British folklore is full of the belief in omens, mysterious or recurring incidents that warn of imminent death or some other misfortune. The form these portents take date back to antiquity, perhaps into our Celtic past and often feature both natural and supernatural birds.
It is said the Druids would determine the future through the flight patterns of birds. The entrails of birds were also used for divination and at least one ancient sect used for the same purpose a chicken pecking grain from an occult diagram drawn out on the floor. Perhaps this is why fowl of various kinds feature so strongly in the folklore of omens.
We are all familiar with the curse placed on the Ancient Mariner for killing an albatross and many of us today still salute a single magpie to ward off bad luck. The owl, as a creature of the night, was considered particularly eerie and unlucky. Seeing one perched on the roof of the house was a warning that the person living there was doomed to shortly die. An owl screeching persistently near a house was a similar portent, as was the persistent croaking of a raven. Ravens and crows were generally treated as birds of ill omen. For example, it was considered unlucky for a crow to fall down your chimney.
But even the comfortable, domestic hen could become an eerie forecaster of doom. A hen crowing like a cock was considered a sure sign of impending misfortune, even death, to the family it belonged to. In Wales, a hen laying two eggs in the same day was also a sign of death; the laying of an unusually small egg was also unlucky.
At one time the Welsh seem to have been morbidly interested in death omens: in their folklore, the number of incidents or appearances which could be considered harbingers of death seems endless. They even dreamt up a spectral bird especially for the purpose, the aderyn corff or ‘corpse bird’, which would flap against the window of a room where anyone lay dying. A Pembrokeshire woman, Miss Griffiths, told folklorist John Ceredig Davies that she saw the aderyn corff fluttering at the window just before her father died. She described the bird as ‘a little grey one’.
Perhaps the most famous birds of ill omen are the strange white fowl said to appear flying over Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, whenever a Bishop of Salisbury is about to die. This tradition may have begun as recently as 1885, however, when the then bishop’s daughter, Miss Anne Moberley, reported that she saw large white birds suddenly fly up from the palace garden while her father lay dying.
Miss Moberley said she had heard of white birds coming from far and wide to roost on the house where a 15th century Bishop of Salisbury lay in state, but she gave no authority for this legend. Decades later, in 1911, Wiltshire writer Edith Olivier claimed she saw ‘two very large white birds floating over Hurdcott meadow without moving their wings’ the day another bishop died.