Birds in Old Norse Culture

I’m going to look at folklore and mythology more generally in another post but whilst I was doing some reading about birds this month I accidentally fell into the world of animals and old norse traditions*… So we’re having a bit of a specialised focus on birds in norse mythology first. This also ties in with my endless wonder and fascination with members of the corvid family.

For those of you who aren’t up on your birds, corvids include crows, ravens and magpies and they are intelligent and intriguing birds. I’ve already written a lot about them in my animal spirit posts and I really do suggest you take a look. There is some really interesting factual stuff about them as well as a bit of background into the myths and beliefs that surround them.

On that note, I’m going to smoothly navigate myself back to norse mythology by introducing Odin and his two ravens, Hugin (from Old Norse for thought) and Munin (memory). They would fly around the world and report back to Odin, a god, about what was going on amongst mortals. 
Odin with the two ravens

This connection with the birds earned Odin the name Raven God. Having bestowed the gift of speech on the Ravens, Hugin and Munin are in Odin’s debt and the relationship is one which benefits all involved.

It’s important to note here that being able to understand the language of birds was a sign of great wisdom. Typically, it is royal characters who are able to understand the language of birds and generally involves an initiation of sorts. The birds then offer these individuals pearls of wisdom, advice and important information.

The ability to give birds the power to speak is one that lies ahead of the ability to hear birds, possibly reiterating Odin’s role as God and hence his place in the hierarchy above the royalty we shall look at now.

In the story of Sigurd and the dragon, Sigurd is sent off on a quest to slay a dragon who guards treasure. He drinks the blood of the dragon and finds he can understand what the birds around him are saying. The birds warn of betrayal and offer advice. He takes their advice, escapes death and instead follows a path of wealth, wisdom and spiritual knowledge.

This tale is shown in an 11th century carving:

The details for each part of the image can be seen on Wikipedia.

As with many tales, the story of Sigurd slaying the dragon takes a young man, places him in front of a challenge which he defeats, then offers him a gift or the result of his initiation, and then demands he face another challenge. This allows him to prove himself worthy of his noble birth and place in the royal line.

Sigurd is apparently also descended from Odin and that, along with his ability to understand the birds, make him an excellent candidate for future king. As we’ll see when we look more generally at folklore and beliefs, the idea of birds as messengers for gods is a common one and we often see them moving between the mundane world and the spiritual world. This means that Sigurd’s ability allows him to be as close to the Otherworld(s) as any mortal could be.

We later find that other characters can gain Sigurd’s gift by consuming his heart and also that it appears to pass onto children and other stories also involve wisdom acquired from birds changing prospects.

In a different text, a king is said to be “so wise that he understood the speech of birds.” This king, King Dag, had a sparrow which, like Odin’s ravens, flew around and returned with news for him. As with Odin, the tale presents the king as being wise due to the knowledge of the birds, his ability to understand them means he can carry out his role well.

Another tells of a farmer who can understand birds, in contrast to the king of the story who is not portrayed as wise, especially intelligent or knowledgeable. One line of thinking here is that the farmer is actually Odin who, in other stories, has appeared in disguise.

Returning to Odin, we find stories of his transformation into a bird, in particular eagles which are often associated with divine knowledge. With this in mind, and with Odin being a god of wisdom, perhaps the birds throughout these tales are messengers from Odin, or the god himself.

I feel it’s only fitting to end with a quote from the paper which started my tumble into animals in Old Norse traditions:

With their capacity to fly and sing, birds universally hold a special place in human experience as symbols of transcendence and numinous knowledge; Old Norse tradition reflects this reality.
Timothy Bourns

*As such, I am obviously no expert and you really should read The Language of Birds in Old Norse Tradition.

Martha, possibly the most famous pigeon in the world

Despite possibly being the most famous pigeon in the world, shockingly many people have never heard of Martha, or even of her species – the passenger pigeon. Shocking because, whilst like the dodo the species is extinct, they were quite possibly the commonest bird in the world and have only been extinct for 100 or so years. The dodo on the other hand died out long ago and as far as we know never reached great numbers. This post, in part, is a gesture towards balancing that inequality.

Martha was the last of her species, dying on 1st September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo. The last wild passenger pigeon had probably died several years earlier, with the last reliable recording of one being in 1900.

In May 1850, a 20-year-old Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon was camping at the headwaters of Michigan’s Manistee River during trapping season when a far-off gurgling sound startled him. It seemed as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me,” he later wrote. “As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and beautiful.” The mysterious sound came “nearer and nearer,” until Pokagon deduced its source: “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”

Martha’s death is made more poignant by the fact that just decades earlier, her species had flown in flocks so vast, so abundant, that they darkened the skies. We’re talking millions of birds here, with some of the largest colonies estimated to include 100 million birds.

These numbers are hard to imagine, but in the UK today there are an estimated 168 million birds. For the passenger pigeon, that would be about two colonies.  Indeed, it’s estimated that the global human population exceeded the population of the passenger pigeon as late as 1850. Before then there were more of these birds than people on the planet. To go from that to extinction in just over 50 years is mindboggling.

So, what were passenger pigeons like? Well, the males were grey-blue with bright orange throats and chests whilst the females had duller colouring. Both were powerful birds, streamlined and built for speed. Their scientific name means wandering migrant and gives us some insight into their way of life. They ate acorns, beech nuts and chestnuts and would travel in vast flocks across America to find food. Having located a feeding ground, their sheer numbers would mean it would be wiped clean incredibly quickly. And their diet would extend to crops, resulting in a bad reputation.

They would also nest and breed in these massive flocks, causing incredible damage to forests and surrounding areas. The floor would be covered in several inches of dung, grasses and other young plant life would be destroyed and the impact would be felt for several years. John James Audubon described it “as if the forest had been swept by a tornado. Everything proved to be that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception.”

By some accounts, individual trees held 500 nests and even if this is an overestimate, at two adults per nest and one baby (it’s thought they had one egg per couple), this still mounts up to a lot of birds per tree. It’s not wonder than branches snapped and trees fell.

The story of their demise is, necessarily, not a happy one. Mark Avery provides us with some context in his book A Message From Martha:

World War 1 saw the deaths of 16 million military souls in its four years – four million combatants each year. In comparison, the war against the passenger pigeon must have despatched at least two billion birds in a century, which is a death rate of 20 million pigeons a year for a century – a death rate five times as high over a period 25 times as long.

But how did this excessively abundant bird go from so many to so few in such a short space of time? Well, European invasion will have been a factor… Suddenly America was home to a lot more humans who therefore needed a lot more food and were taking up a lot more land… But I don’t know enough about American history to go into that.

The passenger pigeon had been a source of food for people in North America for a long time. They also had some religious and ritual significance to some indigenous people. Native Americans would leave the adults undisturbed, killing instead the young and hence allowing for some sustainability within the species.

As well as a source of food, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was believed that parts of the passenger pigeon had uses in healing. The blood for eye problems, dung for headaches etc and the feathers were used in bedding.

In the 19th century, commercial hunters got involved, using both guns and nets to kill them and then sold them on as food, for humans and for animals. Because of how easy it was to kill passenger pigeons, many people didn’t consider it to be a game bird.

Essentially, you’d wait until the flock was overhead and then just fire randomly. Professional shooters could easily kill over 50, having fired a gun once. Nets that were used could catch hundreds of adults at once.

It was so easy to kill passenger pigeons in this way that when competitions were held, the winner would be looking at having killed tens of thousands in one competition. As rail networks cropped up, recreational hunters were transported in for fun days out…

By the 1870s, there had been a noticeable decrease in the passenger pigeon population and the last large scale nesting was in 1878 where 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months. After this, scattered nest sites were reported but cautious parent birds were abandoning their nests if they felt threatened. This meant that not only were there dramatically fewer adult birds, but the birds which were alive weren’t reproducing as successfully as in the past.

Whilst the scale of hunting clearly contributed to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, other factors were also at play. This was a time of industrialisation and changes in human lifestyle. Deforestation was common arising from the need for more farming land as well as demand for the wood to be used as fuel and as a building material. Old trees were of particular importance to the passenger pigeon as these were the ones which provided food. And as they needed to be in a forest so that they could accommodate the large flock of birds it’s easy to see how changes in land management could have had a huge impact on the species.

The disappearance of the passenger pigeon from the wild would inevitably leave huge changes in the ecosystem. Before, when the species had nested in forests, the dung they had left behind had increased the frequency and intensity of forest fires, something which can refresh an environment and allows certain species chance to grow. The dung had also destroyed new growth and small, vulnerable plant life in these forests. Without the dung, the flora of these areas would inevitably alter. As a major consumer of acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts, the passenger pigeon made it hard for other species who relied on these food sources. In particular, the acorn eating white footed mouse saw it’s population bloom following the extinction of the passenger pigeon as there was less competition for food. These mice are hosts for ticks and some people have blamed their population boom for the increase in lyme disease.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons we can take from the demise of the passenger pigeon is that abundance does not always mean security.

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the north as it’s breeding grounds, travelling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”
– Ohio State Senate, select committee, 1857

The Trumpet of the Swan

Having looked at how birds speak to each other, I thought it would be pertinent to consider a bird who lacks the ability to sing.


The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B White is a tale of a swan, Louis, who is born without a voice, something which his father sees as a tragedy.  This heart warming tale of swans and disability was just the thing I needed to read this Christmas.  It is marketed to children aged 8 to 12 but was perfect for my reduced concentration levels.  And I do find that “children’s books” can be engaging and inspiring whatever your age.

Published in 1970 and set in Canada in 1968, the story alternates perspectives from Sam, a young boy, Louis’ parents and Louis.  Very different to Tarka the Otter, this story casts an anthropomorphic lens over the bird community.  We read conversations between the birds, read Louis’ thoughts and see the species barrier between swans and humans overcome through honks and gestures.

“There are five cygnets.  They are sort of a dirty brownish-grey colour, but very cute.  Their legs are yellow, like mustard.  The old cob led them right up to me.  I wasn’t expecting this, but I kept very still. Four of the babies said beep.  The fifth one tried to, but he couldn’t.  He tool hold of my shoelace as though it was a worm and gave it a tug and untied it.”
– Sam’s diary

I wish my diaries had been more like Sam’s when I was 11 instead of the generic comments about going to school or who I had played with at lunch!

“Louis had an idea.  He decided that since he was unable to use his voice, he should learn to read and write.  ‘If I’m defective* in one respect,’ he said to himself, ‘I should try and develop myself along other lines.  I will learn to read and write. Then I will hang a small slate around my neck and carry a chalk pencil.”

*for context, Louis’ dad has already made it clear that he thinks Louis is defective and language around disability has changed rapidly since the book was written.

I don’t want to spoil the story so I won’t say much more about it but it is a happy tale, a nice one for a winters afternoon.

Bird song, or lack thereof; Other forms of audible communication (part 4)

Whilst most birds can sing or make some sort of call, there are a few species which don’t have a voice and have to find alternative ways to communicate.  And for other birds who do have a voice, they may find that supplementing their calls with other sounds can help them out.

To make these other sounds, they employ different parts of their body including their bills, wings and tail feathers.


The woodpecker is the obvious example of a bird which drums and whilst they do carry this out to feed and create holes, it can also be used to communicate.  Through the beating they can convey information about their species, sex, who they are (as an individual) and their emotional state.

Storks also use their bills to communicate but instead of drumming, they clapper them together, rapidly opening and closing their beaks to make a noisy clatter which is amplified by their throat pouch.  They use this to communicate in a number of situations including as part of their nest greeting ceremony, during mating and as alarm calls.


Some birds deliberately make sounds using their wings, for example the mute swan can make a humming sound and the red grouse can make a dramatic whirring which is used to startle attackers.

Clapping and zooming sounds are used by other birds as part of mating display and broadbills make a sound which has been called a ‘stylized wing beat’ by an ornithologist.

The crested crested pigeon has a very unusual eighth primary wing feather which produces high note when the bird starts to fly and is used as an alarm call.  The noise is made as they fly away from danger and the faster they fly the higher the pitch which means other crested pigeons know that the threat is getting closer.  You can listen to the difference between normal flight sounds and alarm flight sounds on Science News.

Tail feathers

Not content with its fancy decoration, the peacock agitates his tail feathers to make a rustling clattering noise as part of their mating display.

The snipe creates a bleating or whinnying sound with special tail feathers.  During courtship, they spread them during dives as as they head to earth they beat them in a specific way to create the sound.  Anna’s Hummingbirds also use tail feathers to create their mating song as they dive.

And then there’s the sage grouse…

Possibly the strangest sound made by birds is a popping noise which the sage grouse creates as part of his mating display.  They use their air-sacs both in display but also to make the popping which can carry up to 3km and which is apparently very attractive to a female sage grouse…

Bird song; Music and Literature (Part three)

Aside: I’ll be looking at birds in culture in more detail, here I’m focusing on bird song.       

Bird song in music

Birdsong has influenced music in a number of ways; as inspiration, as examples of music and as part of the music itself.  Whilst the tunes of many songbirds have no doubt played a role in a number of compositions, the nightingale and the cuckoo have been particularly influential.  Their songs have been used by Handel, Beethoven and many other works.  The nightingale is often held up as an example of a melodic, talented singer whilst the cuckoo has a very distinctive call.

Possibly the first piece of music involving a recorded birdsong was by an Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi who would later create pieces which imitated the dove, the hen, the nightingale and the cuckoo.

The BBC’s first outside broadcast was in 1924 and was of Beatrice Harrison playing her cello alongside singing nightingales.

A couple of other notable uses of birdsong in music include Pink Floyd’s use of bird sound effects in their 1969 albums and in 2005 Kate Bush used bird calls in her 2005 album.

As music isn’t my area of expertise, here are a few. links to more info:

Bird song in literature

This is much more comfortable ground for me!  When it comes to literature, from what I’ve seen and read, bird song is more likely to be used in poetry.  It can be in the form of words which try to capture the sound but it can also be the topic of a poem or the inspiration for it, for example Ode to a Nightingale.

When it comes to writing down bird song, it can be a tricky matter.  There are various kinds of notation which are used and obviously those more musically talented can attempt to convert them into note formation but what of the writer?

In Tarka the Otter, Williamson did a good job of capturing the sound of both animals and birds, with the heron crying ‘kra-a-ark’ and the ‘skirr-rr’ of barn owls, and ‘cur-lee-eek!’ of curlews.  E. B. White, in The Trumpet of the Swan, has cygnets making ‘beeps’ and adult swans ‘Ko-hoh, ko-hoh!’.  Thomas Nashe’s poem Spring, the Sweet Spring, has birds singing ‘Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo’.  All of these add greatly to the specificity of the species being written about.  In Tarka the Otter, where the animals do not speak, their calls provide the reader with a small suggestion of their character, something which really enhances the story.

Another theme is that of poets comparing themselves to birds, their poems like their songs.

“Sir, we are a nest of singing birds”
– Samuel Johnson

“A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Again, we find the nightingale as a symbol of birdsong and emblematic of tuneful music.  The nightingale is an elusive creature that is best known for night singing.  Perhaps this element of mystery and romance is what entices poets to identify with this bird?  It may also feed into the image of the poet, awake through the night, solitary and unappreciated or that they simply must ‘sing’, without need of an audience, simply to exist.

Bird song can be used as a symbol or a cipher, both in poetry and prose, to provide the reader with context.  The call of an owl suggests night, the twitter of a blackbird suggests dawn and the chatter of an exotic parrot suggests a more tropical location.  The noting of bird song also suggests that other ambient noise is low enough that the narrator can hear the birds, or the birds are close enough to him or her.  Equally, absence of bird song can be a powerful tool.  We can learn a lot from a character’s reaction to lack of bird song – are they shocked, is this normal for their world?  And in a world where bird song is not a feature, how do characters react to the sound of it?  Are they shocked?  Amazed?  Terrified?

The Birds of Killingworth by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was written in 1863 and tells of a place which was filled with birds:

The robin and the bluebird, piping loud,
  Filled all the blossoming orchards with their glee;
The sparrows chirped as if they still were proud
  Their race in Holy Writ should mentioned be;
And hungry crows assembled in a crowd,
  Clamored their piteous prayer incessantly,
Knowing who hears the ravens cry, and said:
“Give us, O Lord, this day our daily bread!” 

But then, because of the crops they destroyed and such, the citizens decided to kill all the birds.  This obviously doesn’t go well and they end up having to import birds.  Reactions to the singing of these new residents is mixed and clearly reflects the mental state of the listeners:

From all the country round these birds were brought,
  By order of the town, with anxious quest,
And, loosened from their wicker prisons, sought
  In woods and fields the places they loved best,
Singing loud canticles, which many thought
  Were satires to the authorities addressed,
While others, listening in green lanes, averred
Such lovely music never had been heard! 

Imagine a world without birdsong…  Well for some birds, this is the case.  Whilst most birds can make calls of some sort, storks, pelicans and some vultures are voiceless and I’ll be looking at other forms of communication in my next post.

Bird song; copycats (part two)

Whilst some birds have a beautiful repertoire of songs, others go one step further and steal, or mimic, tunes.  The lyrebird is an interesting example of such a bird:

David Attenborough describes it’s song as elaborate and complex and it most certainly is.  As well as borrowing melodies from other birds, it incorporates other sounds of the landscape into it’s tune, including manmade sounds such as camera shutters.

How birds learn to sing is covered in numerous scientific papers and textbooks but from what I’ve gleamed, most birds combine nature and nuture.  That is, they have an innate song within them but they enhance this throughout their lives starting with the songs they hear from their parents and adding to this as they get older and have more life experience.

Take for example the lyrebird.  If they lyrebird from the video clip had babies then they would hear the collection of sounds and would learn to sing them.  As the lyrebird chicks get older, they will hear different sounds, perhaps a mobile ringing, a car speeding past or a differernt species of bird.  They will then incorporate these sounds into their own song.  This means that each lyrebird potentially has a slightly different collection of noises at their disposal, a map of their life as it were. And the transmition from parent to child means that the song of the lyrebird could be considered a cultural history of the lineage of that particular bird.  I love that idea.  Of course, some of this is just my own speculation but it is this concept which is behind the phrase genetic memory on the oracle card.

Other birds which imitate calls include mockingbirds, starlings and marsh warblers.

But why do they mimic?  Well, hypotheses have been made that it makes the bird more attractive to other birds as it increases their range of songs.  It could also be to protect against predators – if you can made a noise that the predator would fear then you’re going to be a lot safer.  It might be related to territory, if you pretend to be a more dangerous species you might face less competition (assuming of course they can’t see you).  In the case of birds, like cuckoos, who lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, mimicry would mean that the babies would be less likely to be evicted.

Talking birds

Pet songbirds and parrots have been shown to mimic human speech but it’s not confined to captive birds.  On occasion when these birds have entered the wild, other birds have picked up words and phrases from them.  There are also cases where wild parrots in Australia have mimicked human speech picked up from the park where they reside, resulting in the odd “Hello darling” and “What’s happening?”.

Some birds have been forced to perform their talent repeatedly and have been promoted as talking but whether they understand what they are saying is another issue all together.

Human copycats

Humans have long been fascinated by birds and their songs and human imitation of birdsong dates back millennia.  In the early 20th century, with the advent of recording equipment, records began to be released of both bird song and of human imitations.

Composers such as Beethoven have created pieces which intentionally imitate bird song, others have incorporated recordings of birds into their work and some musicians have even duetted with birds.

Next time I’ll be looking at how bird song has influenced human culture including our music and literature.

Bird song; who, why, when (part 1)

When I started to think about what to look into this month, bird song was an obvious choice.  There’s been many a morning when, at 3am, unable to sleep, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing a little tweet coming from outside and it has been very comforting.  What I didn’t realise is just how many subtopics there are when it comes to bird song…

Why do birds sing? How do they sing?  How do humans interact with bird song?  How are bird songs represented in music, poetry and literature?  How do birds hear songs?  Do they hear them the same as we do?  What is it like for bird watchers who lose their hearing?  How else to birds communicate?  What about birds who can’t sing?

So many questions!

Spoiler: I won’t be answering them all!

Today I managed to photograph the allotment robin

Who, why and when?

I was going to include how but it’s very technical and there’s lots of websites out there that will explain it much better than I can…


Well, firstly, there’s a common misconception that it’s only the female birds which sing.  In the UK in general, it isn’t.  And as a disclaimer, everything I’m saying here is generalised, there are a lot of birds out there and there are exceptions and I’m sure there are still many bird species left for science to discover.  So yes, in general, it’s the male birds which sing.  In the UK.  Well, in Europe and the Americas.  In the tropics and parts of Australia and Africa, females often sing as much as males.  And some of this is to do with why birds sing.

But not all birds sing, or call.  Some communicate in other ways or complement their vocalisations with other displays.


This question has some straightforward answers but I’d also like to add a note that we aren’t inside a birds mind so we can’t know why it does everything, perhaps some birds just like the sound of their own voice.  The scientifically researched answers are to attract mates and to hold territory.  There are also alarm calls.

Before I look at this in a bit more depth, I want to consider what bird song actually conveys to the bird who is listening.  Firstly, it tells the listener who is singing, that includes what species they are and can include which individual is singing.  It also says where the singer is, giving detail about direction and distance.  And it gives the listener information about the quality of the singer.  All of these are important things if you are a bird.

When it comes to areas where females sing as well, we find that there is less seasonality and this means there isn’t a breeding season as such.  Because some years food can be scarce, these birds need to mate when conditions are right, regardless of the time of year.  It is thought that singing, especially duetting, brings both the males and females into ‘season’ and hence they can reproduce.

In areas where the males are the ones who sing, they do so to attract mates – and hence it’s useful for the female listener to know that the male is the same species.  Their singing advertises their attributes and the best singer gets the best mate.  Experiments suggest that the quality of a males song is related to their sexual fitness and hence an indicator of how well his young will fare.  It’s also been shown that parasites and diseases may affect his song and thus are a helpful sign of his health.  Songs can also signal other characteristics such as their exploration behaviour which gives insight into their boldness, dominance, their foraging skills and their ability to learn.  In Great Tits, the repertoire size and singing activity (the number of songs) have been shown to be important in mating selection, with the latter being a reflection on the males exploitative behaviour.

When it comes to territory, the information shared in the song is crucial.  If you hear a bird singing nearby, you need to use the location information to establish if it’s within your territory.  There is no point wasting energy fighting off another bird who isn’t actually a threat to your land.  If it’s borderline then knowing who is singing is important.  If it’s a neighbour, you will react differently than if it’s a stranger.  Long term neighbours are probably not a threat to your territory – you’ve got a mutual understanding that you don’t push the boundaries if they don’t.  If it’s a stranger on the other hand, you’re going to need to get ready to confront them.  And singing is one of the tools in your toolkit.  If your song tells the intruder that you’re strong and tough and ready for a fight they will hopefully back down before further measures need taking.

When it comes to alarm calls, the message can be specific with one type of call to warn of a ground predator, another to warn of aerial ones.  Sometimes other species of birds have learnt to react to these alarm calls.

Another use for song is to help birds ‘see’ in the dark.  These types of vocalisations are used by species which live in caves like swiftlets.


Obviously some of the answers to why birds sing will answer the question of when they sing.  We know now that birds sing to attract mates, so will sing during breeding season.  They also sing to stand their ground or warn of threats and this are going to happen to some extent all year round.  But in terms of time of day, the most popular time for birds to sing is the dawn chorus, about 40 minutes after day break.  Having said that some species start before this including the wren, robin, song thrush and blackbird.

Of course, nocturnal birds will sing at night and in the UK, this includes owls, nightingales, corncrakes and nightjars.

In part two, I’m going to be looking at mimicry and after that, bird song in human culture.