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Feathered friends or foes? Eight birds, rich in myth and folklore…

From Hitchcock’s The Birds to ravens in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, birds have offered a rich – and at times dark – source of inspiration for writers. For Radio 3’s Free Thinking Will Abberley picks out eight varieties which have captured storytellers’ imaginations through the ages…

1. Duck

With their ungraceful waddle and loud quack, ducks have symbolised human stupidity in literature. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling portrays them as narrow-minded bullies, unable to appreciate the cygnet that will grow into a beautiful swan.

Similarly, in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, the title character is shown to be dangerously naïve. Jemima allows a fox to lure her to his home where he plans to eat her.

2. Seagull

In Daphne du Maurier’s short story, The Birds – on which Alfred Hitchcock's horror film of the same name was based – seagulls lead a charge of homicidal birds, driven by some mysterious impulse to attack people. The human characters struggle to survive the birds’ onslaught by boarding up their home’s windows and other points of entry.

In the context of 1950s Britain, the flocks of airborne attackers evoke the bombing raids and kamikaze pilots of the Second World War. The theme continues to this day: in a bid to stop seagulls attacking holidaymakers for food, Plymouth council recently brought in powers to fine people who feed them.

3. Raven

Ravens crop up in Greek, Celtic, Norse and Classical mythology. In Greek myths they were messengers of Apollo to the mortal world – and symbols of good luck. While the messenger role is consistent down the centuries, ravens, with their jet black plumage and coarse cries, are more often regarded as harbingers of doom – for example, England will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London (their wings are clipped, just to make sure).

Ravens are Wotan's news-gatherers in Wagner's Ring; and in the epic TV drama, Game of Thrones, the raven assumes its traditonal role as messenger: and one of the characters, Bran Stark [Bran meant "raven" in medieval Ireland], dreams of a raven to guide him on a quest.

4. Robin

Although this bird can be territorial and highly aggressive, folk tradition typically presented it as kind and even holy. The robin’s red breast was imagined to be a bloodstain received when it tried to help Christ on the cross by plucking out his crown of thorns.

The folktale Babes in the Wood depicts robins which show pity for two children who become lost in a wood; after the children starve to death, the robins cover their bodies with leaves, forming shrouds.

5. Cuckoo

The cuckoo’s habit of laying eggs in other birds’ nests has caused it to become a symbol of infidelity. In Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost, the cuckoo’s call is described as “unpleasing to a married ear”, as though the bird were taunting husbands. Indeed, the word cuckold derives from the French name for the bird: cucu.

6. Blackbird

If you were to believe various myths and folktales, you’d find this solitary, territorial bird to be imbued with evil and supernatural powers. Welsh poet R. S. Thomas observed that there was “a suggestion of dark Places” about the blackbird that was at odds with its beautiful song.

In the story of the life of Saint Benedict, the Devil was said to have come to tempt the saint in the form of a blackbird.

The English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” involves blackbirds “baked in a pie” which reanimate and sing when the pie is opened. One then flies out and pecks off the nose of a maid.

7. Kingfisher

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described the kingfisher’s rapid descent as “catch[ing] fire”, reflecting the orange blur which it created in his vision. In Greek mythology, kingfishers represented peace and prosperity. This was due to the belief that they laid eggs and nested only during calm weather.

8. Kestrel

This bird of prey has long served as a symbol of hunting and the ruthlessness of the natural world. The poet Ted Hughes described the kestrel as a kind of supernatural “hallucination”, due to its eerie ability to hover in one spot “in the streaming air”.

The bird also has a strong symbolic presence in Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave, which inspired Ken Loach’s film Kes. For the poor, bullied schoolboy Billy Casper, the kestrel represents freedom and independence.

Free Thinking: Radio 3 New Generation Thinker Will Abberley discusses his exhibition exploring birds in British literature, now showing at Brighton's Booth Museum of Natural History.

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