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Delving into cultural myths, tales and beliefs about wild birds

Birds have long fascinated humans, and not only because they can do what we can’t: jump into the air and fly. They are everywhere we have settled on Earth, and in many places we have not. We admire them for their variety of shapes, feathers, and song. But we are also often annoyed and sometimes scared by them. So it is little wonder that birds have inspired so much art, music, and folklore, from the dove that was the harbinger of the end of the great biblical flood to the swallows that signal the onset of summer.

Click the cover for more details about the book.
Click the cover for more details about the book.

Birds: Myth, lore & legend, by Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor (Bloomsbury, August 2016) “draws on historical accounts and scientific literature to reveal how colourful tales or superstitions were shaped by human imagination from each bird’s behaviour or appearance,” states the publisher’s website. “It offers an enchanting and different perspective on birds across the world.” The book is a really good read for anyone  remotely interested in birds. For enthusiasts there is much to learn about the cultural aspects of our feathered friends — and how they inspire us and shape our views of the world.

To find out what the authors studied and learned, we interviewed them via email:

David Braun: How did you come to collaborate on this book and what made you come up with the idea?

Rachel Warren Chadd: Both of us are bird lovers (Marianne is the expert) and Bloomsbury brought us together. I had approached the publisher with the proposal, suggested by a friend who writes about English folklore. Fascinated by the idea, I had drafted four contrasting entries – the owl, the stork, the humming bird and the cassowary – briefly exploring the stories around each, with illustrations chosen by a designer colleague. Marianne, who has written more than 20 bird titles, brought her expertise to the project enabling us to extend the book’s scope so that, rather than just telling stories we could explore in detail what aspects of a species—its behavior, appearance, or call, for instance— might have given rise to the myths, legends, or other beliefs associated with that bird.

Marianne Taylor: I was delighted to be approached about this book by the project manager at Bloomsbury. As Rachel says, I have written quite a bit on bird ecology, and the practicalities of birdwatching. But it was a real treat to have the chance to delve into cultural myths, tales and beliefs about wild birds, and set this against a backdrop of real avian biology. Rachel and I had an initial meeting to work out the structure of the book and who would do what, and all went extremely smoothly thereafter.

goldfinchrainham
European Goldfinch

David: Birds have apparently inspired societies in in every epoch and in every place. What are the most common myths and legends across distance and time?

Rachel: At least six come to mind.

  • That birds flying between the earth and sky are associates or messengers of deities. Doves (bird of Astarte, Aphrodite/Venus, Holy Spirit), ravens (Odin’s familiars in Norse mythology), cranes (sacred bird of Hermes/Mercury, Celtic bird of the moon) and eagles (familiars of Zeus/Jupiter) are among the many species assigned such roles in myth and legend.
  • Similarly that certain birds, especially doves, represent the souls of the departed. Historically, there has been a widespread belief, call it superstition perhaps, that birds are both ‘psychopomps’ carrying souls to the next world, and are also representations of the dead. It persists today.
  • Swans—the epitome of tranquil, elegant beauty—are the subject of swan maiden legends in the mythology of countries as far-flung as Iceland, Finland, Sri Lanka, Iran, Australia, and Indonesia.
  • Within Christian cultures is the folkloric belief that birds marked with red or pink, such as the robin, the swallow, the goldfinch, or the crossbill, were present at the Crucifixion and gained their coloring from the blood spilt as they pulled the thorns from Christ’s forehead (or in the crossbill’s case, the nails that pinned Christ to the cross)
  • The David and Goliath appeal of a small bird out-flying an eagle by hiding under its wing appears in several cultures. This is commonly the wren but also, in Native American mythology, the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). It may be inspired by natural behavior; small birds mobbing a raptor that gets close to their nests, by flying at its head; eagles lack the agility to counterattack.
  • That black birds—especially corvids—are evil, think ravens (sniffing out the dead, plucking out their eyes), or crows and rooks (both omens of death in various cultures). The magpie, being considered half black (though in reality an iridescent blue black and white) was traditionally cursed for failing to go into full mourning at the Crucifixion but could be good or bad in English folklore, depending on numbers (one for sorrow, two for mirth, etc.). It was a bird of the underworld in Germany and ridden by witches in Scandinavia.

Marianne: Just to add to Rachel’s point 6, I was particularly struck by the universality of a certain mythology surrounding bird plumage colors. It seems that every black bird was originally white, but was stained or singed in some moralistic mishap. And every plain brown bird was once brightly colored but lost its brilliance as a punishment, or by accident, or even through self-sacrifice. The kiwi is an example of the latter – according to Maori legend it gave up flight and colorful plumage when it agreed to live on the dark forest floor and eat up all the insects that were killing off the trees. For its generosity, it became the most revered of all birds.

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Carrion Crow

David: Why do birds frighten so many people, even today? Is there still a lingering belief that they have superpowers and may be harbingers of misfortune or death?

Rachel: You could blame Alfred Hitchcock for his 1963 horror film or cite much older associations of black birds with death. Physical traits—large black ragged wings, strong claws, sharp bills—all play a part in this. Black corvids and vultures can seem to us especially witch-like and evil, an impression only enhanced by their diet of dead flesh.

While some birds—such as the highly territorial and recently notorious male Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) —will attack humans during the breeding period, most attack only other birds or small mammals. But the speed of attack— especially by birds of prey—can be phenomenal; a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), for instance, can swoop at speeds exceeding 186mph, using its talon to punch its prey dead or senseless from the sky. Human imagination can easily conjure up armies of such birds, attacking from the sky.

A bird’s cry at night can also be haunting. In North America the relentless chanting of whip-poor-wills was thought to foretell death or disaster. In Britain, Tawny Owls (Strix aluco) may be heard calling more persistently at night around Halloween, which a lively imagination could perceive as ominous (owls are widely associated with haunting) but is in fact, because they are re-establishing their territories as the young birds disperse from their breeding grounds.

Marianne: We humans have always sought to dominate the natural world, but birds literally soar out of our reach – as far as we’re concerned, they do have superpowers! Many birds exist beyond our control and live their lives beyond our observations (or at least they did before the existence of firearms and binoculars) and that in itself is rather threatening to the human ego. Those that are active at night, or live in the most rugged and inaccessible places, seemed particularly unknowable and untouchable, so we filled in the gaps with stories and beliefs, which is really just another way to try to exert control. Owls can already fly silently through a pitch-dark forest without hitting any obstacles, can detect a tiny mouse moving about under a foot of snow using just their hearing, and turn their heads to look directly behind themselves – all abilities astounding to us. So why not add a full suite of psychic powers to their CVs? Sadly, such superstitions remain so strong today in some countries that the birds are routinely persecuted and killed.

David: What are the origins of some of the most common myths about birds…I’m thinking of how storks were thought to deliver babies, owls are wise, vultures are the messengers of doom, while doves symbolize peace and good.

Marianne and Rachel:

  • The ancient notion that storks brings babies is probably rooted in the birds’ migration and roosting habits. In Europe where the belief was most prevalent, the birds arrive and breed in spring, establishing their nests on roofs and other high, prominent places where their meticulous parenting is easily observed. Spring is also associated with general fecundity, when human births were possibly more numerous, roughly nine months after the summer solstice, a traditional festival celebrating fertility. The belief was given fresh prominence in the 19th century by the somewhat macabre Hans Christian Andersen story The Storks, but also served to disguise the facts of life at a time of great prudery (especially in Victorian England).
  • The characterization of owls as “wise” owes much to the bespectacled appearance of certain species and the popularization of this idea in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories of A. A. Milne and other children’s books. The association, however, is much older, as in ancient Greece the Little Owl (Athene noctua) was the bird of Athene, the much loved goddess of wisdom. In general, however, the owl image is more ominous; fear and dread of the birds is deep-rooted not only in Europe but in African, American and many Asian cultures.
  • Vultures appear to be victims of their appearance and carrion-eating habits. Their often bald heads, beady eyes, ragged wings, hooked bills, and mighty claws have long been associated with fear and death, which some suggest made them the prototype of the traditional witch figure. Curiously eagles, which belong to the same family (Accipitridae) as 16 Old World vultures, have a very different image. Vultures, too, were viewed more favorably as godlike figures and spiritual messengers by the Mayans, while across the world in Asia they played and still play an important role in Zoroastrian and Buddhist sky burials, devouring the flesh of the dead.
  • Doves enjoy possibly the most positive image of any bird—gentle, pure, divine, symbols of peace and love—in sharp contrast to their close pigeon relatives of the same family Columbiae. Indeed, ‘peace doves’ are now often white, domestic pigeons, which are both stronger and have a keener homing instinct. Whiteness, associated with purity, is probably key to the bird’s perceived divinity. The white dove was first associated with Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, war and fertility and subsequently with the Assyrian goddess Ishtar, known as Astarte in Ancient Greece. Dove figurines carved in white stone are among ancient artefacts found in Iraq, dating back to around 3000 BC and thought possibly to be gifts to the goddess. According to Ovid, doves drew the chariot of Venus through the skies, linking them to love and divinity. Earthly pigeons and doves were used as messengers; in Christian symbolism, the dove became a heavenly messenger and embodiment of the Holy Spirit.

David: While researching your book, you must have come across quite a few surprises concerning what people associate with birds. What are some of the more unusual or bizarre beliefs that you discovered?

Marianne and Rachel:

  • The widespread belief in medieval Europe that Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) were born from embryos dropped onto timber floating in the sea (their northern breeding grounds were largely unknown at the time). This apparent confusion with stalked goose barnacles was a convenient one for Roman Catholics unwilling to accept the privations of meatless days, as goose (being more fish than fowl) could be eaten when flesh could not. The belief appears to have persisted until at least the 18th
  • The “Pious Pelican”. A bizarre misunderstanding of the pelican’s frequent bill-to-chest stance and the way its young feed direct from its pouch can be clearly observed on lecterns and elsewhere in churches and cathedrals across the Christian world. An ancient legend related that the female bird pecked her chest to feed her young in times of famine. Early Christian beliefs gave the tale spiritual overtones; the little pelicans rebel, the parents strike back and kill them, but on the third day the mother wounds herself and revives her young with her blood—an evident allegory of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The parent bird pecking its breast also became a powerful heraldic symbol of noble self-sacrifice.
  • Little hummingbirds might seem unlikely warriors but they can be fierce, chasing away other birds if necessary, a trait noted by the Aztecs. They had a humming bird god, Huitzilopochtli, whose domain was the sun and war. The god began life as a warrior and when he died in battle a green-backed hummingbird flew up from where he fell inspiring his men to victory. The Aztecs believed that every man who fell in battle would be reincarnated as a hummingbird, spending eternity around the flower gardens of paradise.
  • The distinctive X-shaped tracks of the roadrunner, which conceal the direction in which the bird is running, have a special significance for Native Americans. As symbols, they were used to ward off evil and to invoke the bird’s protective powers, its perceived strength and speed. Like other members of the cuckoo family, Cuculidae, the roadrunner is zygodactyl, with two toes pointing forward and two back, but being a ground bird, its tracks are more noticeable than those of other cuckoo species.
  • Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottus) were victims of their delightful and highly versatile singing voices. A tradition among Hopi people was to feed a mockingbird tongue to their children to help them learn to sing traditional tribal songs. In a similar rite, the Zuñi would press the tongue against a young child’s lips.
  • Despite the popular metaphor for dispelling problems, the Ostrich (Struthio camelus) does not bury its head in the sand. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus was among those who thought it did and also described it as cloven-hoofed and a fast-running bird-camel mix that flung stones at its pursuers.
  • Migration myths: in Aristotle’s time, swallows were thought to hibernate in riverbank mud—perhaps because they were seen plunging into reeds in the autumn dusk. The Roman author, Pliny the Elder, believed that armies of migrating quails could sink ships by landing on their sails at night. As late as the 19th century, some still believed that small birds, such as wagtails, were borne across the seas on the wings of larger birds.
  • Kingfishers (known as “halycons”) were used as weather vanes in medieval Europe. Stuffed or dried out in a wings-spread pose, the bird was hung from a string to rotate freely, and whichever direction its bill pointed would show from where the wind was blowing, as exemplified in Shakespeare’s King Lear when the Earl of Kent asks: “But how stands the wind, Into what corner peers my halcyon’s bill?”
  • The Australian Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguinea) played an early role in Dreamtime legends. From the time of the first light, when the egg of the Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) was thrown into the sky and its yolk lit a fire that illuminated the world below, the bird became the alarm clock of the gods, waking the sky spirits each morning to remind them to relight the blaze.
  • The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), a nocturnal wading bird, was said to radiate light from its breast to help it find prey in the water around it.

David: Can birds have a storytelling role in saving the world of nature — and are they doing that anywhere?

Marianne and Rachel:

Pretty Rosy Starlings (Pastor roseus), which consume grasshoppers and other insects were once decimated in China by insecticides. Locusts are among the Rosy Starling’s favorite foods. Today, thanks to the efforts of environmental campaigners, many Chinese farmers are reducing insecticide use and encouraging the birds to take care of locust swarms.

There is increasing awareness of the environmental role certain endangered species play. In Australia, for instance, the Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) a bizarre-looking flightless bird with a powerful kick is under threat as a result of non-native predators, loss of habitat and road accidents. Rainforest conservationists are among its greatest supporters as the frugivore birds help preserve the trees they feed from; their dung contains hundreds of undigested seeds, which no other creature can disperse as well as they do. Hence the survival of these birds is clearly linked to preservation of their rainforest home. See: http://savethecassowary.org.au

The vocally gifted Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae), another rainforest dweller with a fabulous courtship display, is known to reduce the risk of bush fires by raking through leaf litter in search of insect and small reptile prey, thereby speeding up leaf decomposition and reducing the amount of dry matter and fern growth that could start a fire. It was seriously threatened by habitat destruction, but thanks to conservation efforts, is considered safe for the short to medium term.

The important role played by vultures in devouring dead and rotting carcasses in Asia was little appreciated until the Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) and related species were almost wiped out in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with populations reduced by up to 99 per cent. This was the result of the widespread use of the veterinary painkiller diclofenac to treat livestock. Ingesting the drug from carcasses caused renal failure in the birds. The drug is also known to affect plant growth. As a result of a major campaign by Birdlife International and other organizations, the drug was banned from veterinary use and most recently human formulations of diclofenac (used illegally on animals) have been controlled too. However, incredibly, in Europe the drug has recently been approved for use in the Italian and Spanish veterinary markets, raising fears that Europe’s vulture population could suffer in future years.

David: Does your book advance the education of people that we absolutely must have birds for the ecosystem to be healthy? How can the book be used to do that? How does your book complement regular bird guides?

Rachel:It does not directly educate people about the role of birds in a healthy ecosystem, except in instances such as those mentioned above. However, throughout the book we celebrate everything that is most admired in birds, such as their beauty, voices, and extraordinary migration feats in a bid to illustrate how important and valued our relationship with and respect for birds should be. We also relate how misguided beliefs, superstitions, or disregard for anything beyond their valuable feathers have damaged certain species and continue to do so today. Like regular guides, the book outlines a bird’s appearance and behavior, but does so in the context of each bird’s legends, mythology or folklore, and the species chosen are those that have attracted most human interest over the centuries.

Marianne: Our book draws on legend and lore from the whole world, and so captures the wonderful diversity of birdlife that has evolved on this planet, as well as the diversity of our beliefs about them. I hope that our book underlines the long-standing importance of birds to our cultural identity, and the respect we have long held for them, even those that we fear or mistrust. At the same time, we seek to bust some damaging myths, and highlight what we stand to lose if we don’t start taking better care of the natural world in general.

Antique illustration of the Hoopoe
Antique illustration of the Hoopoe, a colorful bird found in many parts of Africa and Eurasia — and the national bird of Israel.

David: My favorite species in your book is the Hoopoe, a rather splendid bird familiar in several parts of the world, including my native South Africa, where it features in African folkore. What species would you choose as a favorite — and why?

Rachel: My personal choice is the European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), the star of romantic folklore and nearly 500 religious Renaissance works, often pictured with Christ or the Madonna. It is an exquisite little bird with a lovely high-pitched song that Vivaldi sought to imitate in a flute concerto. In the past year, I’ve attracted a community of goldfinches to my garden with sunflowers seeds in a squirrel-proof feeder, so can enjoy their physical reality every day. Their beauty, voices, and flitting flight make me happy. The collective name for goldfinches is so aptly “a charm.”

Marianne: My favourite bird in the book is the storm-petrel (or storm-petrels, really, as there are many species). These birds are barely larger than sparrows yet spend most of their lives miles from land, treading the waves (hence ‘petrel’ after St Peter who walked on water) and enduring the wildest weathers. Legend holds them as storm-bringers and emblems of freedom and courage, while the most recent scientific research has uncovered a fascinating quirk in their chromosomes that makes them fantastically long-lived—potentially almost immortal.

uralowlchickandmazzamarkusrehnberg-1Marianne Taylor is a birdwatcher, dragonfly-finder and mammal-seeker from Kent, England. She is the author of a number of books for Bloomsbury, including  The Way of the Hare, RSPB Spotlight Owls, Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, RSPB Nature Watch, RSPB Seabirds, RSPB British Birds of Prey, RSPB British Birdfinder, RSPB Spotlight: Robins, Wild Coast, Dragonflight, Owls, 401 Amazing Animals Facts, Watching Wildlife In London, RSPB Where to Discover Nature, Photographing Garden Wildlife.

rachel-warren-chaddRachel Warren Chadd is a writer and editor with a publishing collective called 3REDCARS. She has long been interested in myths and legends and has greatly enjoyed exploring how avian traits have influenced cultural beliefs across the world. She is the author of The Folklore of Eggs: Their Mystical, Powerful Symbolism.