folklore, Monstrous May

Bad Omen Birds in British Folklore (#MonstrousMay Day 8: Monstrous Birds)

Graphic and Prompts Credit: Johannes T. Evans

I got stuck thinking about seagulls for this prompt. They are absolute monsters who will attack and steal your chips on any given day, like something out of a Hitchcock film. So I thought I would take a look at some Bad Birds for this prompt and THIS time not get side-tracked like I did with the dragons yesterday.

If you like some omens of death, I already have a post on Welsh death omens which includes a very particular kind of bird!

I haven’t put in a lot of Sussex folklore into the novels (yet) because Ricky tends to read omens a little more broadly, in a Romano-British/Etruscan kind of a way, mixed with some Germanic practices. Sussex is a melting pot of a county with dialect words and phrases borrowed/adapted from Old English, Old Welsh, Dutch and French, and the Pendles originally hailed from Lancashire as well, so the family itself has a mix of practices and cunning folk traditions from both counties. So the books themselves have a mix of all sorts of references and, like the characters and the town itself which is ‘Londonised’ and full of in-comers, the books have that sort of feel to them, rather than being straight folk horror (although my books are rarely ‘straight’ anything).

Here’s some British birdlore for you!


Birds Bringing Bad Omens

Whimbrel: Photograph: Bill Coster/Alamy

The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is thought to be unlucky. Unfortunately, it’s now endangered and very rare, and has all but disappeared from Rye Harbour and the estuary. It was added to the red list of conservation concern in 2009. Habitat loss is the primary cause.

The whimbrel on its own is not so bad, but it is considered a bad omen when there’s a group of seven of them. It is attached to the tale of the Seven Whistlers, which was more prevalent in the Midlands as a bad omen for miners – hearing the Seven Whistlers at night meant that death was looming. It was also a story that crops up in the coalfields of Wales, I think!

In some versions of the tale they were the spirits of dead men who had been either miners (for mining communities) or fishermen (in fishing communities), and their cries warned their living comrades of impending danger. You can read more on this tale and listen to the cries of the whimbrel, the lapwing and the curlew here.

Here’s Sarah Deere-Jones’s song, The Seven Whistlers, where the whistlers are curlews rather than whimbrels:

The Seven Whistlers, written and performed by Sarah Deere-Jones

The Portsmouth News: House Sparrow ENGSUS00120121220114758

The house sparrow, one of the most commonly seen birds in the country, was once thought to be a death omen in Sussex and Kent.

In European folklore more generally, a sparrow flying into your house is a sign of impending death, and sailors got a sparrow tattoo in the hope one would catch their soul if they died at sea.

In Sussex and Kent, the superstition was that if a sparrow flew into your house, you had to kill it or your parents would die. In some variations, if you didn’t kill it, then you would die.

I played with this a bit in THE CROWS where a sparrow flies into the window of the nursing home and falls to the ground, twitching. I kind of wish I’d made a more direct reference to this folklore by having it fly through an open window, but I think that would have been too on the nose for how things turn out.


Magpie in flight

The magpie is an ominous bird too, and the subject of lots of variations on the magpie counting rhyme (one for sorrow etc).

There are a few Sussex superstitions about the magpie, and in particular when it appears on your left hand side (especially bad).

The following is from the 1878 Folk-Lore Record:

The popular belief is that one magpie seen on your left hand is a certain sign of coming woe. Perhaps it is the hope of averting by extreme civility the evil which the magpie is about to bring upon them that induces Sussex people of every class to take off their hats and bow to this bird whenever it suddenly appears on their left hand. Whenever I questioned my poorer neighbours about their evident dislike of it, they always answered that it was a bad bird, and knew more than it should do, and was always looking about and prying into other people’s affairs. There is a general belief that its perching on any beast is a bad omen for the animal ; and it has perhaps some truth in it : for before the farmer or the shepherd is aware of it, the magpie often smells out a lurking disease, and is known to attack and tear out the eyes of weakly sheep and lambs.

The Folk-Lore Record: Publications of the Folklore Society Vol. I, 1878 https://electricscotland.com/history/waifs/folklorerecord01.pdf

Here’s a gorgeously creepy version of the Magpie song sung by The Unthanks, which incorporates the folklore rhyme, the left vs right omen, and the idea that the magpie knows things it shouldn’t, bringing news and gossip to people.

The Unthanks singing the Magpie song with lyrics

Obviously crows and ravens have associations with death too, since they are carrion-feeders and were associated with battlefields and hanging around corpses.

The ballad ‘Twa Corbies’ is a Scottish Borders ballad (a version of the Three Ravens ballad) and I used it as the preface to my nonfiction book on a medieval murder case: MURDER DURING THE HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR: THE CURIOUS CASE OF WILLIAM DE CANTILUPE. The murder itself took place in Lincolnshire in 1375, but the ballad fits it so well.

I love the Steeleye Span version, but this is also phenomenal:

Ayreheart’s version of ‘Twa Corbies’ from the album BARLEY MOON

Here’s the Three Ravens ballad, which is the English folk ballad. “The Three Ravens” appeared in the song book “Melismata” compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611, but it is older than that. I didn’t use this one as I preferred the version where the lady took another husband, as that was what happened in the Cantilupe case.

The Black Country Three’s version of English folk ballad “Three Ravens”

I hope you enjoyed that brief little flutter around birdlore! Again, the Corpse Birds of Welsh folklore is something I’ve written about before and that post is here.

If you’re enjoying my posts this week, feel free to leave me a tip on Ko-Fi!

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