Our avian friends supply so many of the facts and fallacies upon which many of the superstitions and beliefs of man are founded that it is interesting to note which characteristics of birds have exerted some of the widest and most pronounced influence.
Possibly first among these traits is the voice of birds, particularly those of our feathered friends possessing loud, striking notes. The hoot of an owl may eerily reach 100 or more pair of human ears while the hooter remains unseen. So deep and lasting has been the significance attached to an owls notes (and other prophetic bird calls) that belief in its effectiveness enters into many of our current superstitions.
Many centuries had to pass before science began to supplant superstition, but we certainly have not removed birds from our folklore and fables. One may not believe that the owls hoot heard early in the morning is a harbinger of bad luck for that day, but many who hear the hoot intrinsically wish they had not.
My grandmother always insisted that a bird entering a house or building was a sure sign that someone was going to pass on in the near future. She would cite as proof of this hypothesis an experience she had as a small child. On a hot Sunday morning, a sparrow flew into the church she was attending through an open window. A minute or so later, the pastor was struck down with apoplexy in the middle of his sermon and died in the pulpit.
Rather pleasant reflections are conjured up when we speak of the stork as a deliveryman of babies, or a chuckle is invoked when we refer to a little bird as the source of some bit of information. The first robin of the year is always a harbinger of the arrival of spring, and the appearance of the slate-colored junco or snowbird in the fall is considered to be a sure indication that winter is not far away. When someone from the Northland heads to warmer climes during the winter months, his Southern hosts affectionately call him a snowbird, rather than a rara avis.
As a symbol, the majestic appearance of the eagle has made it the symbol of empire, war, peace, and courage for many formidable governments, from Charlemagne to present-day Germany and the United States. The eagle was formerly displayed on the German mark before the Euro came into use, and the double eagle gold coin of an earlier America is now worth many times the weight of the gold in it. And the chicken is not to be denied its rightful place as a symbol of empire. Le Coq Hardi epitomizes France as a rooster that is bold, daring, hardy, rash, and forward. Birds are often used as the names of sport teams with eagles, seahawks, cardinals, blue jays, ravens, and orioles being a few that come to mind. Each bird name has some special significance for the team that adopted it.
The imitations of birdcalls may have been practiced by early man and eventually became words in the spoken language. It is certain, however, that birds contributed to the written language. For example, 12 named and four unnamed species of birds appear in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing of their learned priests.
Birds have had an extraordinary influence on literature. There is a surprising amount of ornithology and bird lore in the Bible, chiefly in the Old Testament. Approximately 25 of the larger species are mentioned by name, with smaller ones being referred to under group names.
In more modern times we have only to consider the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Burns, and Coleridge in England, and in America, Poe, Emerson, Riley, Longfellow, Frost, and Whitman, to name a few, to realize how birds have inspired poets. In American prose we can cite Thoreau, Torrey, and Burroughs along with many others.
Birds stimulate the minds of humans with their delightful songs, and most will agree with that exalted angler of yore, Izaak Walton, who wrote:
Lord, what music hast thou
provided for the saints in heaven,
when thou affordest bad men such
music on earth?
Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Marylands eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.