamor in backyards; it is one of North America’s most interesting and beneficial winged residents.

Sources:

  1. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (first published in 1960). p. 103.
  2. Faulkner, W. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956 (first published in 1929). p. 209.
  3. The blue jay has fared much better in Canada, where it is the provincial bird of Prince Edward Island and the mascot of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team.
  4. A couple other birds, the mockingbird and cardinal, sometimes appeared in this role. (For more info, see Pucket, NN. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro [sic]. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926; Greenwood Press, 1975. pp. 549–550.)
  5. Pucket, NN. pp. 549–550.
  6. Young, M. Plantation Bird Legends. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916. pp. 122, 125, 126, 234, 237.
  7. Young, M. pp. 46–48, 51.
  8. Pucket, NN. p. 549.
  9. Lee, H. p. 293.
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A Wick-ed Idea: Real Birds as Candles

stormypetrelcandle

Long before Thomas Edison, someone had another bright idea. Why not take a dead, oily bird, slip a string through its dried carcass, and use it as a candle?

It worked. Up till nearly a century ago, the seafaring communities of Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland Islands used thousands of these feathered torches (1, 2, 3). Aside from possible fire-hazard risks and odor, the idea was practical enough. No oil for a lamp? Too little wax for making a candle? No problem. The stormy petrel (or storm petrel), the so-called “devil bird” used for these candles, was a familiar sight to Scottish sailors in the subarctic.

These birds are still found in these parts during the spring and summer, but the candles are relics of the past. If you click here, a photograph of an old stormy petrel candle is available from the Ottawa Field Naturalists’ Twitter account. A tarred wick protrudes from the specimen’s head.

Devil, Saint, or Something Else?

Though most petrels produce stomach oils (4), the bird’s name actually is not directly connected to petrol or petroleum. The latter is a combination of the Latin words for “rock” and “oil.” On the other hand, the word petrel is thought to be an alternate or mangled form of “pitteral,” an old English expression no longer in usage today (5). The linguistic variation of the word we have probably relates to the way the bird appears to amble across the ocean’s surface (6).

In fact, the petrel’s ability to “walk on water” has been long tied to another source for its name—St. Peter, who Matthew 14:29 reports as having performed this miraculous feat with Jesus. Thus, an enduring explanation for the origin of petrel has been that it stems from French and Italian renderings of the apostle’s name (7, 8). However, this does not seem to be the case (9). Interestingly, though, Peter is the English derivative of the Latin (Petrus) and Greek (Petros) words for “rock,” both related to the petr- prefix of petroleum (10).

While the linguistics of petrel may be murky, the rationale behind the bird’s first name is clear. The “stormy” moniker originated from an age-old belief in the petrel’s ability to predict tempestuous weather. A congregation of these creatures flocking near ships was taken as a sign by sailors that a storm was on its way (11, 12). Unfortunately, that ominous reputation is what earned the birds nicknames like “Waterwitch,” Satanique, and Oiseau du diable (literally “devil bird”) (13).

Many seafarers harbored negative attitudes towards stormy petrels, yet such contempt was not universal. Some sailors saw in the birds’ appearance a sort of blessing, a warning that enabled them to anticipate and prepare best they could for oncoming gales and thrashing waves. Thus, one nickname, “Mother Carey’s Chicken,” supposedly derives from Mater cara, a Latin epithet for the Virgin Mary. But just as notions connecting the bird’s name to St. Peter are disputed, so too is this idea (14). What we’re left with is a bit of a mystery.

More Light?

Even if no etymological links exist to those Biblical figures, stormy petrels are no more feathered demons than many other supposed devil birds. In fact, petrels are not the only avian creatures to have been used as feathered torches. Penguins (15) and the extinct great auks (16) have also served the same purpose. I do wonder, though, if the use of petrels as candles is related somehow to how strongly Orkney and Shetland denizens of the past felt towards these birds. Perhaps more light will be shed eventually on this subject.

Sources:

  1. Brox, J. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. p. 21.
  2. Rossotti, H. Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1993. p. 51.
  3. O’Dea, WT. “Artificial Lighting Prior to 1800 and its Social Effects”. Folklore. Vol. 62, No. 2 (Jun., 1951). p. 315. (Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.)
  4. Place, AR, et al. “Physiological Basis of Stomach Oil Formation in Leach’s Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma Leucorhoa)” The Auk. Vol. 106, No. 4 (Oct., 1989). pp. 687–699.
  5. “Petrel”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petrel.
  6. Fraser, I, Gray, J. Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 2013. p. 44.
  7. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 56.
  8. Swainson, C. The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds. London: Elliot Stock, 1886. p. 211.
  9. Fraser, I, Gray, J. p. 44.
  10. “Peter”, “Petroleum”. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online): http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peter, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/petroleum.
  11. Newell, V. p. 56.
  12. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  13. Swainson, C. p. 211.
  14. Swainson, C. pp. 211–212.
  15. Rossotti, H. p. 51.
  16. O’Dea, WT. p. 315.

 

Devil Birds and Black Magic

owl_counts_web

For our ancestors, the presence of supernatural evil was an accepted reality. Sinister forces were thought to organize in secret under the cover of darkness, often hidden or in disguise, so as to inflict harm and damnation. Folks believed demons and witches conspired against them by possessing or controlling other life forms, such as snakes, felines, wolves, and bats. Many birds, too, came to be viewed with suspicion.

To Hell and Back

The most obvious of potential offenders were those associated with darkness. Birds with black plumage, such as crows and ravens, fell easily into this category, commonly linked with witchcraft in places such as Germany and Russia (1). According to the prominent naturalist and science journalist Ernest Ingersoll, many European cultures once believed that crows made an annual descent to hell to pay tribute to the devil (2). Superstitions like these undoubtedly have helped cement in popular consciousness the ominous character of these birds, as have works of literature like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

For one of England’s literary giants, another dark colored bird provided inspiration. A ruminating Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (3, 4) takes the form of a cormorant surveying Eden:

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived … (Book 4: 194-198)

The cormorant’s large size and the way the bird’s positioned wings could be perceived as displayed in mocking fashion of the Christian savior on the cross are characteristics perfect for Milton’s proud and rebellious Satan. Moreover, folklore previously existed in the Britain identifying the cormorant with rapacity and sinister connotations, so the bird may have seemed a ready-made villain (5).

Occult Potions, Haunting Calls

Historically, some fowl have been maligned by more societies than others. Ancient writings have long equated dark forces with nocturnal birds, and of those, the owl is most commonly connected with death and necromancy. This holds true for many non-Christian cultures, too. Mayan texts describe the inhabitants of that civilization’s underworld, Xibalba, as possessing owl-like features, and the birds were considered the realm’s messengers to the living (6). For the Romans, owls were synonymous with the dark arts. In fact, according to naturalists John Sparks and Tony Soper, “The screech owl, Striges, was the Roman name for a witch” (7). Owls were also deemed the avian associates of Hecate, the Roman goddess of witchcraft (8). Not surprisingly, classical literature describes witches (e.g., Canidia in Horace’s Epode V and Medea in Book VII of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses) using owl ingredients for their special potions, perhaps later influencing Shakespeare’s rendering of the witches’ brew in Macbeth (9).

Besides the owl’s nighttime hunting regimen, the bird’s eerie cries must in part have played a role in its sinister reputation. After all, the haunting screech-call of the barn owl seems undoubtedly demonic! To the primitive mind—and to possibly many folks today—birds capable of emitting such eerie sounds must surely be adroit in fomenting evil.

Understandably, some people in parts of South America and Africa are known to be wary of guacharos residing in caverns for similar reasons (10). One European explorer described “the horrible noise” that “thousands” of these birds can make: “Their shrill and piercing cries strike the vaults of the rocks, and are repeated by the subterranean echoes” (11). Manx shearwaters in the rugged, north coastal areas of the United Kingdom are notorious for their haunting cries (12). A few other birds, notes folklore scholar Venetia Newell, are known for strange calls around dusk or at night; these include swifts, nightjars, and curlews (13).

Tainted with Satan’s Blood, the Witch’s Hex

Some feathered creatures, due to their unusual behavior, have also garnered associations with the devil and witchcraft. Based on its appearance alone, the European yellowhammer, the beautiful avian subject celebrated in the verse of 19th-century British Romantic poet John Clare, initially seems an unlikely candidate for one of Satan’s favorites. However, the bird’s eggs bear an odd feature, appearing to display cryptic markings. As Clare describes in his “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”: “Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells / Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads / As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells…” But where the poet sees beauty, superstitious minds presume evil. Edward Armstrong addresses the bird’s reputation (“gouted with the taint o’ the de’il’s blood”) in his The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds, noting that the strange egg markings may have been interpreted in the past as “cabbalistic signs” and unholy to Christians (14).

The connection to sinister forces makes more sense when considering the wryneck and hamerkop. The European wryneck, with its uncanny ability to hiss and move its neck in half-circle motions, must have seemed as if under some spell, so much so that according to ornithologist Peter Tate’s Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition, the English verb jinx is actually a derivative of the bird’s Latin name, Jynx torquilla (15). In Africa, the hamerkop is feared due to perceived ties to sorcery. A major reason for this involves the bird’s penchant for constructing its nest from human possessions, ranging from small household items to even hair. Why is such behavior considered disturbing? As naturalist Mark Cocker elaborates in Birds & People, “In order to exercise control over a person, a witch doctor must first get hold of some item that is intimately connected to the victim” (16). So, due to the hamerkop’s tendency for collecting personal items, many people today regard this bird as a sorcerer in avian form.

Many other birds throughout different cultures and historical periods have been linked to the occult. The above, though, seem to rank among some of the most well known and interesting.

Sources:

  1. 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. p. 74.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p.
  3. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 121.
  4. King, R.J. The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, University Press of New England, 2013. pp. 4, 54.
  5. Ibid. pp. 54-58.
  6. Spence, L. Mexico and Peru: Myths and Legends. London: Senate, 1994 (first published 1920). pp. 222, 227.
  7. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 191.
  8. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p.
  9. Sparks, J., Soper, T. pp. 197-198.
  10. Ingersoll, E. p. 16.
  11. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird. p. 251.
  12. “Manx Shearwaters”, Beauty of Birds: http://beautyofbirds.com/manxshearwaters.html.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. pp. 61, 46, 26.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist. pp. 193-195.
  15. Tate, P. p. 160.
  16. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 138).