Tag Archives: hierarchy of birds

Back when the birds spoke Gaelic

Species: A tawny owl (Strix aluco) and magpie (Pica pica) have a battle of wits and it gets UGLY. An ambiguous grey bird is the judge.

Source: ‘Dàn mu Chonaltradh’ (English title: The Colloquy of the Birds).

Date: Modern! First published 1798, and written a few years before.

Highlights: Once upon a time, long ago, birds could speak Gaelic. Here’s the most famous example.

Magpies from Addition MS 26968 fol.282v. Owl from Harley 2887, fol.29. Both images are in the public domain because of their age.

Magpies from Addition MS 26968 fol.282v. Owl from Harley 2887, fol.29. Both images are in the public domain because of their age.

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The Hierarchy of Birds

Species: The 35 most popular types of bird.

Source: ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Date: c.1380-82.

Highlights: Considering Chaucer had no idea what he was talking about, his categorisation of birds into four categories was perhaps the best we could hope for.

Parliament of Birds

Public domain woodcut from another text (‘The Woody Choristers’).

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Speaking Starlings

Here are three things you should know about starlings: (i) They have cool little stars all over their feathers. (ii) Boring people get very excited watching them gather together in clouds. (iii) They can learn to speak medieval Welsh, unlike most undergrads.

Species: The common but surprisingly cool starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Source: ‘Branwen’, second of the ‘Mabinogi’ stories.

Date: 1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: If you are ever a victim of domestic abuse, our text suggests that your best option is to train a starling to talk, and send it to your brother with orders to summon his army and invade.

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‘The Owl’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym (c.1350)

Tawny owl in hollow tree photographed by echoe69 and licensed under CC-BY-ND-2.0.

Tawny owl in hollow tree photographed by echoe69 and licensed under CC-BY-ND-2.0.

What defines the British countryside for you? Perhaps its the green hills, the golden fields or the endless brown roads. For Dafydd ap Gwilym it was the sound of the tawny owls which just wouldn’t leave him alone.

Species: ‘Y Dylluan’ (the owl), most probably a tawny owl (Strix aluco).

Source: One of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem called ‘Y Dylluan’.

Date: c.1350.

Highlights: By the time he writes this poem, Dafydd is so crazy from being kept up all night that he threatens to take a torch to the woodland to make the owls shut up. He’s a great inspiration to us all.

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What is a Beowulf?

Bear vs. Woodpecker

Brown bear photographed by Makeen Osman, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Great spotted woodpecker photographed by Maarten Visser and licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. Compilation created by Lee Raye, and hereby released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Species Mentioned: Possibly one bee-wolf (?Ursus Arctos? Dendrocopus Major?)

Source: ‘Beowulf’ the most famous Old English story.

Date: Uh-oh, best not to ask. The version we have probably somewhere c.700-1050.

Highlights: Beowulf is the all-star hero of his story, so his name must mean something, right? It quite nicely breaks down to beo-wulf (=bee-wolf). But what could a bee-wolf be?

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Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) in ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ (An Exhortation for Rhys ap Rhydderch of Tywyn)

sea eagle

Sea Eagle photographed by GerardM, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Sea eagles (=white-tailed eagles; fish-eagles) often nest in lowland trees.

Species Mentioned: Most importantly the sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

Source: ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ a praise poem justifying why Rhys should take the lordship of his father.

Date: c.1485-1500.

Highlights: This text contains what is almost certainly a reference to a sea eagle, and may be therefore one of the last references to a sea eagle in Wales for centuries. However the sea eagle is identified in an old phrase and the continued use of this phrase might post-date the extinction of the eagle.

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The Owl (Strix aluco?) in the ‘Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’ (Math)

Tawny Owl

Tawny owl, photographed by K.-M. Hansche and edited by Arad. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species Mentioned:  One owl, probably a tawny owl (S. aluco). Hated by all other birds.

Source: ‘Math’ fourth of the ‘Four Branches of the ‘Mabinogi’, the most important epics of medieval Welsh literature.

Date of Source: c.1000-1250 A.D.

Highlights: This source is symptomatic of the suspicion and low esteem owls were considered with in medieval Britain.

Blodeuedd, the most beautiful woman in the world plots to murder her oh-so-boring demi-god husband. She nearly succeeds but her husband turns into an eagle and flies away. Blodeuedd is then hunted down and permanently changed into an owl, the most ignoble of all birds. Said husband is changed back into a human with no lasting damage. Don’t worry, it’s totally fair.

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