Birds: Bird Superstitions and Winged Portents


THE superstitions of the peasant folk of any country are not only interesting with thought, feeling, and belief, says an intelligent writer, but through them much of the inner history of a people can often be traced. Ireland is peculiarly rich in these forgivable vagaries about birds. They often seem of a very savage and grewsome character, but as we come to know that however grim-visaged the face of one confiding the weird assertion of uncanny belief, that secretly the masses of the peasantry scout and flout them all, save those of a tender and winsome character, we become reconciled to it. Thus the quaint and weird things which might seem unaccountable and often repulsive to us, have become, in lieu of book lore, a folk and fireside lore, out of which endless entertainment is secured; and underneath much of this there is a deep and earnest tenderness, such as all hearts know, for many things without apparent reason, that grow into life and ancestry, oft repeated homeside tale, beloved custom and that mysterious hallowing which comes upon changeless places and objects to men.

Here are a few bird superstitions: If an Osprey be shot along any coast, all the herring and mackerel will immediately disappear. If the Hen-harrier, which only hunts by twilight, is missed from its accustomed raptorial haunt, some evil spirit is said to be hovering about the locality. When Water-ousels appear in the spring time in unusual numbers in any unfrequented locality, it is a sign of abundance of fresh-water fish, but also a token of the approach of malignant disease. On the west coast in the early spring the poor fisherman watches early and late for the Gannet. He calls it the Solan, or Swift-flying Goose. If it does not come his heart sinks, for there will be no luck at fishing; but if great numbers wheel about the headlands of the coast, plenty will smile in his cabin home that year. Great numbers of Jay or Missel Thrushes feeding upon the berries of the hawthorn betoken the approach of a very cold winter, and their Grackle-like calls bring fear to the heart if the meal be low and the peat be scant in the little tenants cabin. When the nest of the Thrush or Mavis is built unusually high in the thorn-bush, this betokens a great calamity to a neighborhood, for some distressing disturbance is under way among the fairies, who in happy or friendly mood always see to it that these nests are built near their haunts in the grasses, that they may more readily enjoy the music of the thrush’s songs. The crops of sweet singing Blackbirds are supposed to hold the souls of those in purgatory until the judgment day; and whenever the Blackbird’s notes are particularly shrill, these parched and burning souls are imploring for rain, which never fails of coming in response to the bird cries for their relief. The Wicklow mountains are notably the haunts of the Ring-Ousel or Mountain Stars. Whenever, after singing his fine deep song, he hesitates for a time, and then is heard totter a loud, shrill and prolonged whistle, that night every human that has heard it will remain behind barred doors; for that is a true fairy call, and the “wea folk of Wicklow” are sure to congregate in the moonlit mountain hollows and “dance rings round their swate selves” until dawn. Of course none of these dire calamities ever occur, but the simple-minded folk continue to have faith in them, and the innocent birds remain the supposed precursors of the, to them, mysterious misinterpreted operations of nature.