Bird brains, love birds, storks bringing babies and Henny Penny running round complaining that the sky is falling. Just at a guess I think these would be the kind of associations that would spring to mind if I said I was going to tell you an evening of tales about our feathered friends. As ever, a trawl through the stories we used to tell two hundred years ago and more produces a very different picture.
Far from being foolish or simple, folk tale birds from an assortment of genera often demonstrate some of the most shrewd and subtle problem solving in the folk corpus. Aesop’s crow is probably the most famous of these conundrum crunchers, as he drops pebble after pebble in to a pitcher of water to raise the fluid until it is in reach of his beak.
In the Turkish tale of The Crow and the Snake, the strategy is taken to a higher level. The Crow, whose nest is at the top of a tree, has a problem with a snake that lives in a pit near the bottom. Whenever she lays some eggs the snake climbs up and eats them. After a consultation with a Jackal she forsakes the anger driven option of direct confrontation: pecking the snake’s eyes out might have been satisfying but would, the jackal points out, be very dangerous. Instead, our clever corvid steals a precious ring from a lady having a bath, makes sure that a number of people chase her, stays in sight of the mob until she is by her tree and then drops the ring in to the snake pit. To retrieve the jewellery the obliging humans promptly deal with her scaly problem for her.
This tactical leverage of third parties is quite different in character to the chicanery and deception of the trickster archetype, where the target is often destroyed by their own gullibility as the con artist stands beside them laughing. Avian reprisals tend to be a more surgical strike, delivered from a distance without risk that the enemy will catch on at the last minute. It is also largely free from the chaos and collateral damage often generated by the tricksters, to the extent that assisting a fowl with their sting can even be beneficial to those manoeuvred in to it.
When a wicked elephant tramples the nestlings of a lowly quail, she swears she will get revenge. The Elephant arrogantly taunts her as a weak and powerless creature. The incensed Quail does a kindness for each of a crow, a fly and a frog. When they enquire what they can do in return she asks the crow if it would be so good as to peck out the elephant’s eyes, an action the Crow is only too happy perform since eyeballs are a delicacy. The Quail then asks the Fly if she would mind laying her eggs in the Elephants ruined eye sockets, which is a bit like telling me I could repay you a fiver by going to the London Inn and buying myself a pint of Avocet, it is a perfect place for her larvae to develop. The Frog is requested to croak at the top of a hill and then climb down to the bottom of the steepest cliff and croak again. The blind and maggot maddened Elephant, desperate for water, follows the sound of the frog to the top of the ridge and then over the cliff to it’s doom. Thus, by coming together these four small and vulnerable creatures brought down a strong and powerful tyrant.
So be kind to birds and they will reward that kindness; upset them and they will not only take you down, but you will never see it coming. If that’s being bird brained then count me in!