For the Birds Radio Program: Superstitions

Original Air Date: Oct. 30, 2004 (estimated date)

How did people create so many superstitions revolving around birds?

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As Halloween approaches, we see more and more spooky reminders of our species’ superstitiousness. Graveyard scenes are standard, with at least one tombstone or crooked tree branch inhabited by a shadowy owl staring with eerie, cat-like eyes.

Owls have long served as symbols or prognosticators of death and misery in the folklore of cultures throughout the world. In 1894, W.J.Broderip explained, “Their retired habits, the desolate places that are their favorite haunts, their hollow hootings, fearful shrieks, serpent-like hissings and coffin-maker snappings, have helped to give them a bad eminence.” One hundred years later, on an episode of “Northern Exposure,” the popular television program of the 90s, a great horned owl was shown hooting moments before a falling satellite squashed Maggie’s fiancé.

But owls are hardly the only birds associated with superstition. Brant geese were the Gabriel hounds, a night-flying pack baying their announcement of a coming funeral. For some, a songbird tapping on a window or a woodpecker tapping on a house predicted a death. In early American folklore, a bird flying into a house was carrying a message to the people inside. If it couldn’t fly out again, it was a sign of death, though of course the death was usually the bird’s.

Ancient Europeans believed swifts and ravens colluded with Satan. Edgar Allan Poe’s raven was a “Prophet! Thing of evil!” He pleaded with it to “‘Take they beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’ Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore’” For the English, the croakings of ravens predicted death and disaster. Even today the British government protects and fosters the ravens in the Tower of London rookery because of a myth that a horrible disaster would befall England if the ravens were to leave.

In America’s Deep South in the 1800s, many people believed that the raven’s relative the blue jay was Satan’s messenger. People thought it was impossible to see a jay on Friday, the day blue jays carried sticks down to hell to give to Satan, along with gossip about the world. The jays returned from their devilish duties on Saturday, when they were especially noisy in their relief to be back on earth once again.

Some bird superstitions have been a little less gloomy. The call of a whip-poor-will supposedly foretold a death, but if you made a wish when you heard your first whip-poor-will of spring, your wish would come true. And hearing that first whip-poor-will also meant that you’d be in the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time the following year (unless, presumably, your death was the one it was foretelling).

The European cuckoo’s loud and distinctive call, exactly like our cuckoo clock, was strange enough to portend something, but no one single myth about whether it was a good sign or an evil one ever won out. Pigeons feeding in a grain field portended evil. The same birds showing up anywhere else were doves, harbingers of peace and good luck. If a bird crossed one’s path from left to right, the person was headed for trouble, but if the bird crossed from right to left, happy times were ahead.

The word “auspicious” comes from “auspicium,” the ancient practice of foretelling the future using bird entrails and other body parts. We may laugh about how people once believed that the folds in some poor dead bird’s intestines gave information about the future, but many of us still tug at the wishbone when we eat a turkey.

And of course, one scary symbol of Halloween really does portend death. For many birds, an approaching black cat, or cat of any other color, is the last thing they’ll ever see.