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Home Birds & People Folklore
Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

From earliest times, people developed superstitions about birds. Ideas that birds had special powers or that a bird's presence had special meaning came about because birds can do something humans can't: they can FLY!

For example, many people believed that birds regularly soared in and out of Heaven and were therefore connected to God.

Here are just a few examples of humankind's beliefs about birds. You'll see that a species might be feared by one culture and revered by another. Some of these ideas are still held by people today.

Magpie Mythology
The people of China (past and present) believe that the presence of a magpie brings happiness, unlimited opportunities, and good luck.

But people who lived in 18th and 19th century Britain thought the opposite. In their belief, magpies were Satan in disguise. Any person who saw a magpie was urged to cross his or her fingers to ward off the evil.

Top, American Robin; bottom, Great-horned Owl

Top, American Robin; bottom, Great-horned Owl
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

Robin Reports
19th century American schoolboys feared they'd suffer a broken bone if they harmed a robin.

Today, robins are welcomed as one of the first signs of spring.

Owl Ideas
More than any other bird, owls play starring roles in mystical folklore. This may be because of their nighttime wanderings, their eerie gift of silent flight, or simply their large, human-like eyes that seem to stare so intently. Whatever the reason, beliefs about owls abound around the world.

Native Americans, in particular, had very strong superstitions regarding owls. The Apache tribe of North America viewed owls as the most frightening of all birds. Owls filled Apache people with foreboding because the birds were believed to be the embodiment of their dead. Apache people believed that misfortune followed the person who sighted an owl. This belief still prevails among some Apache people today.

The Oglala Sioux people, on the other hand, revered owls – the Snowy Owl in particular. A triumphant warrior was allowed to wear a cap of owl feathers as a status symbol. One old-time society of the Sioux people was called The Owl Lodge. This society believed that nature's forces would favor those who wore owl feathers and that as a result of wearing the feathers their powers of vision would be increased.

Other Bird Beliefs

  • The people of Indonesia viewed owls as wise beings whose different calls advised people when to travel.
  • In Britain, seeing an owl just before harvest was thought to be a sign of good yields.
  • The Inuit people of Greenland view owls as a source of guidance and help.


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