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Bird Folklore & Superstitions

Perhaps known to most of us through Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem 'The Ancient Mariner' (1798). The poem reflects a majority of beliefs associated with the albatross, as the bird is seen to carry the soul of dead mariners. If a sailor kills the bird, bad luck would fall upon him for the rest of his natural life. Yet this was not a universal belief as it was also known that the feet of the albatross were once used as tobacco pouches. When seen flying around a ship the albatross was reputed to indicate that stormy weather was imminent.

If this bird makes a nest on your roof, this is said to be a traditional sign of good luck. In fact most people believed that if this bird nests anywhere near the house it a positive sign. Seeing the sight of two together is unusual and a sign of good luck as the blackbird is very territorial.

Seen by many as a sacred bird since ancient times as the dove is the one bird into which the Devil cannot transform. The messenger of 'Venus', Goddess of Love, the dove is associated with lovers. For Indians the dove is traditionally believed to contain the soul of a lover, and that to kill one would bring misfortune. Miners though see the bird as one of ill omen and it is reputedly too dangerous to go underground after seeing this bird near a pitshaft. To have one tapping on the window or flying near the room of a sick person is also believed by some to be an omen of death, as is to see one circling a house. Today the dove is an international symbol of peace and also a Christian symbol of the 'Holy Spirit'. The dove is one bird into which reputedly a witch cannot transform.

If this bird hisses or quacks more than normal it is said that rain is on the way. If the bird lays any dun-colored eggs it should be destroyed, along with the eggs, according to a traditional English belief that indicates that misfortune will follow should this event happen. At this and any time hanging a duck upside down is asserted to assure that negative energies and spirits can fall from it.

Also known as the Sparrow Hawk, the Kestrel takes its name from the Latin word crepitare which means to rattle or crackle -- this describes the call made by the kestrel. The Old World name for the Kestrel is the WindHover due to their effect of hovering like a helicopter rather than having the swooping and diving actions as other birds of prey.

Seen as a very lucky bird, it is said in Europe traditionally that to carry feathers of the kingfisher will protect the carrier from negative energies and act as a good luck charm, bringing good health. The amazing color of the bird is reputed to stem from biblical times when the grey kingfisher was the first bird along with the dove and raven to leave Noah's Ark in the search of dry land and therefore caught the red rays of the sun on its breast and the azure of the sky on its back. Another name for the kingfisher is the 'Halcyon' that stems from Ancient Greek times and figuratively means 'conceiving on the sea'. It was once believed that kingfishers nested (made of fishbone) and laid their eggs at sea, hence the name.
'Halcyone' was also a faithful lover according to Greek legend. She was the daughter of the God of the Winds and married 'Ceyx' who was the son of the Day Star. He drowned at sea but the couple were pitied by the gods and so turned into these birds. The expression 'Halcyon Days' stems from this, reflecting days filled with pleasant and fond memories. It is also thought to stem from Greek legend, as for 14 days each year Halcyone sits on her nest whilst her father restrains the powerful winds of the sea. To see a kingfisher sitting on the eggs indicates that there will be no storms at sea and to have a dead kingfisher hung on a ship will allow you to know the direction of the wind. To hear the call coming from the right is a positive omen of imminent success in business (while the opposite is true from the left).

Seen as a lucky bird perhaps because the martin has been viewed in the Christian faith as serving God, being God's 'bow and arrow'. The martin is thought to bring good luck to any house where it nests and rears its young.

A bird with a poor reputation despite being known for being extremely wise hence the expression being a 'wise old owl'. Perhaps this stems from the fact that the owl leads a nocturnal and solitary existence and that the night has long been associated with the time when darker forces and negative energies are present. To see one by day is unlucky and to experience one flying around the house at night signals that death is present, which is thought to stem back to Roman times when the historian 'Pliny' in AD 77 was quoted as saying the bird was 'most execrable and accursed' and always brought bad news. Should an owl brush its wings against a window pain or be seen perching for a considerable length of time on a roof then it is traditionally believed that illness and even death is present within. To look into an owl's nest is reputed to leave the observer with a sad and morose soul. According to an old Welsh tradition if you hear an owl hooting amongst a densely built up area then a female in the locality is said to have just lost her virginity! To hear the hoot of the owl when pregnant, it is traditionally believed in France, means that the baby will be a girl. In Germany if one is heard as a child is being born then the life will be an unhappy one. In the Southern states of America an old traditional rhyme tells of the cry of the owl:

'When you hear the screech owl, honey, in the sweet gum tree,
It's a sign as sure as you're born a death is bound to be;
Unless you put the shovel in the fire mighty quick,
For to conjure that old screech owl, take care the one that's sick.'

A dead owl has served many purposes including mixing some of the flesh with boar's grease as an ointment to ease the pain of gout. Owl broth was once used to feed children to avoid whooping cough according to British tradition, perhaps because the owl itself never suffered in pain when making a similar sound. The eggs were also once thought to help prevent epilepsy, bad sight (for obvious reasons) and more amusingly to bring drunks back to their senses.

Legend has it that the robin received its red breast from trying to remove the bloody thorns from Christ's head at the Crucifixion, with a small drop of His blood falling on the bird and injuring itself in the process:

'A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.'
Extract taken from 'Auguries of Innocence' : William Blake

It is also believed traditionally that the robin received its red feathers as it was taking water into Hell for the burning sinners.

Said to be extremely unlucky to kill this bird. The hand that does so will continue to shake thereafter. Traditionally the Irish believe that a large lump will appear on the right hand if you kill one, and in Yorkshire if the person owns cows then the milk will become blood colored. It is a reputed fact that whatever you do to a robin you will suffer the same tragedy. Breaking the eggs will result in something valuable of your own being broken. Flying in through an open window or tapping on the window is a sign of death being present. To see a robin sheltering in the branches of a tree indicates that rain is on the way & to see one chirping on an open branch indicates that fine weather is imminent. Some believe that the robin will not be chased by a cat. You should make a wish when seeing the first robin of the season, making sure that you are quick as if the bird flies away then no good luck will be present for the next twelve months.

The sparrow has a mixed reputation depending on what area of the world you live. According to some, the sparrow hops around because it is his punishment for crying 'He is alive, He is alive' when Christ was on the cross, therefore signaling to the Romans to prolong His torture. The hop is thought to symbolize the fact that the legs are bound together as punishment for the lack of sympathy shown by their song. To kill a sparrow or to have one fly into a house is considered unlucky too. For many thought the sparrow is seen to symbolize the gods of the household environment and family, and therefore to be nurtured. Rain is supposed to be imminent if a group of sparrows is found merrily chirping.

Also known as the 'svale' bird according to Danish folklore, the swallow received its name by trying to relieve the sufferings of Christ while on the Cross by crying 'Svale, svale' which figuratively translates as 'Cheer up, cheer up!'. In Scotland it was believed that the swallow had the blood of the Devil in its veins. The sight of this bird indicates that summer is on the way but watch to see if the bird flies low as this will signal that rain is on the way. If this bird builds a nest on the roof of your home, it is thought to be lucky and to be protective against fire, lightning and storms. Misfortune will follow if it suddenly abandons the nest. The swallow that flies into your home will bring considerable good fortune according to English folklore. Should a woman tread on the eggs it is believed that she will become barren according to an old German belief. A French belief tells that should one land on your shoulder then death is present. An almost universal belief held by farmers is said that to kill a swallow will result in the milk yield being poor & if you disturb the nest then the harvest will be a poor one. It is traditionally seen as a sign of misfortune to see a group of swallows fighting amongst themselves. It was believed that the swallow carried two precious stones within their bodies: a red one to cure insanity and a black one thought to bring good luck. The swallow like the wren is credited with bringing fire to humankind, but both suffered as a result, hence the red feathers.

This poor unfortunate bird was for many years hunted and killed although today is respected. The main day for hunting was December 26 when the cruel practice was carried out by young boys. The boys would receive money as they paraded the dead birds from house to house. The wren was seen as a sacred bird to the early Druids and therefore was the target by Christian believers as Pagan purges were frequent and all-embracing. This unfortunate set of circumstances may also have come about as the feathers were thought to prevent a person from drowning, and because of this the feathers were very popular with sailors traditionally. A traditional French belief tells that children should not touch the nest of a wren or the child will suffer from pimples. In the same way as a robin is revered, if anyone harms the bird then the person will suffer the same fate. Like the swallow the wren is thought to have brought fire to humankind, receiving the red feathers in the process from being burnt while trying to stifle the flames.

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