Explore Bird Superstitions and Myths
Bird Traditions and Stories
How many bird myths and superstitions do you know? We tend to take the presence of our feathered friends very much for granted, so you may be surprised to find out just how many myths and superstitions there are around the world concerning birds.
A lot of these superstitions involve luck, both good or bad luck. For example, a bird that flies into your house signifies that an important message is on its way, and if the flying bird happens to be white it means that there will be a death.
Since it is good luck that most of us wish for, it is widely regarded as being very lucky if a bird deposits it’s droppings on you — although you might not think so at the time! In my experience, it generally happens when you have a clean, ironed shirt on and are going somewhere fairly important.
Even the direction a bird calls from has a meaning. For example, a bird calling from the north means a tragedy is on the way, while a call from the west brings good luck, one from the south means the harvest will be plentiful, and a call from the east means that you will find true love.
So, lets have a look at some of that traditional bird folklore.
Ravens in the Tower of London
Ravens have long been associated with the infamous Tower of London. It is believed that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, that the kingdom will fall and disaster will ensue.
To this day, ravens are kept at the Tower, with their wings clipped to ensure that they don't leave. The birds are paid for by the British government and one of the Tower’s beefeaters are also appointed as Ravenmaster to care for the birds.
The Ravenmaster looks after the raven fledglings in his home for about six weeks to build up a relationship with the growing birds. When they are fully grown, the ravens are comfortably lodged near the Wakefield Tower.
The most dangerous period for the ravens in the Tower of London was during the Second World War, when many of them died of shock during the German bombing raids. There was one survivor named Grip. When the Tower of London reopened to the visitors in 1946, the government ensured that a new generation of ravens had already been installed to reassure the public that the kingdom was safe.
Pelicans are regarded as birds that symbolise self-sacrifice and the love of a parent for their children. store food in their pouches and then retrieve the food for their chicks when they return to the nest. This simple action was misinterpreted in the past, and instead it believed that the pelican was making the ultimate sacrifice of tearing open its own chest to feed the youngsters on its own blood.
There are many variations on the story of a male pelican whose young have died or been killed. It is said that after three days of mourning and wailing, the father pelican kills himself so that the young pelicans can rise from the dead hale and hearty.
These stories were used as allegories during the Middle Ages of the Christ’s passion and suffering, especially of the wound that he suffered when a lance pierced his side. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the "Pelican of Mercy, Jesus" and St. Gertrude had a vision of Jesus as a pelican feeding the hungry with his blood.
It was also thought that pelicans would only eat just enough food to keep themselves alive, so they also became associated with those who fasted and purified themselves for religious reasons. I have watched pelicans being fed, and I can assure you that this last pelican superstition is not true!
Robins with their cheery red breasts adorn many of our Christmas cards and decorations, and there are several stories as to how the robin acquired its red breast feathers.
In the Christian tradition, it is thought that a robin tried to remove the thorns from Jesus’ head during the Crucifixion. The precious drops of his blood fell onto the bird and stained his breast feathers red forever. In another myth, the robin gained his red breast from flying into the fiery wastes of hell to carry water to the stricken sinners who were suffering there for all eternity.
The robin is another bird where it is believed that if they are seen tapping on the window or flying into a room that it then signifies that a member of the household will die. It is considered to be very unlucky to kill a robin. So, if you break a robin’s eggs, expect something important of yours to be broken very soon.
Make a wish when you see the first robin of the year for good luck. Also, note that if you see a robin singing in the open that good weather is on its way. However, if the robin is seen sheltering among the branches of a tree, that means it will soon rain. Lastly, if the first bird that you see on St. Valentine’s Day is a robin, it means that you are destined to marry a sailor!
It is often considered unlucky to bring the beautiful, iridescent feathers of the peacock into a house. This is because of the markings on the end of the feathers that resemble an eye. It was thought that the eyes on the peacock feather was a sign of the "evil eye" and that it would bring bad luck and ill fortune into your home.
In the theatre, it is considered bad luck to have peacock feathers on the stage or comprising any part of a costume, prop, or scenery. Stories have been told of disasters occurring during a performance (such as scenery falling down) when peacock feathers have been present on the stage.
Doves have always been seen as significant religious and spiritual symbols. They are believed to be the one bird that the Devil cannot change himself into, and the one bird that is immune to the Devil’s curses.
The dove is the Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit. Nowadays, it is also regarded as a symbol of international peace.
They are also very much associated with lovers, and some couples have white doves released when they celebrate their weddings. This maybe is because doves are supposed to mate for life and be devoted to each other.
Doves were regarded as the messengers of the Roman goddess of love Venus, and Indians regard killing a dove as unlucky, as doves are thought to hold within themselves the soul of a lover.
Having a dove flying around or tapping on the windows of a sick patient's house signifies that they will shortly die. Miners also regard seeing a dove near their mineshaft as an omen that there will be danger if they descend into the mine.
A dove was also the bird chosen by Noah to fly off from the ark and search for dry land, and legend has it that a kingfisher was also sent. The kingfisher flew so high into the sky that its feathers became coloured blue from the sky and vivid orange from the sun.
Sailors used to believe that if an albatross flew around their ship in the middle of the voyage, that this meant bad weather and windy conditions to come. It was considered to be very bad luck to kill an albatross, as sailors used to think that albatrosses were really the souls of departed mariners that were still restlessly flying over the waves.
In 1959, the presence on board the cargo ship Calpean Star of a caged albatross destined for a zoo was blamed for the misfortunes that the ship had experienced on it voyage from the Antarctic.
Many of the crew staged a strike because they felt that it was too risky and unlucky to continue the voyage. Then, on the Calpean Star’s return voyage to the Antarctic, she foundered off South Georgia after suffering engine failure.
The ship was towed into Montevideo for repairs, but as she was setting off to resume her voyage, it sank on the River Plate. Was the poor old albatross to blame for the fate of the Calpean Star, by bringing bad luck?
However, some sailors obviously did not believe in the albatross bringing bad luck if they killed them, as some used to use the feet of the albatross to make tobacco pouches!
Magpies used to be believed as the Devil in disguise. It was said that if you saw a lone magpie around your home, it meant that the Devil was trying to stir up trouble for you. If you live in the English county of Somerset, you could try carrying an onion around with you to ward off this trouble. Everywhere else, you could try saying "Good morning, Mr. Magpie, how is your wife today?" showing the Devil that you recognised him, and thereby preventing him from causing any mischief.
Another way to banish the evil demon was that if you spot a solitary magpie, doff your hat and cross your fingers. Or you could spit three times over your right shoulder and chant "Devil, Devil I defy thee!"
In Scotland, it was thought that magpies were so wicked that they concealed a drop of Satan's blood under their tongue.
Another reason why magpies have a reputation for wickedness is because they are said to have been the only birds who would not give Jesus solace as he was dying on the cross by singing for him. It was also thought that the magpie's black and white feathers meant that they refused to wear full mourning at the Crucifixion.
However, in Korea, the magpie has an entirely different reputation as it is their national bird and thought be a bringer of good luck. Seeing groups of magpies is said to divine the future and inspired the rhyme "One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Girl, Four for a Boy, Five for Silver, Six for Gold, Seven for a Secret that is Never to be Told."
If you see two male blackbirds perched next to each other, this means good luck. Also, if blackbirds nest near your house, you will be lucky enough to look forward to a whole year of good fortune. Blackbirds are also regarded as the messengers of those who have died.
Ravens at the Tower of London
Owls have been featured in many myths and superstitions since ancient times. In some cultures, they are regarded as bringing good fortune while in others, they are thought of as harbingers of bad luck and even death.
In Ancient Greece, the owl was thought of as a wise bird who was closely associated with the goddess of wisdom Athena. Athena was adopted as the patron deity of the city of Athens as she won a contest with the god Poseidon to provide the city with the most useful gift. She gave the city the gift of the olive tree, which provided the Athenians with oil, wood, and food. Athena was often shown with an owl perched on her head, so the owl became one of the symbols of Athens. The species of owl associated with the goddess was the Little Owl. During antiquity, many of them lived, protected, and honoured lives on the Acropolis.
Birds generally are regarded as messengers between the world of spirit and our material world. So, because owls are nocturnal birds and fly during the hours of darkness, they have also been associated with witches and magic. It used to be thought that seeing an owl flying around your house portended a death in the family.
The Romans also thought that hearing an owl hoot at night foretold an impending death. They believed that the deaths of several prominent Romans such as Agrippa, Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar were predicted in this way.
The famous Roman historian Pliny noted in AD 77 that the appearance of screech owls was always a portent of bad news. Therefore, these nocturnal birds were "most execrable and accursed."
In Wales, hearing an owl hoot in the night was a sign that snow was coming or that one of the young girls in the village was going to take a lover and lose her chastity. Unfortunately for the poor owl, nailing the skin of one of these birds to a farm building is thought to bring good luck and protect it from evil.
Owls were also once used in traditional medicine — owl broth was eaten in the belief that it could help alleviate the symptoms of whooping cough. Eating owl eggs was reputed to help improve eyesight, avert epileptic fits, and even sober you up if you were very drunk.
So, the next time that you hear a bird singing in your garden or tapping at the window, maybe you should check out what breed of bird it is. There is no doubt that these myths and superstitions surrounding birds used to be widely believed, but will you take off your hat and cross your fingers the next time that you see a magpie?
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