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Birds in Legend and Folklore

Not so long ago, Anglican clergymen seem to have had plenty of time on their hands. Some of this was spent on scientific research - Gilbert White immediately comes to mind. A less famous figure is the Revd Charles Swainson. His book The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds (1885) is an amusing jumble of pre-scientific bird lore from the UK and further afield.

Swainson’s terminology has a certain period charm. “Dunnock” is described as a Lancastrian dialect word, with the old-fashioned “Hedge Sparrow” preferred; the Yellowhammer is called Ammer (from the Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird”); tits are titmice, and Woodpigeons are Ringed Doves.

There is a long list of provincial bird names, some of them from our part of the world. In Hampshire the Mistle Thrush was known as Bull Thrush owing to its boldness and size; in Berkshire its cousin the Song Thrush was known as the Whistling Dick; and in several Southern counties, including Hampshire and Dorset, the Little Grebe was called the Diedapper. Often, the provincial names imitate the call of the bird – for example, in Hampshire the Chaffinch was a Chink Chaffey. There was limited consistency between local names; rural communities were isolated owing to the cost of travel and lack of media communication.

As one might expect, birds of the countryside feature prominently in folklore. For post-Romantic generations the Cuckoo’s arrival is a source of joy, as in Frederick Delius’s tone-poem; but to unsentimental country folk facing the hardships of subsistence farming its mysterious arrival was laden with portent. Your expected lifespan, your chances of marriage and the vagaries of the harvest could all be predicted from its song; and your fortune depended on the direction of its call, whether you were in bed, had money in your pocket or had eaten breakfast. Some of these predictions were a bit obvious – some of those who heard the Cuckoo in bed (a sign of bad luck) would have been chronically ill. In Swainson’s book the Cuckoo’s association with marital infidelity is glossed over as fast as possible as befits a respectable Anglican clergyman.

Folklore was nothing if not judgmental and birds were often categorized as good or diabolical. Robins and Swallows were good, their red breasts pierced by thorns that they were attempting to remove at the Crucifixion. Those who molested these species could expect misfortune, with the Wren enjoying some protection too. However, in rural Ireland and elsewhere this species was at risk over the Christmas period, when the Wren Boys paraded dead birds around their village knocking on doors for alcohol and money. It would have resembled a drunken version of Trick or Treat today.

Corvids, of course, were the villains of the bird world. Immediate precautions were required in the event of encounter. In the case of Magpies these might include doffing your hat and bowing to the bird, crossing your feet, spitting three times over the right shoulder, or making the sign of the cross. Unfortunately, the poor Ammer was also persecuted, particularly in Scotland; it was supposed to drink three drops of the devil’s blood every morning in May.

Very frequently the characterization of bird species was linked to apocryphal stories loosely related to the Bible. Both the Lapwing and the Tawny Owl started life in the bakery business, but were transformed as a punishment for refusing to share bread with Jesus. Sometimes the legends were far-fetched to the point of being somewhat charming, for example about the Golden Plover. To while away the Sabbath, some Jewish children were caught modelling birds out of clay by a killjoy Sadducee, who smashed the toys in fury. Then Jesus waved his hands over the broken pieces, which flew heavenwards as a beautiful flock of Golden Plovers. The legend was clearly true, because the birds’ call sounded like “Glory” (in Icelandic). Some Lancashire people did not see things this way – they thought that this species was an evil omen, because its whistling flight call came from the tormented souls of Jews who participated in the Crucifixion. Why bother with facts and scientific research, you might say, when you can have stories like this?

Swainson had a good grasp of ornithology, and his list of species is not unlike the tick-lists we would use today. However, his main interest was in anthropology, particularly the study of dialect. Like Thomas Hardy and Ralph Vaughan Williams he wanted to document rural tradition before it finally disappeared from the communal memory. As the Golden Plover shows, beliefs were sometimes localized and inconsistent. However, some were widespread enough to attain common currency - Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists could use bird imagery in the certain knowledge that his audience would immediately “get” that dotterels were stupid and that woodcocks migrated to the moon. Today we rely on the scholarly footnotes to explain these allusions.

Nowadays observation and scientific method are second nature for us. Gilbert White was ahead of his time in adopting such habits. However, previous generations happily accepted the beliefs passed down through oral tradition, and felt no inclination to apply quality control to test their veracity. Admissible evidence of avian malevolence might include the death of the family pig, or missing your stage coach connection. Before we are too hard on our ancestors, we should remember that it is human nature to confuse coincidence and causation, otherwise pharmaceutical companies would not need double blind drug trials today. Within a few hundred years (a split second in geological time) science had prevailed, but Swainson’s book is a fascinating record of what happens when mankind’s fertile imagination is left to explain the avian environment.

References: Charles Swainson’s book is available as a reprint from Kessinger Publishing. Note that this is a facsimile with a typeface that borders on the illegible. A standard work on the same subject. E A Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds, is out of print for some time and hard to obtain.


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