It is a bug not a bird, but useful to be sure
While cleaning up after the last Old News, the one about the socalled Popular Superstitions column of 1917, I ran across the following item and stopped everything, because … because …
I don’t know why. Just read this. It’s verbatim from the Aug. 10, 1917, Arkansas Gazette. Because it’s so long, I’m not italicizing and indenting it or making little nests with quotation marks. Instead, I’m trusting you to recognize that it ends just before “ALRIGHTY THEN.”
A horse with more than one white foot is looked upon with suspicion, both in the United States and in England. A saying here is: One white foot, buy him; Two white feet, try him; Three white feet, put him in the dray;
Four white feet, give him away:
Fear white feet and a white nose,
Take off his hide and give him to the crows.
An English saying:
“One white foot, ride home for your life;
Two white feet, give him to your wife;
Three white feet, give him to your man;
Four white feet, sell him if you can.”
If a horse cannot roll over, do not buy him. The number of times he rolls over will be the number of hundred dollars he is worth.
It is said that a horse, cow or dog whose tail hangs to the left will be of no use and will bring bad luck.
To meet certain animals is considered lucky, while to meet others is the reverse. To meet a sow with a litter of pigs is lucky, but it is unlucky if a sow crosses a traveler’s path. It is lucky to meet a weasel, but it is a sign of misfortune for a hare or a black cat to cross the road in front of you. It is a sign of good luck to have a black cat come to you.
According to an old superstition, the thing a person happens to be doing in the spring when he hears the cuckoo’s call for the first time is the thing he is destined to do most frequently throughout the ensuing year. This is also said of the whippoorwill and the frog.
Another cuckoo superstition is that the unmarried maid or man will remain single for as many years as the times such a bird utters its note within their hearing.
If the first robin you see in the spring flies up you will have good luck during the year; if down, bad luck.
In Maine when crows are seen flying overhead they say:
“One crow, sorrow; two crows, mirth;
Three crows a wedding; four crows, birth.”
There are many birds that the superstitious consider it unlucky to kill. Among them are the ladybird, martin, robin and stork. To kill a wren means that you will break a
bone before the year is over.
It is unlucky to kill a cricket or a spider. It is believed by some that if a daddy-long-legs is held by one leg it will point with another to the direction the cows have gone.
The “ladybird” in that 1917 list of birds is what stopped me.
Ladybird is a common name for the ladybug or lady beetle — a small, red flying hemisphere with an amazing, recently demonstrated ability to tuck away its huge hind wings when not in use. “Ladybird beetle” is the term preferred in the United Kingdom.
Bug or bird, the lady in question was Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, in some ancient traditions depicted as wearing a red cloak.
Was there a bird that was called ladybird in the early 20th century? Cardinals are red. Was the cardinal the ladybird?
Apparently no. The online Encyclopedia of Life lists 28 common names for cardinals, not one of them ladybird. Nor did I find “ladybird” applied to an actual bird in the Gazette, and I searched back to 1820.
Perhaps the author of the Popular Superstitions column (and we still don’t know who that was) didn’t realize the word referred to beetles and not to birds?
But how likely would that have been in 1917? Ladybugs are such familiar cuties that, today, toddlers know them. But the beetles aren’t native to this continent and, turns out, they weren’t an American garden icon in 1917.
The first ladybird beetles had been introduced into California only 29 years before as a farm-science experiment. Albert Koebele was a German-born botanist working on citrus pests in California for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1888 when he sicced imported-from-Australia ladybirds on some doom called cottony cushion scale.
According to his citation in the Encyclopedia of Entomology (Springer Netherlands, 2008, $709), he saved the citrus industry. Later he loosed other ladybird species in California, where they ate plant lice (aphids) with alacrity.
The delighted growers association gave him a gold watch and diamond earrings for his wife.
But “his success earned him the ire of some collaborators who were jealous of his recognition,” the $709 encyclopedia says. He resigned from the department in 1893 and moved to Hawaii, where he pioneered the use of biologic pest controls on sugar plantations until his health failed in 1908 and he returned to Germany.
And there he died, in 1924.
The term “ladybird” appeared only a handful of times in the Gazette before 1917, most in reference to Koebele’s miraculous crop-savers — none in reference to any actual bird. But there was another use: An obituary list in the Feb. 2, 1911, Gazette includes one “Ladybird Davidson, aged 4 years, near DeWitt.”
Also, you may remember, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor — first lady Lady Bird Johnson — was born in 1912 in Karnack, Texas.
Supposedly her nurse exclaimed that she was “as pretty as a ladybird” when she was 2.
And Ladybird was a pet name for children long before. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594), Juliet’s nurse calls her “ladybird.” And in the 1859 Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities, stout, grim, red-haired Miss Pross goes to any length to protect her former charge Lucie Manette, calling her “my Ladybird.”
Why call a beetle a ladybird? According to the (four volume!) Encyclopedia of Entomology, the name has been used more than 600 years for the European beetle Coccinella septempunctata L. The name was later extended to related species. “Of course these insects are not birds, but butterflies are not flies, nor are dragonflies, stoneflies, mayflies and fireflies, which all are true common names in folklore, not invented names,” the book says.
Another common name for the ladybug, and one that in Europe appears to predate ladybird, is “lady-cow,” on account of the spots.
I consider “lady-cow” a splendid name. These things do eat aphids, which are tended by ants. And ants use their antennae to “milk” aphids for the sweet honeydew they contain (after sucking the life out of daylilies) — which is sometimes cast as the ants herding the aphids like little cows.
Which would make the lady-cow an eater of little cows.
Next week: Mayor Denounces Vicious Rumors