Eng­land’s Hov­er­ing Her­alds

Alan Dale de­scribes the leg­ends and myths as­so­ci­ated with Bri­tain’s birds.

This England - - England’s Hovering Heralds -

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.

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