In the northern hemisphere, many of us are longing for the arrival of spring, and there are no more welcome heralds of spring than birds—the increased movements of those that braved the winter and the return of those that sought warmer lands for a time.
Birds are enigmatic. They are wild animals and yet they are ubiquitous, living in cities around the world, in the seas, in forests and swamps, and even at the frozen poles.
A few years ago, I was crazy enough to go outside before dawn on a very cold, nearing-the-end-of-winter day, when I saw a large group of birds feeding on the ground of a park near my house. I had never seen them before and I never saw them again. They were Arctic terns stopping to feed on their way north for the summer. It was magical.
Birds seem to represent nearly everything. They are world travelers, stay-at-homers, tiny, gigantic, fast, slow, flying, grounded, swimming, meat eaters, seed eaters, friendly and not-so-friendly. They are gorgeous and plain, intelligent and dull, mysterious and in-your-face.
They have been deemed messengers of the gods, departing souls, and guides to the spirit world. Myths and legends are abundant with eagle shamans, swan mothers, trickster crows, revelatory owls, lucky cranes, sacred storks, doves of light …
Fairy tales are the peasants of the story universe (myths being the royal heads of state), and theories about their lineage abound. But fairy tales have birds in common with myths, and no one knows for sure how many there are.
Here’s a sample:
- “Prince Ivan, the Fire Bird, and the Gray Wolf” (Russia)—Prince Ivan, the youngest of three sons of a wealthy czar, quests for the mythical fire bird after the creature has been caught stealing his father’s golden apples. He is aided by a gray wolf in accomplishing three tasks, and returns home triumphant with a princess, a horse with a golden mane, and the elusive fire bird.
- “The Blue Bird” (from The Fairy Tales of Madame D’Aulnoy, 1892)—The beautiful princess Florine and her lover King Charming are kept apart for years by her wicked stepmother and hideous stepsister. She is locked in a tower while he is turned into a bluebird because he refuses to marry the stepsister. With mages and fairies alternately helping and getting in the way, Florine and Charming use their wits and survival skills to come together in the end, having endured as individuals first.
- “The Daughter of the Ostrich Egg” (South Africa)—A poor man discovers an ostrich egg from which a skillful woman emerges. They marry and she brings him glory and riches, but makes him promise never to call her “daughter of the ostrich egg.” One day, they quarrel and he disobeys her, only to lose her and everything she had given him.
- “The Bird of Sorrow” (Turkey)—The daughter of a sultan asks to be introduced to sorrow and is given the bird of sorrow as a gift. The bird takes her away, leaving her to endure hunger, loneliness, cold, and terror through many occasions, until she meets a prince and they fall in love. The bird of sorrow continues to harass her until she loses all three of her children and is condemned to death. The bird takes human form and reveals himself to be a magical being willing now, after witnessing her forbearance, to be her slave. He takes her to the palace he built for her where her children are waiting. She and the children are reunited with the prince.
- “Story of the Bird Feng” (China; one of many such tales featuring Feng)—A prince dreams of a beautiful woman and does terrible things in order to find her. When no one can tell him who she is, he stops eating and drinking and begins to wander throughout the world. When he is most desperate, Feng, a fiery bird from heaven, appears. The prince explains his plight and Feng takes the prince’s portrait of the woman to the palace where she lives as daughter of the King of China. She falls in love with the portraitist who is then delivered to her by Feng. The prince and princess marry.
- “The Rooster of Barcelos” (Portugal)—A pilgrim to Barcelos is falsely accused of a murder committed there. When he is condemned to hang, he crashes the mayor’s dinner party to beg for mercy. He claims that the roasted cock on the mayor’s table will sing before he is hanged. The astonished group leave the cock untouched, and the next day the roasted bird does as the man predicted, saving his life.
- “The Sparrow with the Slit Tongue” (Japan)—A kind man and his cruel wife live on a mountaintop. One day the man sees a sparrow being chased by a crow; he fights off the crow and takes the frightened sparrow into his home. In time, the wife grows jealous of her husband’s attention to the bird and attacks it when he is away. The bird escapes with only a split tongue to show for the wife’s abuse. The man searches for a long time for his lost sparrow and finally finds her living as a forest princess in a small clearing. She invites him into her home and gives him a choice of gifts to take away: a large trunk or a small one. He takes the small trunk home to his angry wife and finds it is filled with gems. The wife, greedy for more, follows her husband’s directions to the princess’ home in the woods where she is welcomed and given the same choice of gifts. The wife chooses the large trunk, which holds deadly serpents. She is attacked and killed.
Last winter, I had the opportunity to travel to California for four months. While there, I had several close encounters with hummingbirds. One day in Laguna Beach at low tide, I explored the tide pools with my husband and daughter. After a while we saw that a crowd had gathered a short distance away. We went to investigate and discovered that people were watching a lone hummingbird. It seemed out of place above the sea-soaked rocks. But then, it came to me where I stood just a few steps away from the crowd, and it hovered an arm’s length in front of my face for what was likely seconds but felt like minutes. There was a hush as the group of strangers and my husband and daughter watched me and the hummingbird. Then the bird flitted away and we all laughed to think that it appeared to have singled me out. But then, it came back! And that hummingbird did the same thing—to me. It stayed for a shorter time, but it seemed to be saying, “Yes, I was looking at you.”
Birds have a way of making any tale a fairy tale.