Cen­turies-old tales of man and bird abound

Macclesfield Express - - THE LAUGHING BADGER - SEAN WOOD

“THEM jack­daws is ter­ri­ble un­pleas­ant,” said Willy the farm hand in Tip­per­ary.

He was mak­ing ref­er­ence to their habit of nest­ing in chim­neys, and 10 min­utes later, after set­ting fire to the chim­ney in an at­tempt to shift the nest, he jumped back into the liv­ing room, flames light­ing up around his head like a halo.

When I asked if he was burned, his re­ply was price­less, “Ah no, I’m just swunged a wee trutch.”

This type of close en­counter be­tween man and bird has spawned hun­dreds of tales, many of them com­pletely un­true, but nev­er­the­less they il­lus­trate how closely man and birds have ex­isted over the cen­turies. Frances Kil­vert said in his di­ary dated De­cem­ber 22, 1874, that the peo­ple of Malmes­bury were re­ferred to as jack­daws be­cause of the thiev­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of a lo­cal.

I would be in­ter­ested to hear of any ‘lo­cal’ bird-lore sto­ries from read­ers, but in the mean­time a few ex­am­ples from times gone by.

Swal­low: Inside their bod­ies swal­lows were be­lieved to carry two pre­cious stones – a red one which could cure in­san­ity, and a black one which could bring good luck.

Wheatear: In north­ern Eng­land they were feared for bring­ing bad luck, while in Orkney they were dou­bly feared be­cause Is­landers be­lieved that toads in­cu­bated their eggs.

Mag­pie: Th­ese days the Mag­gie is re­viled for its habit of killing song­birds, how­ever, this dis­like could stem from the old days when the mag­pie was ac­cused of not wear­ing full mourn­ing cloth­ing at the Cru­ci­fix­ion. In Scot­land it was con­sid­ered such an evil bird, that it was said to carry a drop of the Devil’s blood un­der its tongue.

Robin: The robin fares bet­ter in another Cru­ci­fix­ion legend. It was said to have ac­quired its red breast when it tried to ease Christ’s pain on the cross and was splashed with a drop of his blood.

Curlew: Sailors dreaded the cry of the curlew, for they be­lieved it was a warn­ing from a drowned friend. In Scot­land it was as­so­ci­ated with a long­beaked gob­lin that car­ried off evil-do­ers at night.

Swan: A per­son’s ‘swan-song’ – his fi­nal ef­fort – de­rives from the belief that swans sing only once – just be­fore they die.

Cuckoo: In Wales it was lucky to hear the first call if stand­ing on grass, but bad luck if stand­ing on bar­ren ground.

Some peo­ple be­lieved that if you turned your money in your pocket after hear­ing the cuckoo, and then spat on it, the money would last for the rest of the year.

Some of the sto­ries are easy to ex­plain, for ex­am­ple, the wheatear nest­ing un­der rocks prob­a­bly ac­counts for the belief that toads in­cu­bate the eggs, while the Ab­bot of Malmes­bury was com­pared to the jack­daw be­cause of the jack­daws’ habit of ‘col­lect­ing’ glit­ter­ing trin­kets.

Other sto­ries are a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher, es­pe­cially the pre­cious stones in a swal­low’s body.

Huginn and Munin were two ravens that flew around the world and brought back sto­ries and in­for­ma­tion from the Norse God Odin. In the an­cient il­lus­tra­tion seen here it looks like one of the pair has had his eye out!

Mam­mal sto­ries are just as plen­ti­ful for ex­am­ple.

Sheep were said to face east on Christ­mas Eve in re­mem­brance of the birth of Christ. It was once be­lieved that if a child with whoop­ing cough was laid down where a sheep had been, the child would be cured.

●● Odin Hraf­nar – An an­cient il­lus­tra­tion show­ing ravens Huginn and Munin with Norse God Odin. It looks as though one of them has had his eye out

The Laugh­ing Bad­ger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Pad­field, Glos­sop

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