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Birds in legend fable and folklore

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St. Francis Preaching to the Birds.

Attributed to Giotto


Angus Mac-ind-oc was the Cupid of the Gaels. He was a harper

of the sweetest music, and was attended by birds, his own trans-

formed kisses, which hovered, invisible, over young men and

maidens of Erin, whispering love into their ears.

WHEN we say, «A little bird told me,» we are

talking legend and folklore and superstition all

at once. There is an old Basque story of a bird

— always a small one in these tales — that tells the truth;

and our Biloxi Indians used to say the same of the

hummingbird. Breton peasants still credit all birds with

the power of using human language on proper occasions,

and traditions in all parts of the world agree that every

bird had this power once on a time if not now. The

fireside-tales of the nomads of Oriental deserts or of

North American plains and forest alike attest faith in

this power; and conversation by and with birds is almost

the main stock of the stories heard on our Southern cot-

ton-plantations. You will perhaps recall the bulbul

bazar of the Arabian Nights, and, if you please, you may

read in another chapter of the conversational pewit and

hoopoe of Solomonic fame.

Biblical authority exists in the confidence of the


Prophet Elijah that a «bird of the air… shall tell the

matter»; and monkish traditions abound in revelations

whispered in the ear of the faithful by winged mes-

sengers from divine sources, as you may read further

along if you have patience to turn the leaves. The poets

keep alive the pretty fiction; and the rest of us resort

to the phrase with an arch smile whenever we do not care

to quote our authority for repeating some half-secret bit

of gossip. «This magical power of understanding bird-

talk,“ says Halliday, 1 * „is regularly the way in which the

seers of myths obtain their information.»

Primitive men — and those we style the Ancients were

primitive so far as nature is concerned — regarded birds

as supernaturally wise. This canniness is implied in

many of the narratives and incidents set down in the

succeeding pages; and in view of it birds came to be

regarded by early man with great respect, yet also with

apprehension, for they might utilize their knowledge to

his harm. For example: The Canada jay is believed

by the Indians along the northern shore of Hudson Bay

to give warning whenever they approach an Eskimo camp

— usually, of course, with hostile intent; and naturally

those Indians kill that kind of jay whenever they can.

The ability in birds to speak implies knowledge, and

Martha Young 2 gives us a view of this logic prevailing

among the old-time southern darkies:

♦This and similar «superior» figures throughout the text refer

to the List of Books in the Appendix, where the author and

title of the publication alluded to will be found under its number.

The author takes this opportunity, in place of a perfunctory

Preface, to make grateful acknowledgment of assistance to Pro-

fessor A. V. H. Jackson, who revised the chapter on fabulous birds;

to Mr. Stewart Culin, helpful in Chinese matters, etc.; to Pro-

fessor Justin H. Smith, who scanned the whole manuscript; and

to others who furnished valuable facts and suggestions.


Sis’ Dove she know mo’n anybody or anything in de worl’.

She know pintedly de time anybody gwine die. You’ll hear

her moanin’ fer a passin’ soul ’fo’ you hear de bell tone.

She know ’fo’ cotton-plantin’ time whe’r de craps dat gatherin’

’11 be good er bad. To’ folks breaks up de new groun’ er

bust out middles, Sis’ Dove know what de yield ’11 be. She

know it an’ she’ll tell it, too. «Caze ev’ybody know if

Sis’ Dove coo on de right han’ of a man plowin’, dare ’11 be

a good crap dat year; but ef she coo on de lef dar ’11 be a

faillery crap dat year.

Sis’ Dove she know about all de craps dat grow out er de

groun’ but she ’special know about corn, fer she plant de fi’st

grain er corn dat ever was plant’ in de whole worl\ Whar

she git it? … Umm — hum! You tell me dat!

From the belief in the intuitive wisdom of birds comes

the world-wide confidence in their prophetic power.

Hence their actions, often so mysterious, have been

watched with intense interest, and everything unusual

in their behavior was noticed in the hope that it might

express a revelation from on high. Advantage was taken

of this pathetic hope and assurance by the Roman augurs

in their legalized ornithomancy, of which some descrip-

tion will be found in another chapter. Nine-tenths of it

was priestly humbug to keep ordinary folks in mental

subjection, as priestcraft has ever sought to do. The

remaining tenth has become the basis of the present

popular faith in birds’ ability to foretell coming weather.

Let me cite a few aboriginal examples of this faith,

more or less sincere, in the ability and willingness of

birds to warn inquiring humanity.

The Omahas and other Siouan Indians used to say

that when whippoorwills sing at night, saying «Hoia,

hohin?» one replies «No.» If the birds stop at once, it is

a sign that the answerer will soon die, but if the birds

keep on calling he or she will live a long time. The

Utes of Colorado, however, declare that this bird is the


god of the night, and that it made the moon by magic,

transforming a frog into it; while the Iroquois indulged

in the pretty fancy that the moccasin-flowers (cypri-

pediums) are whippoorwills’ shoes.

This is a little astray from my present theme, to which

we may return by quoting from Waterton 73 that if one

of the related goatsuckers of the Amazon Valley be heard

close to an Indian’s or a negro’s hut, from that night

evil fortune sits brooding over it. In Costa Rica bones

of whippoorwills are dried and ground to a fine powder

by the Indians when they want to concoct a charm against

some enemy; mixed with tobacco it will form a cigarette

believed to cause certain death to the person smoking it.

To the mountaineers of the southern Alleghanies the

whippoorwill reveals how long it will be before marriage

— as many years as its notes are repeated: as I have

heard the bird reiterate its cry more than 800 times with-

out taking breath, this must often be a discouraging re-

port to an anxious maid or bachelor. One often hears it

said lightly in New England that a whippoorwill calling

very near a house portends death, but I can get no evi-

dence that this «sign» is really attended to anywhere in the

northern United States.

This, and the equally nocturnal screechowl (against

which the darkies have many «conjurings») are not the

only birds feared by rural folk in the Southern States,

especially in the mountains. A child in a family of

Georgia «crackers» fell ill, and his mother gave this

account of it to a sympathetic friend:

Mikey is bound to die. I’ve know’d it all along. All las’

week the moanin’ doves was comin roun’ the house, and this

mornin’ one come in at the window right by Mikey’s head, an’

cooed an’ moaned. I couldn’t scare it away, else a witch would

’a’ put a spell on me.


Mikey lived to become a drunkard, is the unfeeling com-

ment of the reporter of this touching incident in The

Journal of American Folklore.

«One constantly hears by day the note of the limocon,

a wood-pigeon which exercises a most extraordinary

interest over the lives of many of the wild people, for

they believe that the direction and nature of its notes

augur good or ill for the enterprises they have in hand.»

This memorandum, in Dean Worcester’s valuable book

on the Philippines, 3 is apt to the purpose of this intro-

ductory chapter, leading me to say that the continuing

reader will find doves (which are much the same in all

parts of the world) conspicuous in legend, fable and

ceremony; also that the «direction and nature» of their

voices, as heard, is one of the most important elements

in the consideration of birds in general as messengers

and prophets — functions to which I shall often have oc-

casion to refer, and on which are founded the ancient

systems of bird-divination.

In these United States little superstition relating to

animals has survived, partly because the wild creatures

here were strange to the pioneers, who were poorly ac-

quainted with their characteristics, but mainly because

such fears and fancies were left in the Old World with

other rubbish not worth the freight-charges; yet a few

quaint notions came along, like small heirlooms of no

particular value that folks dislike to throw away until

they must. Almost all such mental keepsakes belong to

people in the backward parts of the country, often with

an ill-fitting application to local birds. A conspicuous

disappearance is that venerable body of forebodings and

fancies attached to the European cuckoo, totally unknown

or disregarded here, because our American cuckoos have


no such irregular habits as gave rise to the myths and

superstitions clustering about that bird in Europe.

We saw a moment ago that the negro farmer estimated

what the yield of his field would be by the direction from

which the dove’s message came to his ears. I have an-

other note that if one hears the first mourning-dove of

the year above him he will prosper: if from below him

his own course henceforth will be down hill.

This matter of direction whence (and also of number)

is of vital importance in interpreting bird-prophecy the

world over, as will be fully shown in a subsequent

chapter. Even in parts of New England it is counted

«unlucky» to see two crows together flying toward the

left — a plain borrowing from the magpie-lore of Old

England. In the South it is thought that if two quails

fly up in front of a man on the way to conclude a bargain

he will do well to abandon the intended business. Break

up a killdeer’s nest and you will soon break a leg or arm

— and so on.

There always have been persons who were much dis-

turbed when a bird fluttered against a closed window.

A rooster crowing into an open house-door foretells a

visitor. The plantation darkies of our Southern States

believe that when shy forest-birds come close about a

dwelling as if frightened, or, wandering within it, beat

their wings wildly in search of an exit, so some soul will

flutteringly seek escape from that house — and «right

soon.» Similar fears afflict the timid on the other side

of the globe. On the contrary, and more naturally, it is

esteemed among us an excellent omen when wild birds

nest fearlessly about a negro’s or a mountaineer’s cabin.

When a Georgia girl first hears in the spring the plain-

tive call of returning doves she must immediately attend


to it if she is curious as to her future partner in life.

She must at once take nine steps forward and nine back-

ward, then take off her right shoe: in it she will discover

a hair of the man she is to marry — but how to find its

owner is not explained! This bit of rustic divination is

plainly transferred from the old English formula toward

the first-heard cuckoo, as may be learned from Gay’s

The Sheperd’s Week, 8 which is a treasury of rustic cus-

toms in Britain long ago. Says one of the maids :

Then doff’d my shoe, and by my troth I swear,

Therein I spy’d this yellow, frizzled hair.

This matter of the hair is pure superstition allied to

magic, in practicing which, indeed, birds have often been

degraded to an evil service very remote from their nature.

Thiselton Dyer quotes an Irish notion that «in every-

one’s head there is a particular hair which, if the swallow

can pluck it, dooms the wretched individual to eternal

perdition.» A Baltimore folklorist warns every lady

against letting birds build nests with the combings of

her hair, as it will turn the unfortunate woman crazy.

Any woman afraid of this should beware of that dear

little sprite of our garden shrubbery, the chipping-spar-

row, for it always lines its tiny nest with hair. This

notion is another importation, for it has long been a

saying in Europe that if a bird uses human hair in its

nest the owner of the hair will have headaches and later

baldness. Curiously enough the Seneca Indians, one of

the five Iroquois tribes, are said to have long practised

a means, as they believed it to be, of communicating with

a maiden-relative, after her death, by capturing a fledg-

ling bird with a noose made from her hair. The bird

was kept caged until it began to sing, when it was libe-


rated and was believed to carry to the knowledge of the

departed one a whispered message of love.

Now the idea underlying all this faith in the super-

natural wisdom and prophetic gift in birds is the general

supposition that they are spirits, or, at any rate, possessed

by spirits, a doctrine that appears in various guises but is

universal in the world of primitive culture — a world

nearer to us sophisticated readers than perhaps we

realize: but a good many little children inhabit it, even

within our doors.

«The primitive mind,,, as Dr. Brinton asserts, «did not

recognize any deep distinction between the lower animals

and man»; and continues:

The savage knew that the beast was his superior in many

points, in craft and in strength, in fleetness and intuition, and he

regarded it with respect. To him the brute had a soul not in-

ferior to his own, and a language which the wise among men

might on occasion learn…. Therefore with wide unanimity

he placed certain species of animals nearer to God than is man

himself, or even identified them with the manifestations of the


None was in this respect a greater favorite than the bird.

Its soaring flight, its strange or sweet notes, the marked hues

of its plumage, combined to render it a fit emblem of power

and beauty. The Dyaks of Borneo trace their descent to

Singalang Burong, the god of birds; and birds as the ancestors

of the totemic family are extremely common among the

American Indians. The Eskimos say that they have the faculty

of soul or life beyond all other creatures, and in most primitive

tribes they have been regarded as the messengers of the divine,

and the special purveyors of the vital principles… and every-

where to be able to understand the language of birds was

equivalent to being able to converse with the gods. 4

If this is true it is not surprising that savages in various

parts of the world trace their tribal origin to a super-

natural bird of the same form and name as some familiar


local species, which was inhabited by the soul of their

heroic «first man.» The Osage Indians of Kansas, for

example, say that as far back as they can conceive of

time their ancestors were alive, but had neither bodies

nor souls. They existed beneath the lowest of the four

«upper worlds/' and at last migrated to the highest, where

they obtained souls. Then followed travels in which they

searched for some source whence they might get human

bodies, and at last asked the question of a redbird sitting

on her nest. She replied: «I can cause your children to

have human bodies from my own.» She explained that

her wings would be their arms, her head their head, and

so on through a long list of parts, external and internal,

showing herself a good comparative anatomist. Finally

she declared: «The speech (or breath) of children will

I bestow on your children.» 5

Such is the story of how humanity reached the earth,

according to one branch of the Osages: other gentes

also believe themselves descended from birds that came

down from an upper world. Dozens of similar cases

might be quoted, of which I will select one because of its

curious features. The Seri, an exclusive and backward

tribe inhabiting the desert-like island Tiburon, in the Gulf

of California, ascribe the creation of the world, and of

themselves in particular, to the Ancient of Pelicans, a

mythical fowl of supernal wisdom and melodious song —

an unexpected poetic touch! — who first raised the earth

above the primeval waters. This laf; point is in con-

formity with the general belief that a waste of waters

preceded the appearance, by one or another miraculous

means well within the redman’s range of experience, of

a bit of land; and it is to be observed that this original

patch of earth, whether fixed or floating, was enlarged


to habitable dimensions not by further miracles, nor by

natural accretion, but, as a rule, by the labor and in-

genuity of the «first men» themselves, usually aided by

favorite animals. Thus the Seri Indians naturally held

the pelican in especial regard, but that did not prevent

their utilizing it to the utmost. Dr. W J McGee 6 found

that one of their customs was to tie a broken-winged, liv-

ing pelican to a stake near the seashore, and then appro-

priate the fishes brought to the captive by its free


In fewer cases we find that not only tribal but also

individual origin is ascribed to a bird, the best illustra-

tion of which is the notion of the natives of Perak, in the

Malay Peninsula, that a bird brings the soul to every

person at birth. A woman who is about to become a

mother selects as the place where her baby shall be

born the foot of a certain tree — any one that appeals to

her fancy — and this will be the «name-tree» of her child.

The parents believe that a soul has been waiting for this

child in the form of a bird that for some time before

the birth frequents all the trees of the chosen kind in

that vicinity, searching for the occasion when it may de-

liver its charge, intrusted to it by Kari, the tribal god.

This bird must be killed and eaten by the expectant

mother just before the actual birth or the baby will never

come to life, or if it does will speedily die. A poetic

feature in this tender explanation of the mystery of life

among the jungle-dwellers is that the souls of first-born

children are brought always by the newly hatched off-

spring of the bird that contained the soul of the mother

of the child. 7

Apart from this singular conception of the source of

existence, the general theory of spirituality in birds is


based, as heretofore intimated, on the almost universal

belief that they are often the visible spirits of the dead.

The Powhatans of Virginia, for example, held that the

feathered race received the souls of their chiefs at death;

and a California tribe asserted that the small birds whose

hard luck it was to receive the souls of bad men were

chased and destroyed by hawks, so that those of good

Indians alone reached the happy hunting-grounds beyond

the sky.

James G. Swan relates in his interesting old book about

early days at Puget Sound, 10 that the Indians at Shoal-

water Bay, Oregon, were much disturbed one morning

because they had heard the whistling of a plover in the

night. The white men there told them it was only a

bird’s crying, but they insisted the noise was that of

spirits. Said they: «Birds don’t talk in the night; they

talk in the daytime.“ „But,“ asked Russell, „how can you

tell that it is the memelose tillicunis, or dead people?

They can’t talk.“ „No,“ replied the savage, „it is true they

can’t talk as we do, but they whistle through their teeth.

You are a white man and do not understand what they

say, but Indians know.»

This bit of untainted savage philosophy recalls the

queer British superstition of the Seven Whistlers.

Wordsworth, who was a North-countryman, records of

his ancient Dalesman —

He the seven birds hath seen that never part,

Seen the Seven Whistlers on their nightly rounds

And counted them.

The idea that the wailing of invisible birds is a warning

of danger direct from Providence prevails especially in

the English colliery districts, where wildfowl, migrating


at night and calling to one another as they go, supply

exactly the right suggestion to the timid. Sailors fear

them as «storm-bringers.» Even more horrifying is the

primitive Welsh conception (probably capable of a similar

explanation) of the Three Birds of Rhiannon, wife of

Pwyll, ruler of Hades, that could sing the dead to life

and the living into the sleep of death. Luckily they were

heard only at the death of great heroes in battle.

How easily such things may beguile the imagination

is told in Thomas W. Higginson’s book on army life in

the black regiment of which he was the colonel during

the Civil War. This sane and vigorous young officer

writes of an incident on the South Carolina Coast:»I

remember that, as I stood on deck in the still and misty

evening, listening with strained senses for some sound

of approach of an expected boat, I heard a low con-

tinuous noise from the distance, more mild and desolate

than anything my memory can parallel. It came from

within the vast circle of mist, and seemed like the cry

of a myriad of lost souls upon the horizon’s verge; it

was Dante become audible: yet it was but the accumu-

lated cries of innumerable seafowl at the entrance of the

outer bay.» 9

But I have rambled away along an enticing by-path,

as will frequently happen in the remainder of this book

— to the reader’s interest, I venture to believe.

Returning to the theme of a moment ago, I recall that

the Rev. H. Friend lx tells us that he has seen Buddhist

priests in Canton «bless a small portion of their rice, and

place it at the door of the refectory to be eaten by the

birds which congregate there.» These offerings are to

the «house spirits,» by which the Chinese mean the spirits

of their ancestors, who are still kindly interested in the


welfare of the family. This is real ancestor-worship ex-

pressed in birds; and Spence 12 records that «the shamans

of certain tribes of Paraguay act as go-betweens between

the members of their tribes and such birds as they imagine

enshrine the souls of their departed relatives.» The

heathen Lombards ornamented their grave-posts with

the effigy of a dove. This notion of birds as reincarnated

human souls is not confined to untutored minds nor to

an ancient period. Evidences of its hold on the human

imagination may be found in Europe down to the present

day, and it animates one of the most picturesque super-

stitions of pious followers of Mahomet, two forms of

which have come to me. The first is given by Doughty, 13

the second by Keane, 14 both excellent authorities.

Doughty says: «It was an ancient opinion of the

idolatrous Arabs that the departing spirit flitted from

man’s brainpan as a wandering fowl, complaining thence-

forward in perpetual thirst her unavenged wrong;

friends, therefore, to avenge the friend’s soul-bird, poured

upon the grave their pious libations of wine. The bird

is called a ’green fowl.»»

Quoting Keane: «It is a superstition among the Mo-

hammedans that the spirits of martyrs are lodged in the

crops of green birds, and partake of the fruit and drink

of the rivers of paradise; also that the souls of the good

dwell in the form of white birds near the throne of God.»

But the spirits represented in birds are not always

ancestral or benevolent: they may be unpleasant, fore-

boding, demoniac. The Indians and negroes along the

Amazons will not destroy goatsuckers. Why? Because

they are receptacles for departed human souls who have

come back to earth unable to rest because of crimes done

in their former bodies, or to haunt cruel and hard-hearted

Z 6 birds in legend

masters. In Venezuela and Trinidad the groan-like cries

of the nocturnal, cave-dwelling guacharos are thought

to be the wailing of ghosts compelled to stay in their

caverns in order to expiate their sins. Even now, the

Turks maintain that the dusky shearwaters that daily

travel in mysterious flocks up and down the Bosphorus

are animated by condemned human souls.

By way of the ancestral traditions sketched above,

arise those «sacred animals» constantly mentioned in

accounts of ancient or backward peoples. Various birds

were assigned to the deities and heroes of Egyptian and

Pagan mythology — the eagle to Jove, goose and later the

peacock to Juno, the little owl to Minerva, and so on; but

to call these companions «sacred» is a bad use of the term,

for there was little or nothing consecrate in these ascrip-

tions, and if in any case worship was addressed to the

deity, its animal companion was hardly included in the

reverential thought of the celebrant.

It is conceivable that such ascriptions as these are the

refined relics of earlier superstitions held by primitive

folk everywhere in regard to such birds of their territory

as appealed to their imaginations because of one or an-

other notable trait. Ethnological and zoological books

abound in instances, which it would be tedious to catalog,

and several examples appear elsewhere in this book. A

single, rather remarkable one, that of the South African

ground-hornbill or bromvogel, will suffice to illustrate

the point here. I choose, among several available, the

account given by Layard, 15 one of the early naturalist-

explorers in southern Africa :

The Fingoes seem to attach some superstitious veneration to

the ground-hornbills and object to their being shot in the

neighborhood of their dwellings, lest they should lose their


cattle by disease…. The Kaffirs have a superstition that if

one of these birds is killed it will rain for a long time. I am

told that in time of drought it is the custom to take one alive,

tie a stone to it, then throw it into a «vley»; after that a rain is

supposed to follow. They avoid using the water in which this

ceremony has been performed…. Only killed in time of

severe drought, when one is killed by order of the rain-doctor

and its body is thrown into a pool in a river. The idea is that

the bird has so offensive a smell that it will make the water

sick, and that the only way of getting rid of this is to wash it

away to the sea, which can only be done by a heavy rain.

The ground where they feed is considered good for cattle,

and in settling a new country spots frequented by these birds

are chosen by the wealthy people. Should the birds, however,

by some chance, fly over a cattle kraal, the kraal is moved to

some other place. … It is very weak on the wing, and when

required by the «doctor» the bird is caught by the men of a

number of kraals turning out at the same time, and a particular

bird is followed from one hill to another by those on the look-

out. After three or four flights it can be run down and caught

by a good runner…. The Ovampos [of Damara land] seem

to have a superstition [that the eggs cannot be procured because

so soft that] they would fall to pieces on the least handling.

It seems to me likely that the sense of service to men

in its constant killing of dreaded snakes — birds and ser-

pents are linked together in all barbaric religious and

social myths — may be at the core of the veneration paid

the hornbill, as, apparently, it was in the case of the

Egyptian ibis. This wader was not only a foe to lizards

and small snakes, but, as it always appeared in the Nile

just as the river showed signs of beginning its periodic

overflow, a matter of anxious concern to the people, it

was regarded as a prescient and benevolent creature fore-

telling the longed-for rise of the water. At Hermopolis,

situated at the upper end of the great fertile plain of

the lower Nile, the ibis was incarnated as Thoth (identi-

fied by the Greeks with Hermes), one of the highest gods


of the ancient Egyptians. This ibis, and other incarnated

animals, originally mere symbols of lofty ideas, came to

be reverenced as real divinities in the places where their

cult flourished (although they might enjoy no such dis-

tinction elsewhere), were given divine honors when they

died, and were, in short, real gods to their devotees; that is

to say, the sophisticated Egyptians of the later dynasties

had elevated into the logical semblance of divinity this

and that animal-fetish of their uncultured ancestors.

Another singular case of a bird rising to the eminence

of tutelary deity is that of the ruddy sheldrake (Casarca

rutila) or Brahminy duck in Thibet. From it is derived

the title of the established church of the lamas (practi-

cally the government of that Buddhistic country); and

their abbotts wear robes of the sheldrake colors. In

Burmah the Brahminy duck is sacred to Buddhists as a

symbol of devotion and fidelity, and it was figured on

Asoka’s pillars in this emblematic character. This shel-

drake is usually found in pairs, and when one is shot

the other will often hover near until it, too, falls a vic-

tim to its conjugal love. 16

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