Most superstitions came into being during a time when what made the world tick was far more of a mystery than it is now. Our ancestors were quick to assign subtexts to events as one of the ways they tried to make sense of an existence that appeared frighteningly capricious and unpredictable. All manner of occurrences, both the mundane and the unusual, were subject to scrutiny and interpretation.
Everyday things, such as the way fires burned or candles sputtered, were studied for their portents. But it was to out-of-the-ordinary events that special attention was paid, because these were believed to foretell the greatest shifts of fortune. Unusual incidents were understood as urgent messages falling directly from the lips of the gods.
Strange behavior on the part of animals was cause for concern. A hen that took to crowing, for instance, heralded a death in the owner’s family, as did the sudden howling of otherwise placid dogs or the midday crowing of a rooster. Wild birds that tried to get inside houses (whether they succeeded or not) were also seen as presaging deaths. A bird that flew in through an open window, circled the room or landed on the back of someone’s chair, then flew back out was saying as clearly as an omen can that someone who lived in that dwelling was about to clutch the lily.
Not normally a superstitious person but recent happenings at my father’s house have me worried. Have heard the superstition that a bird flying into the house portends death. But what about a bird that constantly crashes into a closed window in a vain attempt to force itself into the house? For several days in a row now, a robin has repeatedly thrashed it’s body against my father’s window and it will not stop! My father is very ill and about to undergo a risky surgery. Could this be an omen that his death is near?
Birds that hit glass windows were likewise trying to provide the same message, as did those who sat upon sills peering into rooms or tapping on the glass. Some placed no time limit on when the death was to take place; others said it would happen within the year.
Because of this superstition, some folks will not even keep a pet bird, not so much as a budgie or canary. And there are those whose aversion to indoor avians runs so strong that they eschew pictures of our feathered friends, even representations of them on wallpaper. One of those persons was Lucille Ball, who dated her antipathy to birds to the 1915 death of her father when she was three years old — she recalled that a picture fell from the wall that fateful day, and a bird flew in the window to become trapped inside the house. Even as an adult, the comedienne would refuse to take lodgings in any hotel that displayed pictures of birds, either framed or incorporated into their wallpaper. She was no less particular about her home — in the 1950s she had Japanese silk print wallpaper that went for $90 a roll ripped out of the front hallway of her Beverly Hills home because only after the paper was up did it become apparent the shadowy images of birds were part of its pattern.
One of the older superstition books we consulted stated that interior decorators knew better than to suggest wallpaper with little birdies on it simply because this belief was then so widespread.
Not everyone holds the opinion that having birds fly into the house is bad news. Our cats, for instance, view such incursions as having their prayers answered.