Migration was a controversial issue until evidence around it began to be accumulated. It was generally believed that birds either hibernated or turned into other species for the winter although I have also read about birds retiring underwater for the winter*. The latter of these theories might have led to or propagated myths around the barnacle goose. Bird ringing, over 100 years ago, eventually gave us evidence that birds migrate but we still have limited knowledge about this, especially for more elusive species.
It was Aristotle I believe who first posited the idea that birds hibernated, in particular he mentioned swallows, and there is written evidence of this belief well into modern times. Of course we now hold swallows up as one of the icons of migration, flying to South Africa and back each year. That said, a particular beautiful idea, not limited to swallows, is that of flying off to the moon each year. This was captured in John Dryden’s poem The Hind and The Panther (1687). Obvious poetic license does not mean he believed it but given I’ve read about the same idea for geese and a few other birds it does seem possible that it was a reasonably common conception.
They try their fluttering wings, and trust themselves in air.
But whether upward to the moon they go,
Or dream the winter out in caves below,
Or hawk at flies elsewhere, concerns us not to know.
Southwards you may be sure they bent their flight,
And harboured in a hollow rock at night;
John Gay also writes of swallow migration in the late 17th or early 18th century:
He sung where woodcocks in the summer feed,
And in what climates they renew their breed;
Some think to northern coasts their flight tend,
Or to the moon in midnight hours ascend:
When swallows in the winter season keep,
And how the drowsy bat and dormouse sleep.
Because migratory birds are so clearly in tune with the seasons, they are often celebrated for bringing the spring and equally vilified for bringing winter. As we saw with the cuckoo, this led to particular species being considered to have foresight. This also led our ancestors to build their calendar around birds.
For example, in the case of ducks and geese, the Dakota people refer to the May moon as the moon when the flying game returns. For the Megwanipis, the duck represents midsummer, July is the moon when they begin to moult and when the ducklings take flight, it is the August moon.
A lovely belief around migration was that larger birds, such as cranes, carried smaller birds on their backs. Apparently the cranes tolerated this because the song of the small birds was so beautiful. It was also said that cranes would swallow stones before they set off on migration to prevent them from getting blown off course.
Sir Walter Scott depicts a nice scene when he tells of nuns in Whitby Abbey who were visited by birds, tired from flight across the North Sea, who landed there not for rest but instead as a pilgrimage to the abbey.
But possibly my favourite idea, from a creative perspective, is that birds changed species. This makes sense when you consider that at points in the year some species would disappear and others, including similar looking birds, would suddenly appear. You’d never see them together and hence there may be the possibility that, like Clark Kent and Superman, they are one and the same. I’ve had an idea for a piece of art for a couple of years now which pivots on the idea that cuckoos turned into sparrowhawks in the autumn. It was also thought that redstarts turned into robins and garden warblers into blackcaps.
Finally, and possibly the strangest of explanations, beating even the annual trips to the moon, is the explanation for cranes:
The Common Crane breeds in the marshlands of northern Europe and Asia and makes yearly migrations into Turkey, Iraq, and even down into Sudan and Ethiopia. But, as early as Homer’s Iliad, we find the strange notion that cranes are annually at war at the far ends of the earth with Pygmies. In Homer’s epic, the Trojan army is compared to the
shriek of cranes down from heaven
who flee the winter and the terrible rains
and fly off to the world’s end
bringing death and doom to the Pygmy-men
as they open fierce battle at dawn.
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder reports an already ancient factoid that these pygmies fight the cranes with arrows while mounted on goats and rams. They must spend a good three months of the year eating the cranes’ eggs and chicks; otherwise, they would never survive the terrible onslaught of the birds, Pliny tells us.
- Folklore Thursday: Redwings and Bramblings: A Gap in the Lore of Our Winter Migrant Birds
- National Geographic Interview with the authors of Birds: Myth, Lore and Legends
- A-wing and a-way
- Ancient explanations of bird migration
*A 16th century archbishop even recorded that fishermen had been seen pulling up sleeping swallows in their nets.