Wednesday, June 26

Bird myths in Britain and Borneo


A magpie rests on a fence. – Photo by Garry Knight

IN folklore, passed down through generations, birds play a prominent part. For instance, in Britain two magpies bring good luck whereas a single magpie is an ill omen. I remember well, on the morning of my father’s early death, visiting his older sisters to break the sad news. One aunt, a devout Christian, said, “I know your father passed away for there was only one magpie in my garden this morning instead of two!”

I well remember from my childhood the myth related to seeing flocks of redwings in local farmers’ fields in midwinter time. These were migratory birds from Central Europe that had alighted in the far Southwest of England to escape the severe snowstorms that had hit their home areas. Their appearance in Cornwall was always just prior to an extension of a European anticyclonic ridge of high pressure about to invade Britain, with heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures aggravated by bitterly cold easterly winds.

In 1963, in a neighbouring county, Devon, several villages on the margins of Exmoor were totally cut off by very heavy snowfalls for nearly six weeks. Royal Airforce helicopters flew in food drops to the inhabitants, sheep and cattle, for roads were impassable through three-metre high snow drifts. Elderly folk who had died during this time were temporarily buried in the snow, to be exhumed later when the snow melted, to be given proper burials. Two weeks before the beginning of the snowstorms red wings had been spotted in the fields.

Magpie (Pica pica)

These distinctive crows, with bluish black heads, tails and legs and white chests and sides are frequent invaders of British gardens and even have the audacity to fly in through open windows to steal any glittering object in a room. They are kleptomaniacs and I have witnessed one recently chasing smaller birds away from my hanging bird feeders and flying off with a fat-ball in its claws to its nearby nest. Their chattering calls and colourings suggest a mixture of a black raven and a white dove. Whilst devouring food, the magpie has a habit of fluttering its tail in an upwards direction. Frequently I spot them in country lanes busily feeding, as carrion crows, off the road traffic victims – dead grey squirrels and rabbits.

Many rhymes, derived from myths, are associated in different parts of Britain according to the number of magpies spotted at one time. Thus, “One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a wedding, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret never to be told.” I am hoping to see five or six magpies at some time in my life but so far such a treat has thus eluded me.

Magpies are omnivorous and aggressive birds with ever increasing numbers and, perhaps falsely, the decline of some species of songbird has been attributed to them. In the county of Somerset, where I now live, they are known locally as ‘chatterpies’ whereas, in Cornwall, my birth place, they are given the more gracious name of ’Cornish pheasants’.

Cornish chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Distinguishable from other members of the crow family by its jet black plumage, red legs and red curved beak, it once bred in large numbers in Cornwall and is still seen on that county’s coat of arms, but infrequently in the wild. Feeding mainly on worms and insects which it ‘beaks out’ of the short turf on exposed granite cliff-tops, its population declined allegedly due to the demise of underground, deep shaft, tin mining in Cornwall. It is more likely that its habitat and feeding grounds were disrupted by the creation of coastal paths near the cliff edges to generate tourist and visitor income in the 20th century. These birds nest in crevices in the granite cliff edges. In the 19th century at one small town in West Cornwall, Marazion, choughs would annually congregate en masse before the breeding season and were thus named ‘Market Jew crows’. Nowadays, that town is plagued with seagulls nesting in chimney pots.

Apart from relatively recently reintroduced families of choughs to the Lizard Peninsula, they may be seen on the cliffs of Pembrokeshire (Southwest Wales) and in the Channel Islands. On one of those islands, Guernsey, the appearance of a chough signified bad luck and was linked to witchcraft. In both Pembrokeshire and Cornish legends, King Arthur arose from his dreams, in a cliff cave, disguised as a chough to do battle with invading forces.

Sacred birds of Borneo

In Iban folklore, Singalang Burung’s thoughts were recorded thus, “I am the ruler of the spirit world and have the power to make men successful. In all the work you undertake you must pay heed to the voices of sacred birds.” Singalang Burung was the bravest god of war and in his earthly form, disguised as a bird, the Brahminy kite, he conveyed warning messages to the Ibans. Today in Kenyah and Iban this bird has been usurped by the supreme avian god in both cultures: the rhinoceros hornbill. Ancient Iban woodcarvings and wooden war shields depict this bird as a sign of invisibility and, indeed, it is the state bird of Sarawak.

Rhinoceros hornbills on a branch interact. — Photo by Fabio Pistillo

Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)

Seventeen years ago, I first saw these magnificent birds, in a flock, at dusk as they flew across the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah. Distinguishable by the rapid succession of their roaring calls and the whooshing sound of their wings and the white tips to their tails, they were en route to their nests in the trees bordering the river.

Two years later, I saw one perching on a tree branch, in secondary forest in the Stutong area of Kuching, shortly before that woodland was cleared for urban development. My teaching colleagues doubted me and suggested that I must have been hallucinating. I know what I saw!

These birds are between 91 and 122 centimetres long and are named after their reddish yellow horns protruding upwards beyond their whitish beaks. This horn or ‘casque’, made of keratin, is hollow inside and is slightly larger in the male species. To the Dayak community, it represented a sign of virility and male dominance, no doubt derived from its habit of imprisoning its mate in a dark hollow in an emergent primary forest tree at breeding time.

Usually they nest in such holes near the top of the forest canopy and seal the entrance to the nest with their sticky bird droppings. The nest is almost glued together with just one hole, through which the incubating hen can receive the male’s regurgitated food deliveries and for her excretion purposes.

Beyond this nest, the cock hornbill builds an outer nest of mud which is soon baked hard. The hen and her eggs are thus well protected from raiders such as monkeys and snakes.

As Sabah has been named as ‘The land below the winds’, so Sarawak has acquired the noble title of ‘The land of the hornbills’. In neon lights, effigies of hornbills hang from lampposts welcoming weary travellers home at night and by day we pass by modern artistic metal sculptures of hornbills in Kuching and the huge effigy at Damai Central.

There are many other animistic beliefs related to Borneo’s abundant bird species, some of which have been passed down over many generations.

Most of these are related to the fact that birds had the faculty of flight, envied by man, to flap their wings and fly away from danger, yet warning us by their squawks of the dangers they had perceived. These legends must not be lost.

Our parents and grandparents who are still alive are often sources of such stories which we should record in writing for posterity and for future generations of our families’ archives.

A Brahminy kite soars in the sky. – Photo by Jim Bendon