Birds have been associated with myths and omens since early mankind with many ancient people believing our feathered friends to be messengers from the gods or even representations of the gods themselves.
Today most cultures throughout the world have superstitions that are centred around birds – some of these are universal while others are regional and it seems nobody can agree on whether birds bring good or bad luck.
Here we take a look at some of the world’s most popular bird superstitions. If you know of any others then please get in touch.
Crows in a churchyard are a sign of bad luck
In fact seeing crows anywhere tends to bring bad luck, unless you happen to find a dead crow in the road, which surprisingly will bring you good luck.
Running second only to black cats, crows have a very bad press when it comes to omens. In just about any creepy scene in a film you will hear the background noise of crows calling and of course Alfred Hitchcock made a whole film about what happens when these birds attack. A particularly suspenseful scene in The Birds is of a murder of crows gathering quietly in a playground behind an oblivious Tippi Hedren.
As far back as Ancient Greece, it was believed that the arrival of a crow at a wedding reception would mean an inevitable divorce. And another crow superstition associated with marriage is that two crows should be released during the ceremony; if the two birds flew away together the marriage would be happy and successful, but if the two crows parted company then the bride and groom too would soon be separated.
A bird pooing on your head brings good luck
Although it will probably result in the worst bad hair day ever, you shouldn’t fret if you have the misfortune to have a bird deposit its droppings on your head or shoulders because this unfortunate event is actually supposed to bring good luck and even wealth.
There isn’t a consensus on the origin of this superstition, but one idea put forward is that it is such an unlikely, yet disgusting occurrence that it is only right that something positive makes up for it.
Bringing peacock feathers into the house is bad luck
This is an old superstition and an even earlier version claims that having peacock feathers in the house not only brings bad luck but destines any unmarried female to become an old maid.
Many actors will not allow peacock feathers to be brought onto the stage either as a prop or part of a costume and veteran actors and directors have recounted tales of sets falling down during performances that involve peacock feathers.
It is thought the superstition originated in the Mediterranean where the evil eye markings are said to represent the eye of he she-devil Lilith who is responsible for the unexplained deaths of children. By keeping peacock feathers in the house she is ever present and able to watch over your home.
However, in India, China and Japan bringing peacock feathers indoors is actually supposed to increase good luck by providing extra eyes around the house to protect the occupants from danger.
A bird flying into the house is a sign of impending death
There are a number of variations of this superstition. Some believe that if a bird flies into your house it is bringing important news. If the bird is white then the news will be good, but if it is black then it will be bad and this could mean the death of a family member.
Another version of this superstition is that if a bird taps on your window or accidentally hits your window that too means an imminent death in the house.
Like many superstations it most likely arose with our ancestors trying to make sense of the world by attributing subtexts to both mundane and unusual events.
The actress Lucille Ball was so frightened of birds in the house that she refused to stay in hotels that displayed pictures of birds and tore down some very expensive Japanese silk wallpaper from her house when it became apparent that birds were incorporated into the design. She dates her fear of birds to the day her father died shortly after a bird flew into the family home.
It is unlucky to kill an albatross
This is one of many sailors’ superstitions and is referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1798.
Traditionally sailors considered seeing an albatross to be a sign of good luck, probably originating from the early days of navigation when sailors thought that seeing an albatross meant land was near. Little did they know that albatrosses can live many years at sea without ever setting foot on land!
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner a sailor shoots and kills an albatross with a cross bow and as punishment the crew of the ship force him to wear the dead bird’s carcass around his neck. This is where the metaphor of an albatross to mean a burden originated from.
The death of the albatross brought terrible bad luck to the ship, including a lack of drinking water – water, water every where, nor any drop to drink – until eventually a ghost ship appears and kills all the sailors.
Whatever you are doing when you hear the first cuckoo predicts your year
There are a lot of superstitions associated with hearing the first cuckoo’s call and some of them are quite bizarre.
For instance, when you see or hear your first cuckoo you should put a stone on your head and run as fast as you can until the stone falls off. You should then return to the spot where it fell the next day and will find money under it.
Similar to a superstition regarding a new moon, when you hear the first cuckoo call it is very important that you have money in your pocket. You should then take the money, turn it over and spit on it and this ritual will bring you good fortune and riches in the forthcoming year. If you happen not to have any money on you then there will be a poor year ahead.
Magpies carry a drop of the devil’s blood under their tongue
The magpie has an important role in Christian myth. Biblical lore tells us that the magpie was the only bird not to enter Noah’s ark and instead it sat on the roof cackling as the whole world drowned.
Another myth claims that the magpie was also the only bird not to go into full mourning at Jesus’s crucifixion because it was actually the devil in disguise.
These legends may be the source of the belief in Scotland that the magpie has a drop of the devil’s blood under its tongue with some believing that if you cut out the tongue of a magpie it would be capable of human speech.
Like crows, magpies are often associated with all things evil and you can read more about the superstitions that surround magpies here.