In the animal kingdom birds have come in for a full share of legendary lore. Thus the owl has given rise to widespread superstitions, and has ever been considered a bird of ill-omen, and its unexpected appearance a portent of death and disaster. Even whole nations have been influenced by this belief; Rome twice underwent the ceremony of lustration owing to the appearance in its temples of the dreaded great owl. Shakespeare constantly alludes to the bird of night ” (” Midsummer Night’s Dream,” act v., sc. I ; ” Henry VI.,” Part I., act iv., sc. 2 ; ” Macbeth,” act i., sc. 2).
The owl which popular belief has invested with supernatural power, is undoubtedly the barn, or screech owl. The wild legend of the banshee, a legend not alone confined to the sister isle, has probably originated in the cry of the useless and harmless barn-owl. Its presence is linked with the fate of an aristocratic race ; tradition says the appearance of two spectral owls of immense size, on the battlements of Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, still warns the family of Arundell of the approach of the last enemy. It is a curious fact that the same superstition is associated with the cry of the owl in an opposite quarter of the globe. In the forest lands of the far west, the redskin shrinks with alarm as he listens to the dismal screeching of the horned owl, firmly believing that its wild cries portend some dire calamity. Wilson, the American ornithologist, in describing the cry of these owls, says : ” This ghostly watchman has frequently warned me of the approach of morning, sweeping down and around my fires, uttering a loud and sudden ` Waugh O ! Waugh O !’ sufficient to have alarmed a whole garrison. He has other nocturnal solos, one of which very strikingly resembles the half-suppressed scream of a person suffocating or throttled.” Sir John Richardson narrates the circumstances of a party of Scottish Highlanders who passed a long winter’s night of intense fear, in the depths of an American pine forest. They had made their bivouac fire from wood taken from an Indian tomb ; all night long the shrieks of the Virginian owl rang in their affrighted ears cries which they at once judged carne from the spirit of the old warrior bemoaning his desecrated resting-place.
Next to the owl, the raven has ever been considered a bird of evil omen. By the Romans he was dedicated to Apollo. But it was more particularly amongst the northern nations that the grim raven was in-vested with supernatural powers. He was the bird of Odin, and bears no insignificant place in northern mythology ; par excellence the bird of the battle field, his very likeness has floated over many a scene of slaughter, for the old heathen banner of Denmark was the raven that mystic banner, which, says the legend, was woven in one night by three weird sisters, and called ” Reafen,” or ” Rumfan,” from bearing the figure of the raven.
On the Bayeux tapestry, William the Conqueror, who was descended from the old Vikings, is represented at the battle of Hastings as going into the fight with a banner on which is portrayed the bird of Odin. When, however, in Denmark, “Thor’s hammer” fell before “Christ’s Cross,” the old raven banner was superseded by the white cross of the Dannebrog.
Shakespeare repeatedly made mention of the raven, or night crow. Thus Othello is made to say :
“O it comes o’er my memory,
As doth the raven o’er the infectious house,
Boding to all,”
referring to the belief that this bird haunts the neighbourhood of the house where death is impending. As an illustration of the horror in-spired by the raven in more modern times, we are told of a woman seeking relief from a board of guardians, on the plea of ” grief ” brought on by a croaking raven flying over her cottage, from which she was so frightened and depressed as to be incapable of work (see Notes and Queries, 1st ser., vol. vii., p. 496).
There is an old Cornish tradition (Ibid., vol. viii., p. 618) that King Arthur is still living, in the form of a raven, changed into that shape by magic, and that some day he will resume his kingly form again.
The magpie is considered either a lucky or unlucky bird, according to the number seen together. Our readers will remember the old lines :
” One for sorrow ;
Two for mirth ;
Three for a wedding ;
Four for death.”
The same augury holds good throughout Great Britain ; occasion-ally the last line runs, ” Four for a birth ;” but this is not the correct reading. Brand (p. 532), quoting from “The Glossary to the Complaynt of Scotland,” remarks : ” Many an old woman would more willingly see the devil, who bodes no more ill-luck than he brings, than a magpie perching on a neighbouring tree.” It is very probable that the superstitious feeling respecting this bird is of Scandinavian origin. In Norway the magpie is considered almost a sacred bird, and it is held extremely unlucky to kill one. The northern magpies appear quite to understand this, and give themselves airs accordingly. Nearly every cottage has a pair in attendance, which, from long immunity, have become singularly tame and fearless hopping about the door, or perched on the roof, heedless of passers by, evidently considering themselves part of the establishment.
There is a belief in some parts of the country that robins will sing near the window where a person is dying. Another legend is, that the robin attended our Lord on the cross, and was there sprinkled with His blood, the marks of which the little songster still carries on his ruddy breast.
There is also a curious Welsh superstition connected with the red-breast (Notes and Queries, I st ser., vol. iii., p. 328), that far away, in a land of woe and fire, “day by day does the little bird bear in his bill a drop of water to quench the flame ; so near does he fly, that his feathers are scorched, and hence he is named Bron rhuddyn ” (breast-burnt). From his devotion to the cause of the lost, he feels the biting cold of winter more than any other bird, and has, consequently, a greater claim on our gratitude.
There is a German legend about the cross-bill very similar to the one narrated of the redbreast, which Longfellow has rendered in some well-known lines. This legend relates that, when our Saviour was on the cross, this little bird strove unceasingly to release him, patiently working hour after hour, with damaged beak and blood-stained plumage, to draw out the cruel nails, and, in token of such rare devotion, the faithful bird has ever since retained the crossed beak and ruddy plumage. (The legend is related in Once a Week, vol. iii., p. 722.)
A curious superstition prevails in some of the southern counties connected with game birds that a person cannot die easily on a bed stuffed with game feathers, as, when such is the case, they invariably prolong the death agony using a provincial phrase, the “poor soul dies hard ;” and it is not an uncommon occurrence in a lingering illness, and when the presence of game feathers in the bed is suspected, to expedite the departure of the sufferer by changing his bed.
The poetic legend of the death-song of the dying swan is of considerable antiquity.
During the autumn migrations of the wild swan, these birds frequently fly by night, and in dull cloudy weather keep up a continual calling. Familiar as the sound is to dwellers in the country, it has given rise to a wild and wide-spread superstition. We are told that this mysterious nocturnal melody proceeds from a pack of demon dogs, yclept “Gabriel’s hounds,” or, as they are sometimes termed, the ” Devil’s dandy dogs.” Two forms of this wild legend are prevalent the one common to Wales, and the southwest of England, that this yelping pack are evil spirits hounding forward the souls of the lost to their final punishment ; the other bears a striking resemblance to the German story of the ” Wild Huntsman,” the demon knight called Hackelubärend, and is doubtless of Teutonic origin. (See Rev. S. B. Gould’s “Iceland : its Scenes and Sagas.”)
Those who have sailed up the Bosphorus may have observed, in the twilight or early morning, flocks of sober-coloured, petrel-like birds, skimming backwards and forwards, close to the water, never resting for a moment. The Turks believe that these birds are the souls of the damned, thus compelled, by a just retribution, to wander for ever, hopelessly and unceasingly, over water as restless and unquiet as themselves. Sailors are proverbially superstitious, and ever consider the presence of the petrel as the signal of foul weather, and style them ” Mother Cary’s chickens.”
There is a remarkable legend connected with the appearance of a phantom bird, with a white breast and of an unknown species, which appears at the death of the members of an old Devonshire family of the name of Oxenham. We are told that, when any of this family are on their death bed, this strange bird, with the white breast, is seen to flutter for a time about the bed, and then suddenly to vanish. Chambers, quoting from ” Howell’s Familiar Letters,” says that Mr. James Howell saw, in a lapidary’s shop in London, a marble slab to be sent into Devonshire, with an inscription that ” John Oxenham, Mary his sister, James his son, and Elizabeth his mother, had each the appearance of such a bird fluttering about their beds as they were dying.”