England’s Hovering Heralds
Alan Dale describes the legends and myths associated with Britain’s birds.
THE raven struts along the battlements with the solemn bearing of a Tudor courtier, his dread shadow cloaking the ancient masonry. A screech owl’s eldritch shriek conjures spectral, transparent horrors across the fields or through the walls of the ancient hall.
Far out to sea, an albatross wheels and circles the rolling, pitching vessel. The young sailor is technically trained brave as any, but, as the storm worsens, he recalls his grandfather’s fearful whisper one winter evening . . .
English bird legends retain their power over the imagination, suffusing literature, culture, custom and song.
Birds’ names fre uently originated from feeding or other habits. Goldfinches relish thistles, teasels and knapweeds, delving into them for the seeds with their long, slender beaks, hence the Anglo-saxon Thisteluige, or thistle-tweaker.
The golden flash of wing stripes, from hedge or bough, gave rise to the Old English Goldfinc, the precursor of goldfinch.
Many familiar expressions associated with birds enrich today’s English. The sparrow usually had a modest role, gobbling the seed that fell by the wayside. “Cockney sparrow” fre uently indicated a cheerful, unassuming acceptance of humble status.
A writer on the Isle of Man, home of the Manx Shearwater, noted in 1731 that these birds had an infernal, house-shaking cry. The storms that sometimes followed their ominous calls led to their reputation as evil portents.
Magpies have proliferated over the past fifty years or so. Some legends and rhymes associated with them appear to reflect their former relative scarcity. The Magpie Rhyme appears in various regional versions. One or sorrow, wo or oy, hree or a girl, our or a boy, ive or silver, Six or gold, Seven or a secret never to be told. Warwickshire has given us this version One brings sorrow, wo bring oy, hree or a wedding, our or a boy, ive or a ddler, Six or a dance, Seven or Old ngland, And eight or rance. Many strongly recommended en uiring after the health of magpies’ spouses and relatives, to ward off bad luck or encourage good fortune.
The precise interpretation of the greeting’s effect depended on the number of magpies encountered, as specified in the verses of the poem. Solicitous uestioning of four birds, therefore, would have invoked good fortune’s attendance at a boy’s forthcoming birth.
Lone magpies were to be challenged with “I defy thee” to forestall the misfortune that they mythically heralded.
Pinching your walking companion, or yourself, if alone, was also held to offer protection from magpies’ evil influence. Devonshire custom demanded spitting three times on seeing the bird, to avert misfortune.
Several mediaeval literary sources, including Cervantes’ “Don uixote”, speculate that ing Arthur may have been transformed into a raven or chough. illing these birds invited censure in Cornwall until the late 1 th century.
Charles II may have instigated the keeping of the six Tower of London ravens in acknowledgement of their supposed protective influence. England is considered safe from foreign con uest while they reside in the Tower. Their five consecutive days’ silence during World War II worried many people.
Seven hundred years ago, Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale told of a crow causing the slaughter of an innocent wife by falsely accusing her of infidelity. The bird was conse uently cursed with its harsh, croaking call.
Storm petrels are rarely seen inland. They therefore remind the mariner that he has journeyed beyond the safety of the coastline.
Their fluttering flight as they dip over the water, feet dangling, led to the name “petrel”, a diminutive of “Peter”. This is an obli ue reference to St Peter walking on water, encompassing his achievement and terror.
Mother Carey’s chickens, an early sailors’ nickname for storm petrels, is a corruption of Mater Cara, the Virgin Mary. Sailors regarded the birds as protective messengers, due to their fre uent appearance before tempests.
illing gulls or petrels was considered unlucky well into the 19th century as some seafarers feared that both species harboured deceased sailors’ souls.
Many thought that the woeful shrieks of gulls presaged disaster. East Anglian fishermen believed that gannets were spirits of the drowned, and dreaded them.
Albatrosses have long been associated with sailors’ forebodings, as exemplified in Coleridge’s “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” (179 ). The albatross appears in their hour of need At length did cross an Albatross, hrough the og it came As i it had been a Christian soul, We hail d it in God s name. Several verses later, having apparently caused the ice to crack and guided the ship through, the albatross was credited with the onset of a favourable wind.
All was not to end well, however. The albatross was shot and death and destruction followed.
The cuckoo has a very mixed reputation. A monk from Reading Abbey wrote the immortal line “Lhude sing cuccu” as early as the 13th century in celebration of summer’s arrival.
Chaucer, however, in his “Parlement of Fowles” describes the cuckoo as “Mortherere of the heysoge”. This grim title reveals the bird as the murderer of the dunnock, or hedge-sparrow.
The expulsion of its foster parents’ eggs and nestlings remains the source of the cuckoo’s association with the reprehensible. This melodic herald of warmer days is guilty of serial infanticide, facilitated by a special hollow in its back.
The study of cuckoos led to Edward enner’s election to the Royal Society in 17 , before his ground-breaking discovery of vaccination.
He methodically observed the cuckoo dispatching eggs by manoeuvring its wings and rump underneath each one and heaving it out.
The damning social or behavioural assessment of someone as a “cuckoo in the nest” therefore rests on a sinister natural foundation.
The goshawk’s species name, gentilis, means noble, and the right to own particular species of falcons depended on one’s social status. The Prioress of Sopwell Nunnery near St Albans, Dame uliana Barnes, explained this in her “Boke Of Saint Albans”, published in 14 6. This covered all aspects of falconry, including the delineation of “Social Rank Appropriate Bird”.
nder this rigid hierarchy emperors could own golden eagles, vultures and merlins. ings were entitled to gyrfalcons, princes to female peregrines, dukes to rock falcons, earls to peregrines, barons to bu ards and knights to sakers.
S uires and ladies were permitted lanner falcons and female merlins respectively, yeomen could own goshawks and priests sparrowhawks.
“ naves, servants and children”, by contrast, were in dire trouble if caught in possession of anything more illustrious than the tiny kestrel.
onathan Swift’s poem of 1730, “The Pheasant And The Lark” uses the peacock, pheasant, lark, nightingale and crow as characters in a moral satire. His tail was beauteous to behold, e lete with goodly eyes and gold Later, we meet the lark It chanced as on a day he stray d Beneath an academic shade, He liked, amidst a thousand throats, he wildness o a Woodlark s notes. As the tale unfolds, the lark finds favour with the peacock’s trusted envoy, the pheasant, incurring the other birds’ envy and attendant malice. The nightingale emerges from curmudgeonly retirement, grudgingly accepting one last brief.
Its defence of the lark epitomises the bitterness that often follows wasted talent.
The “Answer” to the fable ends with comments that clearly reflected the respondent’s views on the merits of the current administration and the nature of envy. A lark he is and such a lark As never came rom Noah s ark And though he had no other notion, But building, lanning, and devotion Owl folklore takes us to an ancient and darker cultural landscape. Barn owls were 1 th- and 19th-century poetical harbingers of doom.
If a sick person heard an owl screech as it flew past their window, patient and relatives feared the sufferer’s imminent death.
The owl’s call was also thought to herald storms, or their passing, if heard during one.
orkshire folk once considered salted owl broth a good cure for gout and whooping cough. An early English belief held that raw owl eggs prevented children from developing alcoholism.
Birds’ deportment can suggest imperious authority or mischievous intent. The shadows of their outstretched primary feathers, darkening lichencovered stonework, echo ancient legend or heraldry.
England’s hovering heralds remain the ushers of imagination and wonder.
Below right: The screech owl’s cry was feared.
Top right: Raven at the Tower of London.
Below: Pheasant in full plumage.