Birds in Folklore: Garden Birds

A swallow (via Wikimedia Commons)

A swallow (via Wikimedia Commons)

For the last of my articles on bird superstitions, let’s explore some of the beliefs attached to some common garden birds.

Soon we will see swallows return to our shores. These charming, resilient little birds are often seen as a harbinger of spring; although one must be careful not to jump to conclusions. “One swallow does not a summer make” and all that. A house was thought to be lucky if a swallow built its nest there, and it was very bad luck to kill one. Sailors thought them very lucky, and with a resurgence of classic tattoo designs in recent times, many people are now sporting these birds on their skin. Originally, in the British naval tradition, a swallow tattoo symbolised that a sailor had travelled over 5,000 miles in his career; two meant 10,000 and so on. A less savoury meaning was attributed to prisoners’ tattoos; it meant a man had served his sentence, “done his bird”.

Seeing swallows swooping low to the ground before rushing upwards again is a lovely summer spectacle. This seems to be done for the pure joy of flight, but superstition has it that they are foretelling sunny days ahead.

Unlucky? A magpie (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unlucky? A magpie (via Wikimedia Commons)

A much-less loved visitor is the magpie. These raucous members of the crow family have a bad reputation. They survive by scavenging and eating the young of other birds. Of course, there is the famous rhyme associated with them throughout the English-speaking world:
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

There are older versions of this rhyme, which originated in England. One version went all the way up to thirteen (thirteen magpies were a sign of the devil). However the 1970s British children’s show Magpie cemented the version above in many people’s minds.

If you see a magpie on its own, you can salute it with a cheery “Hello Mr Magpie” and that should diffuse the worst of the ill-fortune. Another, rather mean-spirited idea is to point out the bird to another person, transferring the bad luck to them. In China, however, a solitary magpie is a good omen.

According to scientific research, magpies don’t actually care much for shiny objects despite their reputation for stealing jewellery. They are believed to be among the most intelligent of all creatures, using tools and logic to solve problems.

Songbirds are much more popular than the loud and inauspicious magpie. Small birds, such as finches, thrushes and robins, brighten up any garden. Robins are now synonymous with Christmas, but this is a comparatively recent invention, dating back to Victorian times. The postmen in the early days of the Royal Mail postal service in Britain wore red and became known as robins. As people began to send Christmas cards in the post, the robin seemed a natural image to attach to these.

The robin is believed to have gotten his red breast from comforting the bleeding Christ during the crucifixion. Despite their Christian associations, robins can be seen as unlucky. One flying into a house was thought to foretell a death.

The goldfinch is an enchanting little bird (a group of them is even called a charm) and for many years it was popular to keep them in captivity. These poor creatures were kept in cages for their singing, and as a result they are depicted often in art, most famously in Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (which, in turn, was a key component in Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name).

If the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day is a goldfinch, it means your spouse will be rich.

A blackbird singing (via Wikimedia Commons)

A blackbird singing (via Wikimedia Commons)

The wren is the centre of a lot of Irish bird superstitions. This tiny bird has punched well above its weight in the superstition stakes. It outwitted the brawny eagle to become King of the Birds in one of Aesop’s fables. However, the wren’s loud song gave away the whereabouts of St Stephen while he was hiding from his persecutors. In revenge, his feast day evolved into the Irish tradition of “hunting the wren”. The small bird itself is no longer a victim, and instead the participants dress up, play music and call on doors for money.

Finally a word about one of my own favourite birds, the jolly little blackbird. Seeing two male blackbirds is supposed to be very lucky. If one nests near your house you can expect a year of good luck. They were sacred to the Greeks and today, the blackbird is the national bird of Sweden, appearing on stamps. Blackbirds are thought to also carry messages from the dead back to our world.

Hearing birdsong brightens all our days, and long may our feathered friends continue to fascinate.

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