Here are ten interesting narratives about songbirds with references to their place in our culture. Some are form ancient mythologies like the wren being, "King of the birds" and others like the deaf thrush more recent.
Goldfinches are one of the most symbolic of European birds. One thing mongst others is freedom.
The goldfinch is very dexterous. Because it feeds on thistle seeds it has become a deft touch with its feet and beak and can be trained to perform tricks. Known as a Draw bird, it has the ability to pull up a weight (a thimble of water) attached to a thread, by looping each length under it’s foot. The goldfinch has been a popular choice as a caged bird in Europe for centuries. Carel Fabritius' 1654 painting, shows a The Goldfinch tethered to it’s perch by a delicate chain.
You might say, if you were a cynic, that the goldfinch has brought this upon on itself, showing off with its fine singing voice, beautiful plumage and deft touch with its feet and beak.
The Caged Goldfinch comes up as a reference to freedom in two poems by Thomas Hardy, “The Caged Goldfich” and, “The Blinded bird” both communicate the same outrage of having freedom taken.
How did the robin acquire its red breast? In Christian tradition, it is thought that a robin tried to remove the crown of thorns from Jesus’ head during the Crucifixion; drops of Christ’s blood stained his breast forever. In another myth, the robin’s breast was scorched fetching water for souls in Purgatory.
In the classic English nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence ”Four and twenty blackbirds” are “baked in a pie”. It was a 16th-century amusement to place live birds in a pie and watch them fly out when the pastry was cut. The rhyme has it’s origins in the 17th.c. It is referenced in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
At the dawn of the 20th century milk was delivered to British doorstops in open bottles. Two birds learnt how to siphon the cream at the top - the blue tit and the robin. After WW1 dairies began sealing their bottles with aluminum foil. But by 1950 the entire British blue tit population had learnt how to pierce the bottle tops and get the cream, whereas the robins never did!
Aristotle and Pliny both wrote about a legendary contest among the birds. He who could fly the highest would be crowned ‘king of the birds.’ The eagle’, was expected to win; he soared high above the others and appeared to be the clear winner, until the wren emerged from under his feathers and flew higher still to claim the crown.
The goldcrest is Britain’s smallest songbird. Suffolk fishermen called it “herring spink” or “tot o’er seas” because migrating flocks often landed on the rigging of herring boats out in the North Sea.
Thrushes have acquired some peculiar superstitions across the ages. Apparently they ‘dispose’ of their legs every ten years… and then grow new ones!. They’re also deaf say some!
Robins have a reputation for living contentedly in close proximity to humans, indeed, there is a story that a robin nested in the hole made by a cannon ball in the mizzen mast of the HMS Victory!
Turtle doves are the second gift in the much loved carol The Twelve Days of Christmas. They have become emblems of love as a result of biblical references and the fact that they mate for life.
While not a song bird a word form the wise to end on....
In Aesop’s fable, ‘The Owl and the Birds’, the birds ignore the wise owl’s words at their peril. Later, when events came to pass of which the owl had foretold, the birds seek her council but find her silent.
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In Greek mythology, Halcyone and Ceyx were lovers who incurred the wrath of the god Zeus by mocking him and his wife. Angered, Zeus killed Ceyx.