The ways in which we watch and learn about birds - HD cameras, high-powered spotting scopes and lenses, and DNA analyzers - are new, but our interest in them is very old. Folklore and legends about birds exist in almost every human culture. Birds and bird-like creatures have been regarded as gods (Egypt's Horus and many Native American tribes), symbols of authority (Zeus's eagle), supernaturally wise (Athena's owl and crows and ravens in general), and harbingers of death and the dead. They are found in many sacred texts, including the Bible, the Torah, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad-gita, and countless oral traditions. To watchers who didn't have the benefit of global knowledge or a scientific framework, the fascinating and sometimes eerie lives of birds could be explained only through supernatural events or powers. Our respect and love for birds has traditionally been tempered with apprehension, since the knowledge they possess could be turned against us.
We hope you enjoy this quick round-up of bird folklore. Happy Halloween!
Birds as harbingers of death
It is hard to believe that a bird could be considered a harbinger of death. But in a great deal of traditional lore, birds fly between earth and heaven or earth and the realms of the dead. As a consequence, some birds became associated with death and the dead, especially dark birds, nocturnal birds, and birds with an eerie or mournful cry. Depending on where you are from, your relatives may have known that:
- If a bird flies into your house, there will soon be a death in the family. One of the surer omens of death is a bird entering the bedroom of a sick person and landing on the bedpost.
- A white bird or a crow flying against a window at night foretells of a death in the house within a year. A pigeon flying against the window is a sign of death.
- Seeing six crows is a sign of coming death, as is a whippoorwill singing near the house.
- Seeing two turtle doves together in a tree means death is coming. If a sparrow attacks a swallow and throws it from its nest (on or near a home), a son will be born and a daughter will die.
- A woodpecker knocking on the house is a death omen.
- A peacock feather brought into the house is taunting death.
- If you walk under a tree in the evening and an owl hoots right above your head, it means a relative or friend of yours will die within a year.
- If an owl hoots while perched on your rooftop, death will pay a visit. Other parts of the world say that an owl simply hooting in the neighborhood is foreshadowing death nearby.
- To hear a rooster crow at your door is a sign of death.
Birds as omens and talismans
In addition to death, birds might indicate future events or serve as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural world. Crows and ravens in particular have a large body of lore associated with them. Some cultures see them as essentially beneficial, although full of mischief, while others mistrust and fear them.
- In Christian tradition ravens were believed to have special taste for criminals, and to enjoy plucking out the eyes of sinners, although they also fed sacred hermits and were used by Jesus as an example of God's provenance. In the Qur'an, a raven is mentioned as the creature who taught Cain how to bury his murdered brother. In the Talmud, the raven is described as having been only one of three beings on Noah's Ark that copulated during the flood and so was punished. North American and Canadian mythology depicts the raven as a Creator, a rascal, or a trickster. Raven created the world and saved all of the animals from a big flood, but he also created a great deal of trouble among humans for his own amusement...and we have Raven to thank for mosquitoes.
- In Southeast Asia, a crow flying low across one's path as one starts on an important errand or trip is considered an omen, interpreted as favorable or not depending on the direction it crosses.
- Ancient Greeks believed that if a single crow appeared at a wedding breakfast, there would be a divorce.
- In Sweden, ravens were known as the ghosts of murdered people.
- A destroyed crow’s nest indicates a fire in the area within three days.
- If a crow lands on a house and caws sorrowfully, a calamity is sure to befall it. If, on the other hand, his joyful “carrow” is heard, it is a sign of good luck.
- It is unlucky to kill a robin or a swallow. Swallows have been considered sacred because they were thought to have flown around the cross of Calvary. In some places, the ill luck from an accidental killing of a robin or swallow can be canceled if burial is given to the creature. The poem 'The Funeral of Cock-Robin' refers to this tradition in a funny way.
- In England, the stonechat is believed to be continually chatting with the Devil. In parts of the British Isles the chicken is also thought of as a bird of ill omen, due to an old idea that he “crowed for joy” at the hour of crucifixion.
- In Norway, those in search of a drowned body would row around the body of water with a rooster aboard, believing that the bird would crow when the boat reached the spot where the corpse was.
- In Ireland, sparrows, stares and plovers are thought to be on friendly terms with the fairies. The lark and swallow are both birds of good omen, as long as the swallow does not rest on the housetop.
- In France, there was once a belief that the quail could foretell the price of wheat with the number of his calls, prompting it to be called the “Bird of Prophecy”.
- An American superstition holds that to possess the feathers of a peacock in your home is unlucky.
- In Poland, it was believed that girls who died unmarried turned into doves, while those who died married turned into owls. It was also believed that owls did not come out during the day because they were so beautiful and would be mobbed by other birds out of jealousy.
Do you feed or provide water for birds? If not, the dead might be hearing about your bad behavior!
In parts of Turkey, small vessels of water are sometimes placed upon graves for the birds to drink. Some marble tombs have basins for water as well, as birds are thought to carry messages about the living to the dead. The water is left as an attempt to curry the favor of the birds, so that the dead do not receive unfavorable messages. So get out there and fill those feeders!
Things that helped me learn and write about this subject: