Our Bird Friends

By Margaret Coulson Walker 

Lovers of birds will doubtless be pleased to know that some of the most agreeable and interesting legends of the past were centered about these guests of our groves, whose actions formed the basis of innumerable fancies and superstitions. An acquaintance with the literature as well as with the life history of our feathered friends will not only increase our interest in the bird life about us but it will broaden our sympathies as well.

Birds exercised a strong influence on prehistoric religion, having been worshipped as gods in the earlier days and later looked upon as representatives of the higher powers. The Greeks went so far as to attribute the origin of the world itself to the egg of some mysterious bird. To others, these small creatures flitting about among our trees, represented the visible spirits of departed friends. The Aztecs believed that the good, as a reward of merit, were metamorphosed at the close of life into feathered songsters, and as such were permitted to pass a certain term in the beautiful groves of Paradise. To them, as to all North American Indians, thunder was the cloud bird flapping his mighty wings, while the lightning was the flash of his eye. The people of other countries believed that higher powers showed their displeasure by transforming wrong-doers into birds and animals as a punishment for their crimes.

In all lands birds were invested with the power of prophecy. They were believed to possess superior intelligence through being twice-born, once as an egg, and again as an animal. Because of their wisdom, not only they, but their graven images also, were consulted on all important affairs of life. Many nations, notably the Japanese, are still believers in the direct communication between man and unseen beings, through birds and other agents. In their country, birds are regarded as sacred, and for this reason the agriculturist gladly shares with them the fruit of his toil.

While we of to-day attach no supernatural significance to the presence of these feathered songsters, and even though to us they possess no powers of prophecy, we can find a great deal of pleasure in observing these beings whose boding cries were regarded as omens by the greatest of earth—beings whose actions in Vespasian's time were considered of vital national importance.

Aside from their historic and literary interest, these multitudinous, and often contradictory, legends and superstitions are of interest to us as a part of the faith of our fathers, much of which, combined with other and higher things, is in us yet. These beliefs of theirs, like many of what we are pleased to think are original ideas and opinions to-day, were hereditary and largely a matter of geography.

In ancient times the chief birds of portent were the raven or crow, the owl and the woodpecker, though there were a number of others on the prophetic list.

As an example of interest let us consider our friend the raven and his congener the crow, who are so confused in literature, as well as in the minds of those not familiar with ornithological classification, that it is almost impossible to treat them separately. The raven is a larger bird and not quite so widely distributed as the crow, but in general appearance and habits they are practically the same.

If tradition is to be credited, we are more indebted to this bird of ancient family than to any other feathered creature, for he has played an important part in history, sacred and profane, in literature, and in art.

On the authority of the Koran we know that it was he who first taught man to bury his dead. When Cain did not know what disposition to make of the body of his slain brother, "God sent a raven, who killed another raven in his presence and then dug a pit with his beak and claws and buried him therein." It was the raven whom Noah sent forth to learn whether the waters had abated—one of the rare instances wherein he ever proved faithless to his trust—and it was he who gave sustenance to the prophet Elijah.

In Norse mythology, Odin, the greatest of all the gods, the raven's God, had for his chief advisers two ravens, Hugin and Munin (Mind and Memory), who were sent out by him each morning on newsgathering journeys, and who returned to him at nightfall to perch on his shoulders and whisper into his ears intelligence of the day. When news of unusual importance was desired, Odin himself in raven guise went forth to seek it, and when the Norse armies went into battle they followed the raven standard, a banner under which William the Conqueror fought. When bellied by the breezes it betokened success, but when it hung limp, only defeat was expected.

Norse navigators took with them a pair of ravens to be liberated and followed as guides; if the bird returned it was known that land did not lie in that direction; if they did not, they were followed. The discoveries of both Iceland and Greenland are attributed to their leadership.

To the Romans and Greeks the raven was the chief bird of omen, whose effigy was borne on their banners, and whose auguries were followed with greatest confidence, while to the German mind he was his satanic majesty made manifest in feathers. In some parts of Germany these birds are believed to hold the souls of the damned, while in other European sections priests only are believed to be so reincarnated.

In Sweden the ravens croaking at night in the swamps are said to be the ghosts of murdered persons who have been denied Christian burial, and whom on this account Charon has refused ferriage across the River Styx.

As a companion of saints this bird has had too many experiences to mention.

By some nations he was regarded as the bearer of propitious news from the gods—and sacrosanct, to others he was the precursor of evil and an object of dread. With divining power, which enabled him for ages to tell the farmer of coming rain, the maiden of the coming of her lover and the invalid of the coming of death, he was received with joy or sadness, according to the messages he bore.

In England he was looked upon with greater favor; there the mere presence of the home of a raven in a tree-top was enough to insure the continuance in power of the family owning the estate.

The wealth of raven literature bears indubitable testimony to the interest people of all times and all localities have felt in this remarkable bird—an interest certain to increase with acquaintance.

To one with mind open to rural charm, this picturesque bird, solemnly stalking about the fields, or majestically flapping his way to the treetops, is as much a part of the landscape as the fields themselves, or the trees upon their borders; it possesses an interest different from that of any other creature of the feathered race. Though he no longer pursues the craft of the augur, his superior intelligence, great dignity and general air of mystery inspire confidence in his abilities in that line.

What powers were his in the old days! Foolish maidens and ignorant sailors might put their faith in the divining powers of the flighty wren; others might consult the swallow and the kingfisher; but it was to the "many-wintered crow" that kings and the great ones of earth applied for advice, and it was he who never failed them. According to Pliny, he was the only bird capable of realizing the meaning of his portents.

In the early morning light the worthy successors of the ancient Hugin and Munin go forth to-day in quest of news of interest to their clan, just as those historic messengers did in the days when the mighty Norse gods awaited their return, that they might act on the intelligence gathered by them during the daylight hours; and when slanting beams call forth the vesper songs of more tuneful birds, they return, followed by long lines of other crows, to their usual haunts on the borders of the marshes. Singly or in long lines, never in loose flocks like blackbirds, they arrive from all directions, till what must be the whole tribe is gathered together—a united family—for the night's repose.

As there in the treetops in the early evening, in convention assembled, they discuss important affairs, who can doubt that certain ones of their number are recognized as leaders, and that they have some form of government among themselves? One after another delivers himself of a harangue, then the whole assemblage joins in noisy applause—or is it disapproval? At other times sociability seems to be the sole object of the gathering.

As one old crow, more meditative than the rest, at the close of the conclave always betakes himself to the same perch, the lonely, up-thrust shaft of a lightning-shattered tree on the hillside, we decide that here is old Munin, who has selected this perch as one favorable to meditation—a place where he may ponder undisturbed over the occurrences of the day.

Others among the group have habits as fixed and noticeable. Even though approaching his perch from the opposite direction, one will be seen to circle and draw near it from the accustomed side; some of the more decided ones will invariably remain just where they alight; others will turn around and arrange themselves on their perches indefinitely. In the fields it will be noticed that some are socially inclined and forage in groups, while others, either from personal choice or that of their neighbors, are more solitary. Like members of the human family, each has his own individual characteristic.

While the chief charm of the crow is his intelligence, his dignity also claims our attention. Who ever saw one of his tribe do anything foolish or unbecoming to the funeral director he has been ever since the birth of time, and that he must ever be while time endures? The ancients believed him to be able to scent a funeral several days before death occurred, so sensitive was he to mortuary influences, and there is little doubt he still possesses the power to discern approaching death in many creatures smaller than himself—and to whom he expects to extend the rite of sepulchre. Inside and out he is clothed in deepest black; even his tongue and the inside of his mouth are in mourning. Seeming to think it incumbent on him to live up to his funeral garb and occupation, faithful to his trust, with clerical solemnity he goes about his everyday duties.

Gazing on them from his watchtower in the tree tops, what does this grave creature think of the gayer birds that dwell in the meadows and groves round about? What thinks he of the clownish bobolink, in motley nuptial livery, pouring out his silly soul in gurgling, rollicking song, in his efforts to please a possible mate, then quarreling with both her and his rivals, who also have donned cap and bell to win her favor? What of the unpretentious home—a mere hollow in the ground—where the care-free pair go to housekeeping? What of the redwings building their nests among the reeds in the midst of the marsh—so low as almost to touch the water? Of the fitful wren, incessantly singing of love to his mate, yet who fails to assist her in nest-building, and who proves but an indifferent provider for his young family? Of the lonely phoebe, calling in plaintive, mysterious tones to a mate unresponsive to his sorrowful beseechings? Of the robin, who makes of the grove a sanctuary? He doubtless has his opinions concerning every one of them, for he views them all with interest. Hearing all the other birds singing their love and seeing them winning favor with their brilliant colors, does he envy them?

On the theory of compensation, his sterling qualities render accomplishments and decorative raiment unnecessary. With no song in which to tell his story, and no garments gay to captivate the eye, the crow must needs live his love—and he does—to the end. Seriously he wins the mate to whom he remains true forever. To him the marital bond is not the mere tie of a season, but one that holds through life. He assists the dusky bride of his choice in establishing a commodious home in the most commanding situation available—the top of the tallest tree in the edge of the wood, and which may have been planted by one of his ancestors. He assists her in giving warmth to their eggs in the nest. He carries food to her while she broods over them. He braves every danger in protecting both her and them against predatory hawks and owls and frolicking squirrels, to whom he is known as the "warrior crow." With tenderest solicitude he relieves his mate as far as he can in ministering to their nestlings.

And what of the young crows in the nest? When their elders are away on commissary tours, the young ones, bewailing the absence of parents almost constantly, are always found, on the return, in attitudes of expectancy. To them the approach of older crows, even though it be from the left, is never ominous of anything but good. And when after many excursions baby appetites have been satisfied, in their lofty cradles in the tree tops, the infant crows are rocked by the breezes, and though the tuneless throats of the parents yield no songs they are not without music, for soft æolian lullabies soothe them to sleep.

On hearing farmers talk, one would think that the diet of the crow is entirely granivorous, while no bird has a more adaptable appetite; everything eatable is perfectly acceptable—harmful grubs, beetles, worms, young rats, mice, snakes and moles, as well as mollusks, acorns, nuts, wild fruit and berries are among his staple articles of diet. And, though it is no longer believed that "he shakes contagion from his ominous wing," he occasions a lamentable amount of infant mortality among rabbits, and squirrels, and even among weak-limbed lambs, depriving them of health, strength and happiness—but not through magic. These last he attacks in the eye, as the most vulnerable point. In the old days he is reputed to have met with great success as an oculist; in these his patients never recover.

In winter, when cereal stores and acorns which supply the season's want lie buried in the snow, and when such animals as in youth were ready prey have grown to a more formidable majority, crows frequently suffer and perish from hunger, and when snows lie long on the ground many of them are found dead beneath their roosting places.

The voice of the crow when heard distinctly has in it something of the winter's harshness and seems to harmonize best with winter sounds—creaking boughs and shrieking winds—but when modulated by distance it is not unmusical. In the twilight, when calling to his belated brethren across the marshes, his uncanny call might well be taken for the cry of a lost soul craving Christian burial. Yet this might depend on one's mood. To each he seems to speak a different language. To St. Athanasius he said: "Cras, cras!" (To-morrow, to-morrow). To the sympathetic Tennyson he always called, in tenderest accents, the name "Maud."

Though this bird is said to have no tongue for expressing the happier emotions, the voice of the mother crow when soothing her nestlings, with gurgling notes of endearment, is tender as the robin's; and the head of the family, though croaking savagely when his mate is molested, and though able to send an exultant "caw" after a retreating enemy, never lowers himself by scolding as the jay does.

Whatever his faults may be—and they are many—to anyone taking the trouble to study the crow, either in captivity or in his native environment, he will prove the most interesting example of his race, an agreeable companion, an ideal home-maker, a thrifty being, a liberal provider, an able defender of his family, a destroyer of harmful insect and animal life, a burier of the dead, a creature of dignity, a keen observer, and the intellectual marvel of the bird world.