Birds in superstition and folklore

October 31, 2021: Happy Halloween!

One is lucky, two is lucky, three is health, four is wealth, five sickness, and six death. – The Children’s Mother Goose

The ways in which we watch and learn about birds – HD cameras, high-powered spotting scopes and lenses, and DNA analyzers – are new, but our interest in birds is very old. Sacred and magical birds are common in folklore, oral traditions, and religious texts, including the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, and the Bhagavad-gita. It’s easy to say that ancient people lacked a global perspective and scientific knowledge, but a quick search for birds + omens shows that we are using supernatural events and powers to explain the fascinating and sometimes eerie lives of birds today. Why are we blogging about birds on Halloween? We traditionally temper our respect and love for birds with apprehension, since they can easily turn their mickle powers against us. Remember to fill your feeders if you don’t want birds ratting out your bad behavior!

Divine Birds
The Morrigan in her crow aspect

The Morrigan flies into battle with Cú Chulainn

Cultures around the world have associated their deities with birds that fly between heaven and earth, deliver messages to and from the gods, and signify divine might. Divine birds include:

We also find birds in Christian folklore and belief. European folklore states that birds with bright red or pink splotches were stained with Christ’s blood as they tried to pull thorns from his body or nails from his hands and feet, while the robin got its red breast after taking water to thirsty sinners in Hell. The sparrow encouraged the guards at the Crucifixion to torture Jesus, but it’s still a very bad idea to kill a sparrow or put one in a cage. We’ve all heard that bald eagles go into seclusion, pluck out all of their feathers, and shed their beak and talons to live longer. While not specifically Christian, this myth is usually accompanied with Christian symbolism. Eagles are part of the Tetramorph and bear messages from God.

Birds as harbingers of death
"Once upon a midnight weary..."

“Once upon a midnight weary…”

In folklore around the world, birds bear messages from the dead, guide dead souls to the afterlife, and signify the presence of the uncanny – especially black or white birds, nocturnal birds, and birds with an eerie or mournful cry. Depending on where you are from, your ancestors knew that:

  • If a bird flies into your house, a family member will die, especially if it lands on a bedpost in a sick room. This belief is so widespread that Snopes has a refutation:
  • White birds, crows, or pigeons flying against a house’s window at night foretells death within a year.
  • If you see six crows or two turtledoves together in a tree, or hear singing whippoorwills, death is near…especially if they are seen or heard near a house.
  • Is a woodpecker knocking on your house? Prepare to die!
  • If a sparrow attacks a swallow and throws it from its nest on or near a home, a son will be born and a daughter will die.
  • Don’t taunt Death by bringing a peacock feather into the house.
  • If you walk under a tree in the evening and an owl hoots right above your head, it means a relative or friend will die within the year. Owls also foretell death by perching on your rooftop or hooting in your neighborhood.
  • Roosters foretell death by crowing at your door.
Birds as omens and talismans

Birds foretell events and serve as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural realms. We have a large body of lore associated with crows and ravens. Some cultures see them as mischievous but beneficial, while others mistrust and fear them.

  • In Christian tradition, cruel ravens enjoyed plucking out the eyes of sinners, although they also fed sacred hermits and Jesus used them as an example of God’s provenance.
  • North American and Canadian traditions depict the raven as a Creator and a rascal. Raven created the world and saved all of the animals from a big flood, but he also enjoyed making mischief – and we have Raven to thank for mosquitoes.
  • Allah sent a raven to show Cain how to bury Abel.
  • If a crow appeared at an ancient Greek wedding breakfast, the marriage would end in failure.
  • In the Talmud, a pair of ravens copulated during the Flood. Noah punished them with banishment from the Ark.
  • In Southeast Asia, a crow flying low across one’s path is interpreted as a favorable or unfavorable omen, depending on the direction it crosses.
  • Swedish folklore tells us that ravens are the ghosts of murder victims.
  • If a crow lands on a house and caws sorrowfully, calamity is sure to befall it, but his joyful “carrow” is a sign of good luck.
What about other birds?
"Like an albatross around your neck..."

“Like an albatross around your neck…”

Ravens and crows are not the only birds associated with good or bad luck.

  • It is unlucky to kill a robin or a swallow, which are both associated with Christ and the Crucifixion. If you killed a robin or a swallow by accident, cancel your bad luck by giving it a proper burial.
  • In the English isles, stonechats chat with the Devil, a rooster crowed for joy at the crucifixion, magpies carry a drop of the Devil’s blood under their tongues and a loitering magpie means the Devil is afoot! Sparrows, stares and plovers are on friendly terms with fairies and the lark and swallow are birds of good omen – as long as the swallow doesn’t perch on the housetop.
  • Looking for a drowning victim? Norwegian searchers knew that roosters crow in the presence of drowned bodies. If you’re a sailor, don’t kill an albatross – or a rooster might come looking for your corpse. Killing an albatross brings very bad luck on the sailor and crew.
  • Don’t break a robin’s egg, or something precious will break!
  • Some Americans believe that it is unlucky to bring peacock feathers into your home. It is also unlucky to have peacock feathers on the stage or comprising any part of a costume, prop, or scenery.
  • In Poland, unmarried girls who died turned into doves, while married girls turned into owls. Beautiful owls did not come out during the day because other birds would jealously mob them.
  • Did a bird poop on you today? Too bad if it didn’t, since Russians know that bird poop brings good luck! If the first bird you see on Valentine’s Day is a goldfinch, your spouse will be rich.
Better get those feeders filled…

Do you feed or water birds? If you don’t, the dead will learn all about your bad behavior! In parts of Turkey, people put small vessels of water on graves. Birds carry news about the living to the dead and the gift of water helps assure that their news stays positive. Want to keep things good with your dead relatives? Fill your feeders before it’s too late!

Things that helped me learn and write about this subject