June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

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June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by fi » 20 May 2009, 22:07

"And there came three birds who began singing such a song that all the songs they had previously heard were without harmony compared to this." ~ a description of Rhiannon’s Birds from "The Mabinogion"

I have always loved birds. One of my earliest memories is watching my mother hand feed a robin on our back-door step. She always put out a bit of something for them, even if it was only the crumbs from the tablecloth, and we would sit and watch together.

I learnt the names of all the regular visitors, and their behaviour. According to my mum, if all the singing stopped and they took to hiding in the hedges, a storm was on the way. Even I could tell when there was a cat in the garden, because the blackbird would give his ringing alarm call. What I liked to see most of all were the legions of starlings, glittering in their finery, who would march across the lawn spearing leatherjackets. Or else descend on the bread and snatch at it so eagerly that was thrown into the air as they ate. In the evening you would see large undulating flocks of them flying towards their roosts in Manchester city centre where it was warm and safe. I knew them then as shepsters, which was the name us Cheshire folk called them by, from their habit of sitting on the sheep in the fields.

The best thing about starlings is passing a tree full of them. They are noisy, and not exactly tuneful, but vibrantly full of life. In our family such a tree is called a Singing Ringing Tree, after the tree in the old, black and white, children’s TV series of the same name. The series I vaguely recall, was about an evil magic dwarf, who could ride a fish. There was a princess or a fairy and I think there was a bear in it too somewhere, but really the details don’t matter. Because what was important to me, was that in this magic, fantasy Otherworld, there were birds who cast an enchantment over me that was to pass from the screen, into my imagination and also into my everyday world. I have been enchanted by birds ever since.

This seminar is a small study about bird divination – augury, ornithomancy, alectryomancy - it has as many different names as methods. But what really matters, is that it’s available to all of us, if we want to learn. I don’t suggest that you memorise some of the systems available – there is a Japanese system of crow divination which will tell you what to expect if a crow appears on your left, your right, in the west, north-west, north-north-west. If it is croaking, crying, whistling, happy, sad or just a little bit upset. What I do suggest you do though, is to take your time to discover, through observation and research, but mostly through your own experiences, just exactly what any given birds natural behaviour is. Then you will recognise the un-natural, the supernatural, the nudges and messages from the Otherworld.

If you spot an unusual bird in the garden, or if you find a bird inside your house, or if one lands on your head, or if you ‘find’ an unusual feather, or a feather in an unusual place, then there may be a message there for you. There are a few hundred species of birds in the UK and there are no divination guides which could hope to cover them all. You will have to do most of the work yourself, based on a basic knowledge of the folklore, superstitions and associations of the type of bird - seabird, carrion bird, songbird whatever, as well as any recorded lore for the particular species. Approach the bird in your meditations and use your intuition to discover what it has been trying to bring your attention to. It may have a specific message, or it may be advising you to adopt some of its actual or mythic qualities into your life.

I have mostly based this work, on the traditions, and folklore of the British Isles, of course there are as many superstitions and divinatory traditions in the world as there are birds in the sky.

As you travel through the forest, may you be blessed with finding your very own, Singing Ringing Tree.

Bird Divination

“The Gaul’s likewise make use of diviners, accounting them worthy of high approbation, and these men foretell the future by means of the flight and cries of birds.” Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 BC– c. 30 BC) Bibliotheca historia

Birds in Prehistory

Early man lived totally immersed in nature, all his experiences in life were based on a moment to moment observation of the natural world. There was no difference to him, between the sentience of a man, and that of the animals, the plants and the rocks. All were imbued with spirit, and had the power of speech and understanding, if man could only understand it.

However in some ways birds can be seen as creatures apart. They are extremely visible and audible. They have the ability to make you look up out of the mundane world. They appear to communicate with us directly, through their calls and songs, which are more music than speech. But most important of all, and what set them apart from everything else, was their ability to fly. Flight is still seen today as a form of magic, it is something that man can only dream of, but it was an ability that was allowed the birds, and they, by association, were full of magical properties.

This would have been reinforced by the experiences of the wise men and women of the time, the shamans. Studies of shamanic trances have shown that one universal method of journeying into the Otherworld is through shamanic flight. The shaman feels that he is floating or flying through the different levels of the cosmos in order to talk and intercede with the gods, the ancestors and with the animal spirits. He experiences a birds-eye view of the world and can see far off into the distance. To aid him he may call on his bird spirit-ally. In some instances he will himself transform into an animal or bird during the journey. To facilitate their trance, shamans wore costumes and masks made from bird feathers. The earliest rock paintings from the cave at Lascaux, France (17,000 years old) show strange figures of man-birds which can be interpreted as gods, or as the shamans themselves.

The idea that birds can fly back and forth to the world of the gods led to the idea that they were used by the divine as messengers. They were also guardians of the gateways between the worlds - the misty shorelines, the twilight of dawn and dusk, the lofty peaks and the realm of the sun.

Classical Augury

In the ancient classical world, divining the future from the movement of birds became formalised, being performed by special priests, and others trained in its mysteries. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey show examples of how the appearance of a particular bird was taken as an omen, such as an eagle for victory. The gods themselves could appear to man in the guise of a bird, such a Zeus transforming into a swan to ravish Leda - from the resulting egg was born Helen of Troy.

The recognized traditions of augury in Greece and Etruria were adopted in Rome where the interpretation of bird signs was the responsibility of the College of Augurs. There were particular birds that were considered significant auguries, such as vultures, eagles, cows, owls and ravens.

The aim of divination was not to tell the future as such, but to receive a message which could indicate which line of action to take. The auguries were taken for important decisions that affected the future of the nation and because of this; the position of Auger was one of great consequence. Dressed in a special costume and carrying a staff, with which he marked out the sky, he usually made his way to an elevated piece of ground where a sacrifice was made and a prayer said. The priests would observe where the bird(s) appeared, the species, the numbers seen, the direction of flight, where they landed, their cries and even the feathers shed, as these all contributed to the message. The founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus were said to have decided the position for the Capitol by counting the number of vultures they saw, the brother who saw the most having the final say.

Another way birds were used for augury in Rome was by observing the Sacred Chickens, hens which were especially kept for this purpose. Just before sunrise, the pullarius or feeder, would scatter grain to the chickens in strict silence. If the birds showed no desire for their food, the omen was bad, if on the other hand, the chickens fed so enthusiastically that the grain fell from their beaks and bounced on the ground, the augury was considered to be very favourable. There is a famous example of this form of augury recorded from the first Punic War, 249BC. The Roman general Publius Claudius Pulcher had the auguries taken before a crucial sea battle. The chickens refused to eat and the general was so incensed that he ordered them thrown overboard with the words. ‘If they won’t eat, then let them drink’. He lost the battle and on his return to Rome was exiled, not because of his defeat, but because he was found guilty of sacrilege.

Birds in the Celtic World

The ancient Celts had their own tradition of bird divination based on both general bird behaviour, and the particular qualities of specific species. Being an oral tradition little has survived, but later collections of stories and myths gives an idea of their relationship to birds. The belief in the otherworldliness of birds can be seen in the myths and folk tales. Here birds speak a special language, giving advice and warnings to those humans who by accident or design are able to understand them. Another feature is the ability of wise men or women, seers, gods and druids to transform people into birds. In other myths, gods communicate with humans by becoming birds themselves or by sending birds to act as messengers.

The Book of Lismore, a fifteenth century Irish manuscript, preserves a mythic tale about a blind Druid called Mog Ruith, who dons a headdress of brindled feathers in order to do battle against his druid enemies. In Cormac’s ninth century glossary, there are references to Irish bards wearing feather cloaks ‘it is of skins of birds white and many-coloured that the poet’s toga is made from the girdle downwards and of mallard’s necks and crests from the girdle upwards to the neck.’ In another medieval work, Og Ohain, there are instructions for observing the movement of wrens in order to work divination

The predominant sacred birds of the Celts were the waterfowl; - Julius Caesar remarked that the Britons considered the flesh of geese to be taboo, although whether this was a tribal or cultural thing is unknown. Wildfowl haunted the sea, lake and river shore, liminal places between the worlds. They could move on, beneath and above the water. They were also associated with revival and regeneration, and with death and decay, appearing as they did in the spring, the season of rebirth and renewal and disappearing in the autumn when the foliage began to die back. They appeared to be connected to the solar gods, engravings on goods from the La Tene period show geese or swans pulling a ship carrying the sun. Birds that appeared as the days were lengthening and flew off when they shortened were a logical choice as helpers for the gods of light.

In the Celtic world these were the migrant Berwick and Whooper swans, not the Mute swans which were introduced by the Romans. Bards were said to wear swan feather cloaks as a symbol of their status. They appear in several Celtic myths, the Children of Lir, were transformed into swans by their jealous step mother - who struck them with her druid wand. They retained their human powers of speech and reasoning and sang to men on the lakeshore. Another tale tells how Oenghus transforms himself into a swan so that he can be with his love Caer Ibormeith, who was herself a swan maiden.

Cranes were common in prehistoric Britain but became extinct by 1600 due to the drainage of the wetlands and an increase in hunting. They are large, noisy, communal birds which migrate from northern Europe through France to Spain. They have an eight foot wingspan which is the largest of any bird in the UK, greater even than that of the biggest raptor. They’re famous for their spectacular courtship dance which involves raising their feet and lifting and dropping their wings. This dance has been imitated by man in various cultures across the globe. Theseus performed a crane dance when he returned safely from Crete. John Clare described a crane dance which had survived into the seventeenth century in England as a folk dance, at a harvest celebration.
Manannan Mac Lir had a bag made from crane skin in which he kept his great treasures. It was said to be empty during the ebb tide but full during the flow. Cranes in flight were the inspiration for the ogham alphabet, the letters being based on the position of their legs during flight. As the secret of ogham was known only to the Druids, they were said to possess ‘crane knowledge.’ Sticks inscribed with the ogham letters were used a system of divination.

Geese are territorial and defend their areas vigorously and noisily. This may have led to them being adopted as a symbol of warfare. Depictions of geese have been found in the temples of the Celtic gods of war and also in the graves of warriors. Some pictures of Epona show her riding on a goose rather than her usual horse, and it is thought that this may depict Epona in her role as a goddess of war.

In the tale of Math Son of Mathonwy, Llew was transformed into a wounded eagle, when his wife Bloedwedd’s lover spears him in an attempt to kill him Heroic figures were often transformed into eagles which were emblems of nobility and courage. The eagle was recognized as a messenger of the gods, both because it was a high flying bird, but also because of it size and fierce nature. For the same reasons it became associated with kingship. It was said that one spotted circling high before a battle meant victory, but if it swooped to earth it meant defeat. It was associated with the sun, as it was seen to fly higher than all other birds, and it was said that it could look into the sun’s rays without being blinded. It is associated with swiftness and keen sight. In Wales, it was said that a pair of eagles on Snowden raised whirlwinds by flapping their wings

As a punishment for attempting to kill Llew, Bloedwedd was transformed into an owl and condemned to fly crying in the night forever. The owl appears to have been venerated in the past as a sacred to the goddess of death and rebirth - in ancient times it was one of the few birds whose image was painted and carved into the rocks and there is some use of owl imagery in early Celtic art. However, later this respect seemed to dissolve into legend and superstition. In welsh the owl was called the aderyn y corff or corpse bird and in Scots gaelic it was known as the callieach or hag.

Crow and Raven
Black carrion birds such as crows and ravens were associated with the Irish Goddess Macha and the Morrigan, who could transform herself into a crow, as she did after Cu Chulains death. They were familiar sights scavenging on corpses and became associated with prophecy, death, and disaster. Ravens are also associated with the god Bran, whose name means Raven

The wren’s bird song was used for divination. In Irish it was called Drui-en – the Druid’s bird, and in welsh Dryw, which means both wren and druid. It was associated with the oak and seen as a representation of the oak king, who was killed at winter and replaced by the robin and holly. It is believed that an echo of this sacrifice was the Wren Hunt on St Stephens Day where the previously protected bird was hunted and killed.

The goddess Rhiannon had three blackbirds, which sat and sang in the world tree. Their singing lulled listeners to sleep, and enabled them to travel to the Otherworld to learn mystic secrets. They were said to sing sweetly enough to heal the sick and to make the dead rise from their grave. The blackbird is the first bird to sing at the start of day, some time before sunrise and is the last to finish at night, singing well into the darkness. It is also one of the few birds that sings all year round. It is a bird that the Celts would have recognized as belonging to a time of transience, a time out of time, singing alone as it does in the dawn and dusk

Other birds are mentioned in the Celtic myths; Branwen, sister of Bran, teaches a starling to speak and sends it as a messenger to her brother, when she is mistreated by her husband. In the tale of Taliesin, the boy Gwion and Cerridwen transform themselves into birds during their chase. It is as a black hen that Cerridwen ingests Gwion, who has turned into a grain. The Hawk of Achill, the oldest creature in the world, teaches Fintan the poet, who has the secret of bird speech, the history of mankind.

Weather Forecasting

Large bird movements like migration, and bird behaviours such as changing calls, courtship displays, nesting and egg laying, underpin the whole rhythm of the year. Because they instinctively recognised changes in the length of daylight, atmospheric pressure and temperature, they often seemed to react to changes in the seasons before they were recognized by man. Thus birds were attributed with foresight, divine knowledge, and indeed with the ability to change weather or the seasons themselves.

In the modern era, with double glazed houses and sealed cars, i-pods and mobile phones and with our dependence on TV weather forecasts, it is easy to become distanced from birdlife. But birds do make accurate weather forecasters, and the weather lore associated with them is based on simple but accurate observation.

Hearing the first call of the cuckoo was important in the past, because before the days of calendars and weather forecasts, the natural world was a means of guidance as to when to sow or reap crops. Crops planted too early could be ruined by a frosty snap after they’d germinated, but those left too late could be destroyed by thunderstorms in the summer.

A similar role was taken up by the yellow wagtail in more modern times. After the introduction of the potato it was noted that these birds liked to nest in the potato fields where the large floppy leaves hid the baby birds. Like swallows the birds would return to the exact fields they’d been raised in to nest, and before long their arrival on the farm was taken as a sign to plant the crop.

Another welcome sign of spring is the arrival of the swallows and martins; - the swifts usually arrive later when the season is well established. If these birds fly high, it is a sign of a fine day, but if they are flying low to the earth it usually means wet unsettled weather. This is due to strong winds and atmospheric pressures keeping their prey low to the ground.

If a robin or a blackbird is singing at the top of a tree or a rooftop it is a sign of good weather. If they move down to lower branches it is a sign of rain. On the other hand if a thrush sings into the wind from the top of a tree it is a bad sign. This habit has led to the bird’s alternative name of ‘storm cock’. The green woodpecker is known in some parts as the ‘rain bird’ because its call is often heard before rain, and its drumming resembles thunder. Further signs of rain are hens huddling together and ducks and geese quaking and cackling loudly.

If seagulls are unduly noisy or appear inland, a storm is on the way (not so good a bit of weather lore now we have open tips, reservoirs and sewage farms!) If they settle on the shore or fly out to sea there will be good weather. Extreme bad weather can be indicated by the sudden appearance of seabirds that are usually confined to the open ocean and who only appear on land to breed on certain remote offshore islands. If one appears on the mainland coast it is a sign that it has been driven in by very bad weather, which will soon follow it.

Cold weather and long hard winters are shown by the early arrival of winter migrants such as ducks, geese and swans; together with much larger flocks than normal of fieldfares and redwings, which arrive from Scandinavia. These birds will also travel further down into southern Britain than they would in an average winter to avoid the bad weather. We also receive extra robins, blackbirds, starlings and pigeons from the north whilst saying good bye earlier to our own summer visitors.

If rooks fly straight from their nests the weather will be fine. If they twist and turn, rough weather is approaching. But if they stay by their nests screaming gales are on the way. When they are late leaving their nests and then hang around the village street it will rain later. High nests mean a good summer, but if they build lower to the ground it means bad weather.

Birds in Modern Folklore and Superstition

These are the last links with the myths of our distant ancestors, although most of the folklore and superstitions gleaned from the literature of the past few hundred years can’t be said to reveal a direct connection with the beliefs of the Celtic era. What they do have in common though, is the idea that the natural world somehow knows what is going to happen in human world, and wishes to communicate this to us.

Crows, magpies, jackdaws, rooks, owls and ravens, perhaps because they were important to the old pre Christian religions of the Vikings and Saxons, and before them the Celts, and also because of their uncanny ability to mimic human speech; were almost always associated with evil doing, and universally reviled in folklore.

Any unusual bird behaviour was seen as ominous, especially if it seemed to single out a particular person or building. Birds appearing at a window or pecking at the glass were seen as an ill omen, especially when there was someone sick at the time, as it was taken as a sure sign that there would be an imminent death.

A wild bird entering a house was another death omen and in some cases a fear of birds in the house would mean that caged birds, eggs and even pictures of birds, in paintings or on china would be banned from the house.

Some birds were regarded as carrying the souls of the ancestors, and very often birds hanging around the buildings where there had been a death, were believed to be the spirits of the newly deceased. The fact that the dead can communicate with the living through becoming, or sending a bird is still very common, and has been told to me many times working as I do with the bereaved. Robins especially are used in this way, even materializing suddenly in locked and sealed rooms.

Being hit by bird droppings was seen as good luck, as it still is today.

Most of the folklore about cockerels is centred on its role as a messenger. It was important to notice when and where it crowed. If it crowed by the front door it meant a messenger or news from afar. Wheras a cock crowing at the wrong time or in the wrong way such as during the night usually predicted death or illness. Keeping a cock was said to keep out ghosts and to frighten off the devil himself – hence its use on weathervanes.

These have been widely distrusted in British folklore, especially if they were seen to be gathering around a particular person or building. A crow in the churchyard meant a funeral shortly.


Their return was a herald of spring, and the bird appears in much weather lore. The main superstition is to note what your are doing or where you are when you hear your first cuckoo, as this will give you an indication of how the rest of the year will turn out. If you have coins in your pocket the first time you hear its cry, turn them over or take them out and spit on them, and you will have money all year long. If you’re walking on a hard surface, it is bad luck, you will have a hard year, but to hear it whilst walking on grass or sand means good luck will be yours.
Counting the number of notes you hear the bird call tells you how long you will be married. The fact that is a promiscuous, ‘cuckolding’ bird makes it an obvious bird to link with fertility, both with the sowing of seed and with human courtship.

Their eerie calls were thought by sailors to be cries of the souls of drowned seamen. It was so unlucky to hear them that they would turn for home on hearing its cry. It was said to bring bad weather and impending death. They were associated with the Wild Hunt because their calls can also sound like a pack of dogs. They were widely known as Gabriel Hounds, from gabrel, the old English word for corpse. To look up and see them meant death, and many people would fling themselves to earth as they passed overhead.

In ancient Greece, Aphrodite the goddess of love and fertility was associated with geese and was often depicted standing or riding on the back of one. Women with occult powers were often associated with geese. In 1850, in Porthcawl, Wales, locals believed a witch took flight as a grey goose to protect the wild geese from hunters shooting them in the maram sand dunes.

This is a migrant whose flashy display flight was taken as a sign of good weather. The bird lays its eggs in plowed and rough land and these are the origin of ‘Easter eggs’ They were seen as the gift of goddess Eostre in ancient times and were associated with her totem animal the hare, who made small ‘nests’ or forms itself in the grass.

This pied bird was seen as an unnatural bird, being the result of the union of a raven and a dove. It has an uncanny ability to mimic human sounds which was attributed to the fact that it had a drop of devils blood. It was usually left unharmed, as to injure one meant that it would be avenged by the death of a cow or other farm animal. In early written records, superstitions usually centred on the sounds it made, a chattering magpie denoted coming of a stranger. Later superstitions focus more on meeting the bird. It was bad luck if it hopped towards you, or flew from the left, or if seen first thing in morning. The familiar counting rhymes are relatively recent, being first recorded in the 1780s, as are the counter measures to ill luck, such as saluting the bird, spitting or raising your hat.
For centuries the owl has been regarded as a bird of ill omen. It was associated with Athena, goddess of knowledge and it is thought to have dark, arcane wisdom. Phosphorescence on its wings can give it an unearthly appearance in the dark, and its ability to fly silently (it is an evolutionary advantage for hunting) means it can make sudden dramatic appearances. The screech of an owl is a death omen. If on alights on a house, hoots and then flies off it there will be a death within the year, and it is especially unlucky if it appears after a birth. It was a common European practice to nail an owl to a barn door to avert evil. Anyone who looks into an owls nest becomes morose and melancholy for the rest of the year.

In the early seventeenth to early twentieth century pigeons and doves were connected with death, specifically if the bird was a black and white one, or if it appeared near the window of a room where someone was ill. This was possibly due to the fact that pigeons often figured in cures – and were applied to feet of the sick as a last resort. It was said that pigeon feathers used in a mattress prevented the owner from an easy death.

This large black bird has a raucous cry and is a carrion eater - it was said that feeding on human bodies helped it acquire human reason and knowledge. Its call was said to presage a death in the house. In Wales to see one meant bad luck at the start of a journey, but to have two alight on the house meant prosperity, hence in that country it was unlucky to kill one. A blind man who wished to regain his sight could do so by being kind to a raven.
The head of Bran which was buried in London, where the Tower of London was later built, worked as a charm to protect the country from invasion, and these powers were transferred to the raven, his name sake. Ravens are kept at the Tower and disaster will fall if they leave.
Ravens were regarded as a bird of prophecy – but never gave good news. The link with Odin (he had two ravens called Thought and Memory who flew across the world to gather news) caused them to be called the devil’s birds by Christians. Odin or Woden, the old sky god of the English, who led dead souls across the heavens in a wild hunt on stormy nights, became equated with the devil.

This bird has always been generally popular and protected – anyone injuring a robin would suffer bad luck, and the hand that harmed it would wither. Although any bird tapping on a window seen as unlucky, if it was a robin it was a dire warning. Robins nest close to man, and being especially tame, were thought to have special concern for our welfare. In Welsh the robin is known as Brou-rhuddyn – Breast-burnt because he carried drops of water to those suffering in the fiery pits of hell. Robins and wrens could carry messages and spread gossip, which is possibly the root of the saying ‘a little bird told me.’

These seem to escape the negative associations of other large black birds. However this didn’t stop them from being shot in by farmers in great rook hunts in April and May. Having them nest near a house was a sign of prosperity, possibly because houses in large private parks were a safe haven. If rooks suddenly deserted a popular rookery the owner of the land on which they nested would die. Country people would often use them to tell the time as they left and returned to the rookeries at the same time each day. In the 1970s people were confused when they were seen to desert healthy seeming elms in which they had nested for generations. Later it was found they had detected a stiffness in the branches where Dutch Elm disease was effecting the tree and had abandoned them as they realized that they would no longer be safe in the winters gales. No human could have detected the disease at such an early stage.

There was a widespread belief in coastal areas that seagulls were the souls of lost sailors. If a bird appeared knocking at the window one of a fishing family one of their folk would be at trouble out at sea.

Appearing as it does in the early spring; the swallow was seen as a bringer of life. It was good luck to have one nest on your house, as it was said to bring joy and prosperity. It was thus very bad luck to harm one. They were known as the farmers friends, as to have birds nesting in your cow barn or milking parlour meant that the flies that caused mastitis would be kept down

Like the robin it was considered very bad luck to harm a wren. However it was a widespread custom on that on Boxing Day they could be persecuted by ‘wren boys’ who would capture and kill a wren and parade it round the village houses.

Divining the Future for Birds

Being top of the food chain, studies of birds of prey, to see whether they are flourishing or in decline, are used by ecologists to judge how well a particular ecosystem is working. On a larger scale, birds as a whole can act as a barometer for the health of the environment. Over the past few centuries, as mankind spread further across the globe, the natural world has been put under increasing pressure. The dodo and little auk have been hunted to extinction; the albatross is disappearing, exotic birds are caught for the pet trade. Around the world man is having a negative effect on the bird population - here in the United Kingdom there’s been a decline in numbers of songbirds especially. World-wide, birds are under threat from pollution, the loss of habitat, the use of insecticides, and large scale shooting. If this is our effect on birdlife, what does it say about our treatment of the environment as a whole?

Now when birds such as the swift and swallow return from Africa, we, like Ted Hughes in his poem Swifts, give a sigh of relief that ‘they’ve made it again’. Not only because they’re a sign of the beginning of spring, but also because, despite all that man has done to harm the world, ‘the globes still working.’

Following the druid way, we are immersed in nature; it is part of our spirituality to care for our environment both for the health and welfare of our fellow living beings, the birds, animals and plants; but also for the benefit of the future generations, our descendants. Whilst turning to birds for guidance, and a connection to the divine. We have to recognize that we also have a responsibility to them. The good news is that positive measures do work. In the 1970s a small number of cranes returned to East Anglia to breed and decided to stay rather than migrate. Their numbers are growing slowly. I would like to think that in future, my great grand children will be able to watch great flocks of their descendents perform their crane dance, that great circular celebration of life.

Further Study

This seminar can be no more than an overview of bird divination and there are many areas that can be studied further if you wish. The Druid Animal oracle is the best book to read to understand the relationship between the Celtic peoples and birds – although there are only a small number represented. There are a whole range of mythological and folk tales about birds to study around the globe; especially the creation myths, in which many birds feature. Then there are birds which arrive in your dreams. These days too, we may receive messages from birds from other parts of the world, with which we have become familiar through travel or study.

If you don’t want to study anything formally, then just keep a look out to see how many times birds appear in your daily life. There are bird images, symbols and literary allusions all around us. There are birds that are still used as tribal totems – think of the American eagle, or even the Norwich canary!

Below is a list of suggestions for other more practical and creative ways in which to explore the world of birds:

Look into the origins of some of your local place-names, many are based on the ancient dialect names for birds, for example in Cheshire:-

Pyegreave – place where magpies gather
Shrigley – grove of mistle thrushes
Queastybirch – birch trees where woodpigeons gather
Maw Green – marsh where gulls gathered.
Rostherne – roost of herons.
Cranfield – field of cranes.

Meditate whilst listening to a CD of birdsong/woodland noises, or make an effort to get out to somewhere you won’t be disturbed and experience a meditation with all five senses totally immersed in nature. There is nothing to beat lying on a moor listening to skylarks singing above you, or standing on a church tower with swifts screaming past like rockets. There is something about birds that can transport you out of yourself with rapture - read Gerald Manley Hopkins, The Windhover and be reminded what I mean!

Buy or borrow a basic bird guide – it’s best to pick a guide with purely local birds at first, and learn to recognize the different varieties. When you can name the most common in your garden or local patch by sight, learn to recognize them from their calls or their flight. There are many song identification CDs and DVDs available.

Get up early and listen to dawn chorus. In the UK in summer, this begins in the dark, with the blackbird being the first to sing, about forty five minutes before the sunrise. He is usually followed by the song thrush, the pigeon, the robin, the mistle thrush, the dove, pheasants, warblers, wren, tits, sparrow and finch. Even in the winter, some birds, such as robins, dunnocks and blackbirds will sing at dawn.

If you have a gift for whistling, try and get in conversation with a bird. Repeat their calls back to them and find out what happens. Great tits have an easy call which sounds like ‘teacher teacher’ and is easy to copy.

On a more practical level, buy or make some feeders and look after your garden birds buy providing a variety of foods. Remember some birds will use hangers but others will be happier eating off the ground. You don’t have to spend fortune on peanuts and seed, try your hand at making fat cakes or birdie bread from kitchen scraps.

Position some nesting boxes in the trees or on the house – not too near the washing line! These days you can buy close circuit TV so that you watch the birds from inside and out.

Join the a bird charity like the RSPB, or just join in their Garden Birdwatch each spring. At the The Hawk and Owl Trust you can sponsor a nest box.

Recommended Books

The Mabinogion
How to be a Bad Birdwatcher Simon Barnes
Nature Cure Richard Mabey
Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts Venetia Newall
Weather Forecasting the Country Way Robin Page
The Boom of the Bitterbump Roger Stephens
The Quest for the Shaman M. & S. Aldhouse-Green
The Druid Animal Oracle Philip & Stephanie Carr Gomm


High in the sky, a blackbird
sings a paean to a pretty day
while in a low bush, his mate
warns of storms on the morrow

Listen also to the wren,
whose shy, sweet cry
tells of travellers and their business

Gallantly the goldfinch flits
from flower to flower, gleaning seeds
from the dead dry heads: an omen
of fruitfulness

Soft-feathered, silent-flying one:
the owl brings wisdom
and blesses the divination

Needle-winged falcon,
ferocious and fleet,
gives the sign of ascension:
victory to the one who sees it

Quietly the crane waits
amongst the reeds, a vigilant watcher
renowned for patience:
slender messenger of the gods
sent to deliver glad tidings

Sleek as an evening breeze and
whiter than winter's breast,
the swan brings benevolence,
sincerity, and grace

Mediator between the sky and the water,
the duck's course encompasses
conjugal happiness:

What the birds know, they show and tell,
an augury of omens.

Elizabeth Barrette


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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Donata » 20 May 2009, 22:46

What an outstanding seminar! Thank you! It's full of fascinating information - you really know your subject!

Congratulations! :tiphat:

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If I destroy you, I destroy myself. If I honor you, I honor myself. --- Hunbatz Men, MAYAN ELDER


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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by butterfly watcher » 20 May 2009, 22:59

Great seminar fi, I have birds visit my garden and spend time listening to their different songs and alerts. :D I have young rooks at the moment..... talk about noisey...... :D Enjoyed the seminar thanks.BW
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by D'Arzhur » 20 May 2009, 23:11

:applause: Thank you :shake:
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Beith » 20 May 2009, 23:39

Fi that's absolutely stunning - and evident how much work you put into it, to give an overview for a veritable "flock" of birds! Very well done. I enjoyed it a lot and will come back to it to read it again and again.

Re: birds and magic...

Just to add a quick note for Crane - this name of this bird - or heron- it's hard to say as the term "Corr" is used for both depending on text, features in a type of spell-casting called corrguinecht in Old Irish, which translated, is along the lines of "Crane killing" or "Crane wounding" from corr - a heron or crane; and guinecht from goinid to wound or slay.
In descriptions a certain stance is recorded - on one leg, with one arm pointed and one eye closed...perhaps in mimicry of the stance of a heron or crane, whilst uttering a glám - a type of spell or magical satire.

However whether it was used for purely maleficient purpose is not clear. There is I think, citation of it in a tale of Finn where he does this sorcery but not for adverse effect, if memory serves. I need to look that up.

Also for "Corr", the term is also used in Satire - which was in ancient times, under Brehon Law, only within the juristiction of use of high-level poets - the Filid - and even then, only allowable following a proper procedure for a satire. Unsanctioned satire was unlawful as it was seen literally as a weapon, a "blade which cuts", something that "wounds" the face (meaning lóg enech - lit. "face price" which refers to the varying "honour price" accorded to each person within society, except those who were slaves of no 'worth' or persons from outside a community who thereby held no status price within it). Satire wounds the honour of a person and therefore reduces their honour price and their level of function in trade, contract making, legal entitlements etc.
One of the terms used in satirization, is "corr" - where a person is likened to this as an insult.

Cranes also feature in the lore about Midir, one of the kings of the Síd folk, who owned three cranes of denial who refused hospitality to those who approached his home.

As you say, there are other pieces in Irish literature about divination or interpretation of the movements or sounds of birds. In more contemporary folklore there is a lot of death-omen association with the entry of certain birds to the house and so forth.

Lastly in myth also, some of the Síd folk assume bird form and are "bird men" - who shape change between bird and human form.

Certain saints or mythic characters are associated with companion birds eg. St Colman's ducks who are mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis for the belief that anyone who offended the saint or the church or the flock would cause the flock to fly away from the lake they inhabited...and when they left, the water became stagnant and toxic. They would only return if penance was done to atone for the offence and when they did return, the water became clear and healthy again.

Just a quick post on the go to add to your info above as thoughts occur..

well done on an excellent seminar and thank you for the effort of creating it..and it arrived a couple of weeks early for June too!The early bird ....!

Good wishes,

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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by wyeuro » 21 May 2009, 01:33

:applause: :applause: :applause: :applause: :applause:
wyverne /|\

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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Bracken » 21 May 2009, 13:31

Fiona, thank you so much for such a good seminar. Please do come back to continue the conversation as your paper will be here until the end of June. Like Beith, I will be back to read this again and again. You have set me off on a new course of study. [How lucky I am to have such a teacher close at hand. :)]

Of course, Lily's seminar Scent of the Ages is still live until the end of May.

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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Dryadia2 » 21 May 2009, 17:56

Wonderful seminar, Fi! :clap:
I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot too! :wink:

Interestingly, yesterday evening a young fledgling starling fell into the chimney and stovepipe of our woodstove, and got stuck. I shined a bright flashlight into the woodstove to try to help it find it's way out, but it remained in there all night. Then this morning, it worked it's way loose, and finally found it's way into the woodstove itself (we haven't used the woodstove in over a month, so just cold ashes in there). I opened the woodstove door and it flew into the room, where I was able to catch it and turn it loose outside. Before turning it loose, I looked into it's eyes, and calmed it with my thoughts, saying it would be ok, and it was free now. As I let it go and it flew into a nearby oak tree, the starling vocalized a 2-syllable sound, that to me, sounded like it said "thank you". :cloud9: I looked up the meaning of Starling in the following book, and read that starlings represent the lessons of community; the keynote meaning: "Group Behavior and Etiquette".

So I'd like to recommend "Animal-Speak" by Ted Andrews. ISBN 0-87542-028-1 The book includes spiritual & magical interpretations, and symbolism of many animals, including birds.

It seems rather auspicious that I had a 'close encounter' with a bird right before reading your seminar! And especially, that the Starling had an important lesson to teach me! :wink:

Peace and Blessings,
:dryadia: /|\
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by postmodgirl » 21 May 2009, 20:35

That was cool, thanks for posting. :)

ya know, I had a robin poop on me once, does that mean anything? :D

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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Lily » 22 May 2009, 09:52

What a lovely and in-depth compilation. And I was just about to ask about Heron when I saw what Beith had added.

This surely will go to the Order? Maybe a series in Touchstone?
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Blaiddwen » 30 May 2009, 14:27

Well done Fi, :D
I agree that this could be a worthwhile series (is'nt it already part of one? :wink: ) that I would appreciate seeing. Lily, this morning a Heron flew overhead and made a single call as he passed, flying north. :thinking: Postmodgirl, I think that it means "Hi, how are ya?" :hiya: :-) :-) :-)
We have alot of Wrens this year, so I've been watching them and learning their patterns, ect. And to see a flock of Blackbirds flying on a whorlwind is a breathtaking sight.
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Eilthireach » 02 Jun 2009, 13:43

Hello fi,

thank you for this excellent seminar.

I am an inner city druid and where I live, birds are the only form of wildlife left, so they have a special place in my heart and I use to watch out for birds and their behaviour.

Here in Bavaria / Southern Germany blackbirds don't sing all year round, but only from March to July. Which makes their song even more enchanting...

Eilthireach /|\.

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and understand their nature
and to know God.
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by fi » 02 Jun 2009, 21:35

Thanks everyone for all the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the seminar :)

Beith I was interested to hear that the Crane and Heron are used interchangably in the Irish myths and lore. I must admit that I apply the interpretations of crane lore to herons in my own practice.

Postmodgirl birds messing on you is considered good luck, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with it happening so rarely, and of course it can be seen as a sign from the Gods - literally, from the heavens!

Dryadia2 we had starlings nesting in our eaves this year for the first time, when I realised they were there I was soo happy! Thanks for the book suggestion, I will look it out. At the time of writing I tried hard to not to read too many books as I wanted to give my own experiences first and foremost, but now I feel free to indulge myself!



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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Snægl » 03 Jun 2009, 13:21

What a fantastic seminar! I really want to start trying to apply the weather lore you've cited here (hopefully adapted to my own New England locale) as figuring out the forecast has always been something of a hobby of mine.

Thanks for a wonderful lecture!
Forþan bið andgit æghwær selest ferðes foreþanc. :zen:
Therefore, in every respect understanding is best, and deliberation of spirit.
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Fox » 03 Jun 2009, 15:14

Hi fi, thanks very much for this! I have only just recently been watching birds and wishing I had a better knowledge of augury, and then - this!

I have printed off a copy and will take it home to study it. Trying to spend more time away from the computer and in contact with the real world ;)
yr pal, Fox

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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by DaRC » 08 Jun 2009, 17:06

Hi Fi,
I wrote a long(er) response last week but it got lost somewhere between posting and sever :-(

Anyway what a great seminar full of wonderful info'.
As someone who often uses birds for divination this is fab :grin:
I have particular birds that seem to be messengers; Magpie and Hawk particularly.

I will quickly add some info' :
Geese were often used as a kind of watchdog - they were kept in cages on the walls as an early warning system. They warned the Romans of the attack of the Gauls under Brennus.

Swans - many of the Valkyrie were also Swan Maidens, Volund / Weland (and his brothers) were married to Swan Maidens.

Cranes - and/or possibly Herons or Storks could have been messengers or sacred to the Norse god Hoenir.
The (controversial) mythologist Viktor Rydberg related this to the folklore of Storks bringing babies, in that the souls of people grew on the World Tree and then the Stork (or long-legged marsh bird which could then mean Herons or Cranes) delivered these souls into the child. Within Norse mythology 3 gods are responsible for creating humans - Odin gave us willpower via breath, Hoenir (or Ve) gives us our soul and the Lothir/Loki (or Vili) give us our looks / physicality.

Eagle - at the top of the World Tree (Yggdrasil) there is an Eagle who controls the winds by flapping his wings. This might be where the Welsh myth comes from.

Mistle Thrush - I thought this was the Storm Cock. It is much larger (twice the size) of a normal Thrush. A thrush speaks to Sigurd the Dragonslayer in the Norse Volsungasaga - this is where Tolkien took the talking thrush concept in the Hobbit from.

Thanks for your seminar :-) Dave.
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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Magrathea » 24 Jun 2009, 10:28

What a great seminar Fi. Thankyou
I'll keep coming back to catch up on the birds :yay:

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Re: June Seminar '09 - Bird Divination

Post by Bracken » 01 Jul 2009, 09:21

Many thanks, Fi for a fabulous contribution to the seminar series.
Please check back as it will remain live for readers to join in the discussion.

Watch this space [Discuss Druidry] as any minute Wintersundog will be posting his seminar for July.


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