Why sailors fear the cry of the curlew and other strange stories
“THEM jackdaws is terrible unpleasant,” said Willy the farm hand in Tipperary.
He was making reference to their habit of nesting in chimneys, and ten 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. I would be interested to hear of any ‘local’ birdlore 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 long-beaked 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 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.
Mammal stories are just as plentiful, the following examples being my personal favourites.
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.
Pig: The bite of a pig was thought to cause cancer, while a snack of pig’s brain was said to act as a truth drug.
Fox: In the Middle Ages, foxes were associated with the Devil, and in Lincolnshire, a fox bite was said to be fatal.
On days when rain and sunshine coincided, foxes were said to be getting married.
Hare: To the ancient British, hares were sacred, but in the Middle Ages they were associated with witchcraft.
Witches were said to transform themselves into hares.
Hedgehog: Farmers once killed them as vermin. They thought the ‘prickly back otchuns’ sucked milk from cows.
The Laughing Badger Gallery, 99 Platt Street, Padfield, Glossop
●● A jackdaw perched on a branch