Bird species have been given symbolic meanings through folklore, rhymes and fairy tales: the cuckoo as a metaphor for a trickster, magpies linked to sorrow, joy, girl or boy depending on their number, the raptor as a threat, the swans on the lake symbolizing love and romance.
Birds have floated prose and poetry for centuries, from William Shakespeare to Edgar Allan Poe and beyond. Birds mainly reflect independence and freedom as they can walk on the land, swim in the sea and also have the ability to fly in the sky. Children’s imaginations were fired with stories and illustrations of birds – remember the Mother Goose nursery rhymes?
Shakespeare made so many references to birds and their ways in his plays and sonnets that naturalist James Harting compiled a book in 1871, The Ornithology of Shakespeare. There are also many references in the classics, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Bird species have been given symbolic meanings through folklore, rhymes and fairy tales: the cuckoo as a metaphor for a trickster, magpies linked to sorrow, joy, girl or boy depending on their number, the raptor as a menace, swans on the lake symbolizing love and romance, Robin, whose red breast was imagined as a stain of Christ’s blood, seagulls as terrifying killing machines, and the blackbird frequently seen as a symbol evil or even the devil in disguise. Bird migration has also featured often – for example, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
One of Daphne Du Maurier’s scariest short stories, The Birds (adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for the big screen), in which seagulls become ruthless killers, contains the terrifying passage: Years of memory were stored in those little brains , behind steady beaks, piercing eyes, now giving them that instinct to destroy humanity with all the dexterous precision of machines”.
Other important works include To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a parrot named Poll in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe and The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson. PB Shelley’s poem To A Skylark opens with the words: “Hail to you, merry spirit!”.
Birds have captured the imagination over time through myths, folk tales and creative writing, but also through the Covid-19 pandemic, judging by the number of bird books published over the years. of the last two years. Publisher Penguin alone has published at least four bird books in 2021.
Swansea-based Steven Lovatt’s Birdsong in A Time of Silence is described as a lyrical celebration of birdsong and the rekindling of a deep passion for nature: the way birds sing, the science behind their choices of songs and nesting sites, and the varied meanings that people brought to and derived from birdsong, this book ultimately shows that natural history and human history cannot be separated. It is the story of a collective awakening brought about by the strangest of sources”.
In The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, folk musician Sam Lee tells the story of the nightingale, its song, habitat, characteristics and migration patterns, and the environmental issues that threaten its livelihood, exploring the different ways we have celebrated the bird through traditions, folklore, music, literature, from ancient history to the present day.
Naturalist Stephen Moss lays out his observations during the closures at Skylarks with Rosie, suggesting that the demographics of birders and writing about it are changing. In 12 Birds to Save Your Life, Charlie Corbett focuses on 12 characterful birds, from lonely larks to bickering sparrows, exploring their place in history, culture and landscape, noting what they look like and where you are most likely to encounter them.
Can birds in movies – especially Bollywood ones – be far behind? The ‘kabootar’ (Pigeon) has represented love so well and so often that I’ll leave it to you to remember the many songs and films that feature it.