I don’t consider myself a superstitious person, as the guardian to a black cat I can neither confirm nor deny their lucky attributes, not walking under ladders just seems like common sense, likewise opening umbrellas outside where a spoke in the eye is less likely to occur than in a confined space, living by the coast I have experienced my fair share of aerial excrement but being pooped on by a gull has never noticeably improved my fortunes. However I do find the origins and intricacies of our superstitions fascinating as they are often complexly woven into our heritage and reveal much about our ancestor’s interpretation of the world around them. Birds feature prominently in our folklore with some species attached to multiple superstitions as both heroes and villains.
In British superstition Magpies are natures fortune tellers, who hasn’t hear the old rhyme which attributes a different outcome to the number of magpies spotted, traditionally it began “One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a funeral, four for a birth”, this has been adapted with time and now we more commonly say “two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy” and this goes up to ten ending with the rather more cryptic “ten for a bird you must not miss”.
A single magpie is a portent of bad luck but this can be offset by asking the bird “Morning Mr Magpie – how’s your lady wife today?” which is rather fitting as once paired magpies mate for life. Alternatively it’s possible to ward off ill fortune by imitating the bird, vigorous arm flapping is said to achieve the desired result. These non-migratory birds are one of nature’s most intelligent species even capable of self-recognition but they aren’t the only corvids to feature in folklore. Their crow cousins also have a number of superstitions attributed to them, to see one in a graveyard is a sure sign of bad luck but spotting a dead crow brings the opposite fortune.
The crow’s reputation can’t be helped by a flock of crows being referred to as a “murder” or their infamous appearance in the Hitchcock classic “The Birds”. A bit unfair on a species that is one of nature’s most prolific environmental cleaners, with a digestive system much like a vultures these helpful corvids consume tons of waste every year helping prevent the spread of disease as well as consuming harmful pests and helping to spread beneficial seeds. The value of their presence in our ecosystem is far outweighed by perceived negatives.
The nation’s favourite bird the robin is associated with both good and bad. For some they are welcome portents from the spirit world bringing comfort at times of grief. However should they fly into your home in any month besides November this is an omen of impending death. Robins were not always thus named, up until the Victorian age they were known simply as redbreasts, an attribute which some say they acquired whilst trying to pluck the thorns from Jesus head at the crucifixion.
Whilst I would never condone harming any wildlife killing some species of bird can have especially dire consequences. Sparrows are said to carry the souls of the dead and commune with fairies, to kill one is to anger those supernatural forces. Whilst killing an albatross is said to bring bad luck to sailors.
Some of the oddest and most complex avian superstitions are associated with the cuckoo from predicting how many years a person has left to live by counting the number of its calls to curing illness with its first call of the spring. To ensure good financial fortune make sure you keep some loose change in your pocket and jingle it if you hear a cuckoo, or if you’re feeling a bit more energetic and you manage to spot one of these illusive bird in spring pop a stone on your head and run as fast as you can until it falls off, mark the spot and return the next day when there should be money waiting.
Around three million adults go birdwatching in the UK, why not have a go this weekend when the RSPB holds its annual Big Garden Birdwatch. You can spend an hour spotting birds from your window or if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous you could wrap up warm and join us in the Shuttleworth Gardens this Friday any time between 10am -12pm where we will be on hand with spotting sheets and Jamie our friend from the RSPB can answer your avian questions.
Gemma Alexander – Community Engagement Officer