Birds in folklore: Waterbirds

This article appeared in the North Clare Local in February. 

Swans are beloved in Irish tradition (Image by Dream Swan via Flickr)

Swans are beloved in Irish tradition (Image by Dream Swan via Flickr)

After the owls and ravens of last month, it’s time to hit the water and explore the folklore associated with water birds.

Swans are dearly loved birds. A mute swan on peaceful waters is a beautiful sight, and unsurprisingly, they are the subjects of many tales and beliefs.

Here in Ireland the story of the Children of Lir is one of our best-known folktales. In short, four royal children are transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother, Aoife. They fly away, and spend 900 years in their bird form, before being released and dying as ancient people.

The Irish are not the only ones to be enchanted by the elegant swan. In Europe, tales of a swan maidens were common. These women could transform into swans with the aid of a coat of feathers. They would marry mortal men, but on finding their coat of feathers, they would leave again. The idea of a swan maiden also forms the basis of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake.

While there are a number of different swan species, the mute swan is probably the most emblematic. While it’s not the chattiest of birds, it’s not totally silent, nor does it sing before death, as the ancient Greeks believed. However, the phrase “swan song” has long since entered our collective consciousness.

A heron waits patiently (image by coniferconifer via Flickr)

A heron waits patiently (image by coniferconifer via Flickr)

A particular favourite water-bird of mine is the heron. These gangly birds can often be seen on riverbanks, statue-still, watching for fish. A heron flying low was thought to indicate coming rain. In years past, anglers smeared heron fat on their rods and sometimes carried a heron’s claw with them, in the hope that the birds’ fishing skills would rub off. The Native Americans saw them as a symbol of wisdom, and the tale of the heron and the hummingbird is similar to the fable of the tortoise and the hare. The heron’s patience enables him to best the complacent, easily-distracted hummingbird.

Another wading bird is the ibis, which is found in warmer climes. In Native American folklore, it is the last creature to seek shelter before a hurricane- warning others of the impending storm- and the first to emerge in the aftermath. It was an important bird to the ancient Egyptians. It was a manifestation of the moon goddess Thoth, and many ibises were routinely sacrificed in her honour.

Sadly, ibises are now endangered in Egypt, and while swans and heron numbers remain high, the same cannot be said of other water-birds. The curlew’s cry is highly evocative but its numbers have been depleted in recent years. There is the tale of the “Seven Whistlers”; seven curlews who fly overhead at night, uttering their lonesome calls. Some believe they are lost souls, others that they are the spirits of drowned sailors, warning the living of dangers at sea.

Less haunting is the garrulous call of the seagull. In Dublin, where as a senator memorably put it, they have “lost the run of themselves”, it seems you can’t move for these scavenging birds. These birds have become so successful due to human wastefulness, and our relationship with them wasn’t always so negative. The Welsh saint Kenneth was said to have been raised by a colony of seagulls, and they reared him to be a kindly man. The Scottish St Bartholomew had a pet gull, and was devastated when it was killed by a hawk. In the US, the state bird of inland Utah is the gull. In the 19th century, Utah’s farms were overrun by a plague of crickets. Gulls flew from California to dine on the insects, and in gratitude the locals named it as the state’s mascot.

Further out to sea, many of us have heard the old nautical term “Mother Carey’s chickens”. Mother Carey is believed to be a corruption of “Mater Cara” a Latin term for the Virgin Mary, who is often associated with the welfare of sailors (she is also known as the Our Lady, the Star of the Sea). The “chickens” are storm petrels, birds which a believed to precede stormy weather.

No article on water-birds could be complete without mentioning the albatross. This magnificent seabird, with its huge wingspan and long-distance flying, is considered to be a good omen, especially by Japanese sailors. In the West, killing them was considered to be highly unlucky, as the souls of dead sailors were thought to reside in them. This is, of course, the central theme of Samuel Taylor’ Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” where a sailor is forced to wear the albatross he killed around his neck.

More about our feathered friends next month.

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