The days are getting shorter and the evenings colder and rainier. We’re slipping into the dark time of year and Halloween can’t be far away. Yet October always brings its own avian pleasure, listening to owls hooting to each other in the evening and early morning.
I find the hooting of the Great-horned and Barred Owls soothing, but the vocalizations of juvenile owls can be almost blood-curdling. The same can be said for the Barn Owl’s shriek. It’s no surprise that those vocalizations, coming as the season darkens, have led to superstition and myth.
More than 2,000 years ago the Romans thought of owls as messengers of death and associated them with witches. From Chaucer to Shakespeare, owls have been depicted as harbingers of misfortune.
Owls aren’t the only birds accused of bringing ill fortune. Any bird found dead on the path leading to your house might be counted as an evil omen. And it’s considered bad luck to find a bird in your house, dead or alive.
One rather obscure British belief suggests that if a bird settles on the property of a person with the same name as the bird, then only bad luck will follow. The Robins and Jays living on Whidbey could be in for trouble.
Magpies, those handsome, black and white, swashbuckling birds of Eastern Washington and throughout the mountainous West, have a whole litany of superstition surrounding them. These rather sinister thieves travel in groups prompting this rhyme. The number of magpies in the flock will determine your fate.
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven you’ll see the devil himself.
In other parts of Britain, if this long-tailed corvid landed on your roof it was considered a good omen. The reasoning being that this wise bird would not settle onto a building that was structurally unsafe.
Magpies are not all bad news. One old magpie myth dates back to the 12th century. It says that a chattering magpie foretells a stranger coming to the door. Since magpies will often call out a distress signal to alert other birds when a predator approaches, one can see the bit of truth that may have sparked this myth.
Often knowing the reasoning behind the superstitions gives them some credibility. For example, my friend Sooja told me a bird myth from her native Korea. If a flock of crows shows up in the front yard, it means someone will die. In Sooja’s family, this happened right before her ill cousin passed on. She suggested that perhaps the scavenging crows could smell the dying person. The crows also fulfilled the traditional role of carrying away the soul of the deceased person.
As we move into the Halloween season, we should remember that not all owl myths demonize the poor birds. An Amish belief claimed that if you placed the right foot and the heart of a Barn Owl on a sleeping person, it would compel them to tell the truth. In China, owls were considered “thunder-averters.” Ornaments that resembled owls were placed on the tops of roofs to ward off fires.
Closer to home. we often see fake owls perched on the corner of a roof or pole to keep away unwanted birds. Does it work, I wonder, or are we still lingering under an owl myth?
If you’re looking for good luck, you’ll have to wait until next spring. The bluebird will bring joy and Barn Swallows nesting over your front door bring good luck, but neither will return from their southern wintering grounds for another five months.
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