For the Birds Radio Program: Augury

Original Air Date: June 6, 1988

Some people look at the stars to tell the future, which may not be any less scientific than looking at bird entrails. (4:02), date verified.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Raven)

So Nancy Reagan uses astrology to schedule national events. Perhaps it’s time for her to turn to another ancient science which is more auspicious than astrology—augury— the practice of watching birds to predict the future. Man has been interested in birds from the beginning of the human race— birds have supplied humans with meat for food, feathers for decoration, clothing, arrows, and writing materials, and even bones for beads and whistles. In early times, man was awed by the flight of birds which carried them up to the provinces of the gods. People likened the movements of birds to the departure from earth of the human soul. The mystical interpretation of bird flight led to the familiar portrayal of angels with bird wings.

Some bird folklore was rich with inconsistencies. For example, when a bird belonging to the family Columbidae fed in a grain field, it was traditionally called a pigeon, and portended evil. If the identical bird landed anywhere else, it was called a dove—a harbinger of peace and good luck, sort of the way a missile can be called a “Peacekeeper”, depending on who it’s aimed at. And some folklore was ambiguous in the way a modern horoscope is written to cover all eventualities. The call of a whip-poor-will usually portended death, but if you made a wish when you heard the first whip-poor-will of the spring, your wish would come true. And hearing the first whip- poor-will of spring also meant that you’d be in the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time the following year— unless, of course, you died first. European cuckoos were conspicuous enough to certainly portend something—but their actions could be variously interpreted as good or evil.

In ancient Europe people believed that swifts and ravens colluded with the Devil. In America’s Deep South in the last century, many people believed that the Blue Jay was the Devil’s messenger. Both European and American robins were said to bring good fortune. Brant Geese were the Gabriel Hounds, a night- flying pack baying to foretell a funeral. A songbird tapping on the window or a woodpecker tapping on a house predicted a death. In early American folklore, if a bird flew into a house, it was carrying a message. If it could not get out again, it was a sign of death. Owls were evil omens by night, but were wise and kind by day. The peculiar croakings of ravens were used to predict deaths and other dire happenings. Oddly enough, ravens are protected and fostered by the British government even today, because an unspeakable disaster would supposedly befall England if the ravens were to leave their traditional London Bridge rookery. Presumably the British aren’t laughing at Nancy.

Some ancient augury practices have been completely abandoned in the modern world, such as reading bird entrails to divine the future. But many beliefs from augury continue as folklore today. For example, the expression “a little bird told me” comes from legends in many different cultures. The Biloxi Indians of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico spoke to the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which not only talked–it always spoke the truth.

In ancient beliefs, if a bird crossed one’s path from left to right, a person knew he was in big trouble, but if the bird crossed from right to left, happy times were ahead. Perhaps if Nancy had paid less attention to Ronnie’s horoscope and more attention to where at least one bird—Senator Robert Byrd- –was coming from, everyone would be happier now.

(Recording of a Whip-poor-will)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”