Taking flight in literature,  birds symbolise joy, threat, romance

Bird species have been allocated symbolic meanings through folklore, rhymes and fairytales: the Cuckoo as a metaphor for a con artist, Magpies linked to sorrow, joy, girl or boy depending on their numbers, the Raptor as a threat, Swans on the lake symbolising love and romance.



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 3 Feb 2022, 10:40 PM

Birds have set prose and poetry aflutter for centuries, from William Shakespeare to Edgar Allan Poe and beyond. Birds mostly reflect independence and freedom because they can walk on the earth, swim in the sea, and also have the ability to fly into the sky. Children’s imagination have been fired by stories and illustrations of birds — remember Mother Goose nursery rhymes?

Shakespeare referred to birds and their ways so often in his plays and sonnets that naturalist James Harting compiled a book in 1871, The Ornithology of Shakespeare. There are also many references in classics, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Bird species have been allocated symbolic meanings through folklore, rhymes and fairytales: the Cuckoo as a metaphor for a con artist, Magpies linked to sorrow, joy, girl or boy depending on their numbers, the Raptor as a threat, Swans on the lake symbolising love and romance, Robin, whose red breast was imagined as a stain from the blood of Christ, Seagulls as terrifying killing machines, and the Blackbird frequently seen as a symbol of 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 most chilling short stories, The Birds (adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for the big screen), in which seagulls become merciless killers, contains the terrifying passage: “Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind stabling beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines”.

Other prominent works include Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, 
a parrot named Poll in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, John Keats’ 
Ode to a Nightingale, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. PB Shelley’s poem To A Skylark opens with the words: ‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit!’.

Birds have sparked imaginations over time through myths, folk tales and creative writing, but also through the Covid-19 pandemic, going by the number of bird-related books released in the last two years. Publisher Penguin alone released at least four bird-related 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: “From a portrait of the blackbird — most prominent and articulate of the early spring singers — to explorations of how birds sing, 
the science behind their choice of song and nest-sites, and the varied meanings that people have brought to 
and taken from birdsong, this book ultimately shows that natural history and human history cannot be separated. It is the story of a collective reawakening brought on by the strangest of springs”.

In The Nightingale: Notes on a 
Songbird, folk musician Sam Lee tells the story of the nightingale, its 
song, habitat, characteristics and migration patterns, as well as the environmental issues that threaten its 
livelihood, delving into the various ways we have celebrated the bird through traditions, folklore, music, literature, from ancient history to the present day.

Naturalist Stephen Moss sets out his observations during lockdowns in Skylarks with Rosie, suggesting that the demographic of bird-watchers and writing about it is changing. In 12 Birds to Save Your Life, Charlie Corbett focuses on 12 characterful birds, from solitary Skylarks to squabbling Sparrows, exploring their place in history, culture and landscape, noting what they look like and where you are most likely to meet them.

Can birds in films — particularly Bollywood ones — be far behind? The ‘kabootar’ (Pigeon) has represented love so prominently and so often that I leave it to you recall the many songs and films featuring it.


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