Early man likened birds to the gods, believing them messengers or even representations of the gods themselves. Thanks to this divine comparison, as well as their ability to soar high overhead, it's no surprise that birds have gained a near-mythical reputation. That's given our avian friends a starring role in superstitions related to death, life and luck.
While some bird superstitions are nearly universal, bringing luck or misfortune in any language, others have a decidedly regional flare, giving species hated by some a chance at redemption by others. Some long-held bird beliefs even manage to contradict one another, giving a species a lucky aura in one region and an air of wickedness in others.
Sometimes it's not even the bird itself, but rather its actions that bring either luck or misfortune. Sure, it may sound confusing, but it also makes it easier to roll with the unlucky avian interactions and take full advantage of the ones deemed to bring a touch of luck. Read on to learn the origins behind bird superstitions and find out which still influence our way of life.
Ravens Are Tied to Britain's Demise
For centuries, half a dozen ravens – dubbed the "Guardians of the Tower" – have lived a cozy life in the Tower of London. In the 17th century, King Charles II decreed that if the ravens ever left the tower, the structure would crumble, and the entire British Empire would collapse.
Many consider it an odd choice, since ravens and similar species of black birds are often more closely associated with bad luck than with good. Regardless, since that day, the ravens have remained welcome guests in the tower, charged with keeping the once mighty empire in good stead. In modern practice, the birds' wings are clipped to encourage them to stay put, and a few extra ravens are always on hand to make sure the group never numbers fewer than six.
This foresight may have saved the nation in 2013, when a sneaky fox managed to enter the tower and feast on a pair of unlucky ravens named Jubilee and Grip. The British take this superstition – and the threat of wily foxes – so seriously that a team of four cares for the birds round-the-clock, ensuring they live a pampered life [source: BBC]. What bird could ask for more?
Bird Poop? Things Are Looking Up
You're strolling around outside on your lunch break when, all of a sudden, a bird lets loose above you, depositing a messy smear of droppings on your head. At first glance, this might sound like the start of a really bad day, but superstitious types believe it's actually a sign of luck. Even better, you don't have to let the mess (which some people use as skin treatment!) linger; you can safely clean the droppings off without wiping away your newfound luck – unless, of course, you're on a ship. Sailors believe that bird droppings should never be removed from the vessel until after the next rainstorm, which will probably take care of most of the cleanup anyway [source: Martinelli].
While most superstitions about bird droppings are positive, some older British tales warn that if the droppings come from a rook, it's actually a punishment rather than a blessing. Getting bombed by the droppings of a rook is penance for not wearing new clothes on Easter [source: Tate]. Maybe it's time to invest in a new Sunday suit.
Birds In or Around Houses Spell Doom
If a wild bird somehow manages to enter your home – through a door, window or chimney – you'll suffer a bout of bad luck, and some legends say it foreshadows the death of someone in the home. Keep bad luck and death at bay by keeping birds out in all their forms. That means no bird-patterned wallpaper, crockery or artwork either – as even images of birds can spell doom. In fact, rumor has it that actress Lucille Ball of "I Love Lucy" fame was so fearful of birds in the home that she refused to stay in any hotel with bird-themed wallpaper, pictures or accessories [source: Mikkelson].
This superstition also means you should never bring an injured or sick bird indoors either. Care for it outdoors if you must, but custom says it's dangerous to bring it into your home [source: The Diagram Group]. But even the most vigilant homeowners can't avoid all bird-related bad luck. Blackbirds, who have long been seen as messengers of the dead, can bring death and malice simply by hanging around your home. Other birds, including herons, bitterns and crows, may also bring bad luck or news of death if they decide to circle the skies above your property [source: Webster].
Auto-Avian Accidents Carry Grave Meaning
A bird that ends up splattered across your car windshield is a sure sign of bad luck – for both you and the bird. Some believe accidental bird-window impacts just zap your luck, while others describe them as an omen of death. No matter what your beliefs, it's interesting to note that an estimated 80 million birds in the United States meet their end each year by flying into car windows, which means plenty of bad luck to go around.
While it makes sense that faster speeds mean more birds making contact with car windows, researchers have found that birds do pretty well at avoiding cars – up to the point where cars start significantly exceeding the speed of predators. At this threshold, the bird's internal system that tells it when to get out of the way breaks down, making it nearly impossible for it to avoid your car. This may not be much comfort when you're cleaning feathers off your windshield, but at least it can help you to not take the incident too personally [source: Ball].
Flight Plans Predict The Future
The ancient Romans observed the flight paths of birds to help them make decisions about the future. After all, since the birds were thought to be somehow communicating with the gods while flying around above the Earth, it kind of made sense that they might actually be able to provide some helpful information to those of us stranded on the ground with no direct line to the gods. The Romans even had a name for it: auspicy, which is just a fancy way of describing the process of divining the future from birds. (And now you know where the word "auspicious" comes from.)
The augur would stand in a sacred spot, facing east, then wait to see which way the birds flew. Birds flying to the right meant good vibes, while those flying to the left encouraged caution. A bird flying toward the diviner meant good luck, while one flying away meant opportunities would be hard to come by. The higher the birds flew, the better the future, while low-flying birds were a sign of bad things to come [source: Webster]. Of course, this is one of those superstitions that was easy to misinterpret depending on where you were located, how you were standing and just how good you were at determining direction with a simple glance.
Albatrosses – Good, Bad or Both?
Sailors believe that seeing an albatross while at sea is a sign of good luck, while killing one spells doom and despair. The mighty albatross often flies alongside ships hoping to get ahold of some tasty garbage or scraps upon which it can feast. It's particularly persistent when compared to other birds and will continue following ships long after others have given up and turned back toward dry land.
Legend has it that these birds feel such affinity for ships because they contain the souls of drowned sailors, so killing one is akin to killing a fellow seaman [source: Webster]. Anyone who kills one of these birds is doomed to bear a tremendous burden – or hang an albatross around his neck – a fate masterfully illustrated in Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The superstition may not be as prevalent these days, when modern instruments and technology make humans less reliant on birds while at sea, but the idiom of hanging an albatross around one's neck has spread beyond the seafaring world to become a common expression representing a heavy burden.
Birdcalls Can Mean Plenty
Before the creation of the Internet and round-the-clock news networks, people had little to work with in terms of gaining information or making predictions about future conditions. To make a little more sense out of life, and perhaps in attempt to gain control, people living centuries ago simply learned to take cues from nature, including the calls and sounds of birds.
Legend has it that a songbird that cries while flying brings good luck, while a night bird calling by day – or a bird of prey screaming at any time of day – signifies poor fortune. Superstitious folks also derive information from the direction that birdcalls travel: Calls from the north mean tragedy, while calls from the south mean a successful harvest. Birdcalls from the east are good for romance, while calls from the west offer all-around good luck.
Of course, all bets are off when it comes to crow calls, which always spell bad news, no matter what direction they're traveling – unless the crow happens to be near its nest. If it caws three times in a row, beware: It's a sign that death is on the way [source: The Diagram Group].
Window Peckings Bring Death
An estimated 100 million birds die each year by accidentally flying into windows on buildings or homes [source: Mass Audubon Collisions]. These accidental collisions are messy and unpleasant, but not necessarily unlucky – except for the poor, unfortunate bird throwing itself against the window. But what does it mean when a bird intentionally attacks your windows, pecking away at the glass? According to superstition, a bird pecking at the window means death for someone in the home [source: The Diagram Group].
Fortunately, ornithologists have a slightly more scientific take on this behavior. Birds are territorial, and this aggressive pecking is simply a way of defending their turf from what they see as a rival bird – really their own reflection. It's most common among robins, cardinals and other birds that tend to make their homes in areas populated by humans. If you can simply wait out the pecking, it should stop by the time breeding season is over. If not, consider covering windows with a clear sheet of plastic to help obscure the bird's reflection, making it less likely to peck [source: Mass Audubon Collisions].
Divining a Peacock's Portent
People around the world are divided on how the peacock's brilliant feathers can influence luck. In much of the Western world, bringing a peacock feather indoors is bad mojo: Any unmarried females in the home will end up as sad old maids, while all others will simply experience a bout of poor luck. The peacock feather also maintains an unlucky reputation in theater, where the feathers are typically excluded from costumes and scenery due to their association with evil and poor luck.
Some attribute this negativity to the characteristic eyes found on the feathers, which are believed to invade your privacy by spying on your home and family. Others associate it with the evil eye, which is often linked to death and the devil [source: Oliver]. Still other superstitious folks believe that the gorgeous feathers give the peacock a sense of arrogance, and bringing these feathers into the home or incorporating them into clothing or décor transfers this arrogance to the feathers' owner.
In the East, particularly India, China and Japan, bringing peacock feathers into the home is a way to increase luck. The feathers provide extra eyes around the house, increasing security and protecting the occupants from death and danger [source: Webster].
Crows Just Can't Catch a Break
Some birds just have bad reputations no matter what they do. They don't have to peck at windows or fly into the home to ruin your day. Basically, they bring bad luck just by hanging around. Ever since the Greek god Apollo's white crow turned black, this poor breed of animal has served as an omen of illness, death and other bad news.
Superstitious types believe that a crow hanging near the house means an unlucky future, while others agree it's a sure sign that someone in the house will die. Want to protect yourself during a crow sighting near the home? Forget what the neighbors will think and either bow to the crow or tip your hat to him, which should reduce your risk of disaster. If you happen to see a solitary crow, feel free to make a wish – some see a crow sitting alone as the ultimate good luck charm [source: Webster].
Some associate certain numbers of crows with either good or bad luck, and many link these bird-counting superstitions to the band Counting Crows. Interestingly enough, though, the band's name actually comes from a dire English proclamation that life is "as useless as counting crows" – which has nothing to do whatsoever with luck or superstition [source: Darling].
A remarkable partnership has formed over centuries between honeyguide birds and humans — and both species benefit when the honey is found and the comb is cracked.
Author's Note: 10 Superstitions About Birds
In late October 2013, all of the United Kingdom was put at risk when one clever fox managed to sneak into the Tower of London and devour two of the royal ravens. The country and all its lands were saved thanks to some careful planning on the part of the ravens' minders, who had two spare birds on hand to ensure that at least six birds would always be present in the tower. The expired birds, which went by the names of Jubilee and Grip, were quickly replaced with two more ravens, given these same names as tribute – ensuring Britannia would continue to stand strong.
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- National Geographic. "Albatross." 2015. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/albatross/
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- Roud, Steve. "The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland." Penguin UK. 2006.
- Tate, Peter. "Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition." Random House. 2009.
- Webster, Richard. "The Encyclopedia of Superstitions." Llewellyn Publications. 2008.