Feeding the birds

On our way home from the vets last week we stopped in a café to break the journey. While sitting with our sandwich we noticed that there were groups of sparrows and robins watching us expectantly. We duly obliged by tearing off bit of bread for the birds to enjoy. It was clear that the local bird population had learnt that this was a good place to hang out as it was pretty likely that they would be fed.

Looking beyond the birds, who were tame enough to eat out of your hand, I noticed the faces of the other patrons of the café. It was clear that everyone else, old and young, were enjoying doing the exact same thing. Everyone was sharing their lunches with their feathered friends and thoroughly enjoying doing so. This is a long-standing pastime which has pleased people through the ages. Feeding the ducks is a common way to spend a pleasant afternoon in the park for town dwellers and Julie Andrews sang about the pleasures in the song “Feed the birds (tuppence a bag)” in the film Mary Poppins.

It lead me to think; “Why do we enjoy feeding the animals?” This is not the same as feeding farm stock, or pets. There is clear necessity to feed these animals and there are clear rewards also in terms of produce or affection. However, we seem to get pleasure from the simple act of feeding animals. I am aware that feeding often allows us to appreciate the beauty of these animals up close, and more easily than if we did not feed them, but I think it is more than this. These were sparrows which were capturing the attention of the cafe-goers not finely plumed, exotic birds of paradise.

I think the song gives us a clue as the reasons for our pleasure. In the song we are encouraged to spend money to feed the birds because :-

Come, buy my bags full of crumbs;
Come feed the little birds,
Show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do
Their young ones are hungry
Their nests are so bare
All it takes is tuppence from you
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag
Feed the birds,
” that’s what she cries
While overhead, her birds fill the skies
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it,
You know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares

The pleasure we get from this activity is primarily being able to act well, being able to be kind and benevolent. In days when the media tends to spend an inordinate amount of time reminding us how badly people can behave it was pleasant to watch people revealed a truer aspect of our nature. As a species we have an inbuilt tendency and nature to want to help and care for others; not just for ourselves, our family and friends, but of all other people and even for animals of other species. It is in our nature to do this and it is very important to us. We need to be thought of as good we can not exist without it.

When I worked as a doctor I saw many people coping with a whole variety of differing illnesses. I was struck by how well people endured these. No matter how painful and distressing, no matter how disabling or disfiguring, the vast majority of people soldiered on bravely. Thoughts of suicide, and requests for euthanasia, were remarkably rare. On the other hand when I attended patients with depressive disorders the situation was much worse. When these patients were troubled by ideas of guilt or shame, when they felt isolated and removed from the affections of others, when they no longer felt themselves to be good people thoughts and acts of suicide became distressingly common.

As a species we need to feel that we are viewed as good. We need to know we are worthy of affection and love. We gain a lot more pleasure from being benevolent than through gratitude, as they say, it is better to give than receive. Feeding the birds reminds us of this important side to our nature. It is probably true to say that without the knowledge that we can be ‘good’ life is not worth living.


I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Acts 20:35

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi or Two Black Crows good luck for me was the idiom in the diary this morning. I lead me to think about the diversity of bird imagery in folklore and also how it differs in different national cultures. This latter aspect has become important for me as I now live, rather hesitantly, bilingually and the symbolic significance of birds, or other animals, in one language may be very different in the other. Birds have quite different connotations in English and Welsh.

Crows, with their association with carrion, are often related to death and bad omens in English cultures. Early cultures would have soon learnt that where there is death there are crows. This is also seen in Norse mythology where these birds are seen as a bad omen of death and doom. Although Odin’s ravens were also messengers of information. In Scotland the “Corbie” (the Scots word for the crow derived from the latin corvus) was associated with the hag Cailleach who feasted on dead mens’ bodies. In Irish folklore Morrighan the goddess of war was often present on the battlefield in this bird’s form. The collective nouns, in English also reveal this negative set, being ‘an unkindness of ravens‘ and ‘a murder of crows’.

However, as the motto above suggests, in Welsh the crow and raven have had much better publicists. The early king, Brân the Blessed, was associated with his namesake the crow (Crow is Brân in Welsh) . When he died he ordered that his head be cut off, and kept, so he could continue his gift of prophesy and protect Britain. His head is said it is buried under the Tower ot London and is the reason the ravens are there. The prophesy states, if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London then Brân‘s protection will be lost, and for this reason the ravens wings are clipped – just to be sure.

This complex mythology about the crow is shared with another bird of this genus – the magpie. In both cases to see one is unlucky while seeing a pair is lucky. The ‘rule’ for crows is

Two crows mean good luck ,
Three means health,
Four means wealth,
Five is sickness,
Six mean death.

and this is reminiscent of the old tale for magpies where the earliest version was :-

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

The owl likewise if very different. In most English speaking cultures the owl receives a good press. Its wisdom and sagacity are stressed and it is usually a positive figure in any folk tale. Most people think that seeing an owl is associated with good luck. However, in Wales, and in older English stories, the owl has a much darker meaning and an owl passing the window of a sick person was held to presage imminent death.

The owl plays an important part in Welsh mythology particularly in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogi. In the last book of the Mabinogi the hero, Lleu Llaw Gyffes , was under a spell so that he could never have a human wife. To get around this problem his magicians created a wife for him :-

from..” the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they baptized her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuwedd. “

Unfortunately, despite her beauty, Blodeuwedd behaves very badly cheating on her husband and conspiring to kill him. As punishment she is turned into an owl, the bird that is hated by all other birds :-

‘You will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day ever again, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name – that will always be “Bloddeuwedd”‘

adding

‘Blodeuwedd” means “owl” in the language of today. And it is because of that there is hostility between birds and owls, and the owl is still known as Blodeuwedd.” ‘

You may not consider these mythological differences important but sometimes they can make a difference. Just as the French may compliment their partner by calling her their ‘petit chou it is unlikely that I will garner the same success by calling my partner a ‘small cabbage’ no matter how fond of cabbage I may be. So while you might feel on safe ground choosing a bird loved the world over, for example the dove, it is not as simple as this. In Welsh an old dove (Hen glomen) is the term for someone who may dress finely outside but keeps a dirty house at home ( Gwraig sy’n ymwisgo’n wych, ond yn slwt yn ei thŷ). It may also be better that I don’t even translate another old bird as it is too rude for WordPress. If I were to venture that somebody was an ‘old pigeon’ I could just have well used the word for a female dog as my description – best avoided.

If you live between two languages it is best not to imagine that you can simply translate your affections from one tongue to the other. This may mean a little more learning but does mean you will have more words of affection (and abuse) at your disposal.