Birds and their superstitions

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CROCUSES are flowering now, with cheerful displays of purple, white and yellow.

Yet it’s not unusual to find that some of the flowers have been destroyed.

House sparrows are the likely culprits. This vandalism is especially disappointing when you’ve been putting out seed for them.

But to a sparrow, the crocus flower is food, too.

Yellow ones are their favourite targets for shredding, the big attraction being the golden stigma that contains saffron, a source of vitamin A.

Male house sparrows, with their grey “flat cap”, are chirping loudly now that spring is here. There’s an old saying that if they make more noise than usual in the early morning, this is a sign that rain is on the way.

These little brown birds were once so common that we paid them hardly any attention.

But now they have gone from most of our cities and are declining in towns, so we must forgive them for trashing the odd crocus.

Their cousins, the tree sparrows, are faring even worse.

These farmland birds used to feed in the stubble fields during the winter, where they found a mix of fallen grain and weed seeds. Now fields are ploughed and re-sown before winter sets in, so the birds must look elsewhere for food.

The surviving tree sparrows have learned to visit garden bird feeders to help them through the winter.

So next time you hear the excited chatter of sparrows, take a closer look. Male tree sparrows are smarter than house sparrows and they have a chestnut head, instead of a grey cap.

BIRD BRAINS

People used to be very superstitious about birds, especially if they were behaving in an unusual manner.

A bird flying into a house, or persistently pecking at a window, was a sign that death would come to one of the inhabitants within a few days.

This belief was so firmly held that it extended beyond live birds to images on plates or fabric. Even the robin on a Christmas card could find itself in the dustbin.

When trouble was heading your way, you’d be sure to notice a bird following you around. Things would be even worse if that bird was a crow or a raven.

Large black birds were generally viewed with suspicion, perhaps because members of the crow family are intelligent enough to do startling things.

Crows have been observed using curved twigs to find grubs hiding in piles of leaves.

And in a famous experiment crows bent a length of wire into a hook, to reach food at the bottom of a tall, narrow glass jar. In Japan, crows have worked out how to use cars to crack nuts.

The birds drop the nuts onto pedestrian crossings and then when the lights turn red, they fly down to retrieve the bits.

In the 19th century some people kept these trickster birds as pets.

The crow, jackdaw, jay and that arch-villain, the magpie, were taken as fledgelings and raised by hand.

Following the publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven, there was even a craze for pet ravens.

Some of these pet birds managed to talk. It was said that the magpie had three drops of the devil’s blood on its tongue and that if it couldn’t manage a difficult word, it would die of grief.

Although magpies can imitate human speech to some extent, the raven is a better mimic and traditionally, a bird to be feared. In Irish myth it was the blessed raven of fertility, but also the raven goddess of war and bloodshed.

The Scandinavian god Odin had two raven spies, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory) that reported all they had seen to their master.

Ravens were also the companion birds of an ancient British hero, Bran.

Legend tells how Bran’s head was buried under the White Mount, to protect the land from invasion.

It is said that if his ravens ever desert the site, the country will face disaster.

In 1078, William the Conqueror built an impressive keep on the White Mount, to intimidate the residents of Saxon London.

Today the Tower is one of London’s great attractions and many visitors come especially to see the ravens.