Blog Post 121 – Watching Birds
Today we’ll be looking at birds and their place as divinatory aids in the New World, something we touched on briefly in the second post on Magical Animals. Birds have historically been turned to by humans for secret knowledge, largely owing to their unfettered freedom to fly from place to place. Virtually all mythologies have some tale of a great mythic bird: the Roc in the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Zeus’s swan-form, the Thunderbird of some Native American stories, and the haunting Crane Dance of Japan are some of the better-known examples. A creation myth of the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands says that a raven, lonely in his long flight, spit upon a clam and opened it up, freeing the first humans (see Magical Creatures by E. Pepper & B. Stacy for more on this). What have birds to do with divination, though? Many readers probably already know about the branch of fortune-telling known as augury, but for those who haven’t heard of it, it simply means predicting fate by observing the flights of birds.
So how does one go about performing augury? Here things get a bit fuzzy—in some cases, the future comes as a vision released by a relaxed mind observing with detachment the loops and turns of soaring birds. Portuguese writer Paulo Coelho incorporates this type of augury into his novella, The Alchemist when he has a young shepherd accidentally catch a glimpse of coming war while he watches two hawks diving over desert sands. The other method, and the one which makes up a good bit of North American lore, simply involves noting the behavior of birds and interpreting it by means of known connotations. This sort of augury has numerous manifestations, and is especially prominent in Appalachian lore. Folklorist W. L. McAtee recorded a number of bird-related divinations in an essay from 1955:
From “Odds & Ends on North American Folklore on Birds,” by W. L. McAtee:
- “[I]f ever a bird builds in your shoe or pocket, or any of your clothes, you may prepare to die within the year.”
- “The loon, a favorite with folklorists, is called ‘Bad Luck Bird’ by the natives [of the Sea Islands of Georgia], who will not speak of it, or if possible even look at it when they meet it in a journey by water.”
- “While recording the common beliefs as to the storm petrels, that ‘Their appearance portends bad weather,’ Mrs. Simcoe [McAtee’s informant] adds: ‘To kill them is unlucky. Each bird is supposed . . . to contain the soul of a dead sailor.’
- “The Reverend J. H. Linsley in his Birds of Connecticut (1843) noted that the cry of the bittern is a cause of superstitious fear and recorded that one man hearing it ran a mile, saying, that the Devil was after him.”
- “’A token,’ said Archibald Rutledge [another informant], writing of the Santee Country, South Carolina, ‘is an apparition foretelling death,’ and cites as examples an eagle feeding with black vultures, a wild turkey standing alone under a certain great oak tree, and an albino robin.”
- “[An] Abundance of people here look upon [whip-poor-wills] . . . as birds of ill omen, and they are very melancholy if one of them happens to light upon their house, or near their door, and set up his cry (as they will sometimes upon the very threshold) for they firmly believe one of the family will die very soon after.”
- “Canada Jays are supposed to embody the souls of hunters or lumbermen who die in the north woods and it, therefore, brings bad luck to kill them.”
- “In western North Carolina, it means seven years of bad luck to kill a raven.”
- “To end this section on a more cheerful note, we cite the Ozark fancy that ‘If a redbird flies across a girl’s path . . . she will be kissed before night.’”
Other mountain lore about birds tends to focus on weather prediction (a subject we’ve covered in our posts on Signs & Omens to some extent, but you can never have enough weather-prediction lore). Patrick Gainer observes: “When the geese wander on the hills and fly homeward squawking, there will be a storm within twenty-four hours,” and “When the red birds call in the morning, it will rain before night.” Vance Randolph records some Ozark lore along the same lines:
- Chickens or turkeys standing with their backs to the wind and with ruffled feathers mean a storm’s coming.
- A rooster crowing at nightfall portends rain through the dark hours.
- A sudden burst of robin-song foretells of bad weather.
- Kingfishers nesting near the water mean a dry season to come.
Birds seem indelibly linked with concepts of luck and death, too. Anyone who’s seen the 90’s cult film The Crow probably remembers the voice-over at the movie’s opening telling a pseudomyth about how people once believed that a crow ferried souls between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and occasionally allowed one to come back for vengeance (I call this a pseudomyth not because there’s no truth in it, but rather that I’ve never been able to find exactly that myth borne out in folklore, though there are certainly close correlatives to it—corvids are often associated with death). There are many other pieces of Appalachian lore in this vein:
- Barn swallows bring good luck where they nest, and it is bad luck to shoot one. (Randolph, OM&F)
- Redbirds or roosters lingering near one’s doors or windows tend to mean tragedy will come soon after. (Randolph, OM&F)
- Whippoorwills nesting at a home mean death will soon come to it. (Randolph, OM&F)
- If a bird flies in the window, someone in the family will die. (Gainer, WG&S)
- It is bad luck for a hen to crow. (Gainer, WG&S)
- “Owls are omens of great ill. If you spot one nearby while you are inside your home, the direction in which it flies away is an indication of the fate of your household. If it flies off to the left of the cabin, very bad luck can be expected, but if it flies off to the right, it indicates an evil influence has chosen to pass you by.”(Edain McCoy, In a Graveyard at Midnight)
- “Many western occult traditions regard peacocks as omens of ill fortune and their feathers as tokens of bad luck.” (Pepper & Stacy, MC)
Finally, in the category of “Odds & Ends,” there are some really spectacularly unique bits of North American folklore about birds which come from all over:
- Buzzards will vomit upon anyone guilty of incest. (Randolph, OM&F)
- “When you hear the first robin sing in the spring, sit down on a rock and take off your left stocking. If there is a hair in it, your sweetheart will call on you soon.” (Gainer, WG&S)
- “If a bird flies down and gets tangled in your hair, it is an indication that the bird has linked itself with your soul, and whatever befalls the bird is likely to befall you also.” (McCoy, IaGaM)
- Richard Dorson records a legend in Buying the Wind found amongst Illinois “Egyptians” (or what many would call “Gypsies”) about a mouse, a bird, and a sausage who all keep house together until the sausage is eaten and the mouse accidentally kills himself that feels like it must have some embedded magical meaning, though I’ve yet to figure it out.
That’s it for our bird-watching entry. If you’ve got lore you’d like to share about birds, we’d love to hear it! It certainly gives me a good reason to keep watching the skies, so please feel free to comment with any augury methods you’ve got.
As always, thanks so much for reading!
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