“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
~ Robert Lynd
As I write this, I’m sitting in my garden, drinking my morning brew in the dark and listening to the rain. At this time of year, there isn’t much of a dawn chorus. That melody is better than any orchestra of man, but even in these darker months, the birds are ever present; the chirps of the sparrows nestled in the thick ivy, the loud and melodic call of the blackbird, clear as a bell as is the robins song. It’s no wonder we, mankind, have a special fascination with these feathered creatures as shown in the vast array of folklore associated with birds.
There is literally a story, tale, rhyme or saying, sometimes two or three, about every species, and regular readers will know of my adoration for folklore. Here I’ll share with you my favourites as we move ever deeper into the dark half of the year.
Ravens & Crows
Of course we must start our foray into bird folklore with those birds most associated (at least by our modern standards) with witchcraft, the raven and the crow.
Perhaps because of their dark plumage or their eating habits, what with them being carrion birds, they were often regarded as birds of death and to see them flying around your home was a sign of bad luck though to have them land on your roof was dire indeed, for it was a sure sign that someone within that household would soon die. Another association with death comes from some indigenous American tribes who viewed these birds as messengers of death.
Even their collective names hint at an unpleasantness; an unkindness of ravens and a murder of crows. These poor creatures have a pretty bad rep, but not always though. At the Tower of London, there are always ravens onsite. Legends tell that if the birds should ever leave, the Crown will fall, and the country with it!
And yet, it seems that our beliefs about these birds are purely superstitious. They are bright, quirky and intelligent birds and there are stories of people feeding them and the birds bringing them gifts.
A relative of the crow and raven, the magpie is one of the easiest birds to identify, with it’s long tail feathers and monochrome colouring with metallic a sheen. Unlike it’s cousins, the magpie isn’t directly associated with death, but instead has been linked to the devil.
Everyone is probably familiar with the old rhyme about magpies:
‘One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl, four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
Eight for heaven, nine for hell
And ten for the devil’s own self.’
To see a single magpie lingering around the house was believed to be devil afoot and planning to cause mischief, to put him off though, saying ‘good morning and how’s your wife’ to the magpie might just be enough to persuade him to take his trouble elsewhere.
The magpie, collector of all things shiny, is not always associated with the devil. In China, for example, it is seen as a messenger of good tidings.
These little brown birds are often overlooked because their song isn’t particularly melodious and their feathers are not brightly coloured, but these little birds are some of my favourite. They are cheeky, cute and quite the socialite, living in groups, collectively known as a quarrel.
Despite the cheery nature of the birds, they do have a bit of a bad rep, if only in Christian mythology. It is said the sparrow attended the crucifixion of Christ, and because his call sounded like ‘he’s alive’, it caused the Roman guards to torture him more. As retribution, his legs were bound together, and this is why the sparrow can only hop and not walk or run.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the sparrow though. It’s bad luck to kill one or to cage one, perhaps owing to the belief that they carry the souls of the dead. And if you hear a sparrow chirping loudly, then it’s a sure sign rain is on it’s way.
‘A robin red breast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.’
~ William Blake
This little bird is a common garden charmer. They are so unbelievably cute, what with their bright red breast and their beautifully clear and bell like song. If you spend enough time outside, especially whilst gardening and a robin spots you, these brave little birds will come incredibly close. It’s no wonder that these birds are steeped in superstition.
It was believed that those who caged or killed a robin would find themselves punished; whichever hand was used in the act would shake uncontrollably forever. In Ireland, the hand would develop ugly lumps. If you break a robins egg, then something valuable to you would soon be lost for good.
If a robin pecks at your window or worse, flies into your home, then beware, for it was believed that this signified a looming familial death. But it’s not all bad luck and associations of loss, for if you make a wish when you see the first robin of the year, then your wish will come true.
Today, this beautiful and more refined cousin of the pigeon is often seen as a sign of peace, purity and love, perhaps a throwback to the Roman belief that this bird was the messenger of Venus, goddess of love. In India, it is said that the dove carries souls of a lover, and so to kill one is an unlucky deed.
In Christian folklore, the dove is, again a symbol of purity, and because of this, it is the one bird that the devil cannot turn into and is unaffected by curses.
My grandfather was a miner, and I have heard this said before, that to see a dove near a coal mine was a warning sign that there was danger below ground. And despite the associations of divinity, there is the usual ‘death’ warning, particularly if the bird taps at the window of a sick person.
There are so many species of birds and lore associated with them, that to cover them all would take a whole book! We can see from the small selection above though, that birds are often seen as messengers between the worlds as well as being symbols of freedom. Perhaps that is why this witch enjoys them so much! Why not seek out the tales associated with your favourite birds, for doing so can lead to a greater understanding of and connection to them and to nature.
My name is Emma Kathryn, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, vodou and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the sticks with my family where I read tarot, practice witchcraft and drink copious amounts of coffee.
You can follow Emma on Facebook.