Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.
BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.
I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!
There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.
The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.
CATS AND BIRDS
Birds have always been a favourite device for prophecy and warning from the bird with bright feathers carrying the millstone in “The Juniper Tree” to Poe’s Raven. Birds have less obvious physical presence than animals — they may fly away or disappear, and seem naturally proud and arbitrary. In reality they often look arrogant, gay, heartless or beautiful — they seldom look humble unless there is something wrong with them; and there seems to be an unwritten law that magic animals are ancient, powerful, experienced, educated and erudite. Birds have this look, whether heraldic or real, from the Gryphon to Dudu the raven in Mrs Molesworth’s The Tapestry Room (1879).
Mrs Molesworth was, indeed, the first writer to take such a bird out of a fairy tale and place it in what one feels to be the right setting — a contemporary one. The Cuckoo Clock, written in 1877, has in it a bird character who besides being very moral is there in the clock. The arbiter of time, punctuality, rules and rightness, he is also there in a different kind of reality, always heralded by ‘the faint coming sound’ and able to take the lonely child Griselda on magic adventures. The old moral tales took a long time to fade; the Cuckoo from the clock insists on Griselda’s doing as she is old, attending to her lessons and being patient. But he provides the companionship she needs until she is lonely no longer and he can turn once more to wood. He is stern, logical and philosophical.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Whereas dogs as companions in children’s literature tend to be true companions, when birds fill this role they tend to be more than friends — they’re more like ‘engineers of children’s fates’.
For another example of a bird in a short story from around this period, see The Griffin and the Minor Canon. In this story the Griffin is powerful and frightening enough to be almost a winged dragon. But it’s a humorous treatment compared to The Tapestry Room. This bird is as conceited as every fabulous bird ever conceived.
BIRDS IN FAIRYTALES
Once upon a time people believed that secret messages are contained in birdsong. Certain people declared that they could understand what birds were saying. (Manifestations of mental illness?) A bird whose song contains meaning can be seen, for instance, in “The Juniper Tree”.
DO WE LIKE BIRDS AS MUCH AS WE LIKE TO THINK?
The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is the second in a trilogy of novels that begins with Five Children and It (1902).
[The] oddly moral nature of talking birds seems self-perpetuating. Bird omens and oracles are more familiar than bird friends; perhaps we love birds less than we think. Their formality and frequency in heraldic design, as crests or emblems may have something to do with it — their decorative properties give them a didactic coldness. E. Nesbit’s Phoenix, of The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904, is hardly a cold bird, but it is, like the others, proud, vain, beautiful, condescending and extraordinarily well educated. It is in full command of every situation, and far more than a device for granting wishes, as was the Psammead who preceded him — indeed, the Carpet does this.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
BIRDS IN CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATIONS
BIRDS WEARING CLOTHES
In illustrated books featuring personified animals, even when all of the other animals are wearing clothes, birds tend to be ‘naked’, wearing only their feathers. Few illustrators manage to draw clothes on birds realistically. The main reason may be that birds, with their brightly coloured plumage, already look as if they are wearing clothes. The most obvious example of this is the penguin, who looks as if he is wearing a ‘penguin suit’. Robins also tend to look dressed in formal attire.
Here are the birds from Peter Rabbit: Although Peter is wearing the blue coat, the birds are stark naked.
But here’s a modern solution: This birdy is wearing glasses!
Just because a group accepts you, it doesn’t mean the group will accept your friends.
In my first read-through of Nerdy Birdy, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies, I thought the story would be over when Nerdy Birdy befriends Vulture. Surprise! Nerdy Birdy accepts Vulture, but all of the seemingly inclusive nerd-birds won’t allow a non-conformer. Nerdy Birdy realizes has to leave his newly found tribe in order to keep his new friend.
The bird is in direct opposition to the mouse when it comes to clothes; it is rare to find mice without clothes, and equally rare to find birds wearing them. Except for the robin, who looks as if he (always he) is wearing a suit.
BIRDS IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF QUENTIN BLAKE[Lauren] Child asks why [birds] are a recurring theme in [Quentin Blake’s] work. ‘They are full of possibility,’ he explains, ‘and a useful thing to put in when you need a little dot of colour for the composition.’ She wants to know why he never did a book about ‘one of my favourite pictures ever’, the ‘owl fancier’ in Blake’s Words and Pictures – a drawing of a rather scruffy man with owls at his feet. Answer: he couldn’t think of a story.
For an example of a Quentin Blake story starring a bird, see my analysis of Loveykins, both written and illustrated by Blake.
GROUPS OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF BIRD
Sometimes birds hang out with each other, cross ‘breed’. Below, only birds sit at the table. A squirrel and a cat sit in the background.
Here we have a table full of birds plus a squirrel and a hedgehog. But mostly birds.
Perhaps the most famous tale about a group of different kinds of birds is Chicken Licken.
Thanks to Aesop (and partly thanks to roosters themselves), the rooster as character comes pre-loaded with characteristics of vanity, bossiness, vanity and volume.
Chickens, on the other hand, are vulnerable and mostly stupid, although The Little Red Hen is a sensible, industrious type. When chickens are described as ‘hens‘ they are motherly.
Parrots are useful in mystery plots because they talk… or rather, they repeat secrets and half-truths.
Swans are about transformation. They are associated with rags to riches stories, the most notable being, of course, “The Ugly Duckling”.
Whereas ducks are ho-hum and tend to leave the most disgusting droppings on your patio, no one can tell me ducklings aren’t cute. My husband was in a near car accident when the woman in front of him on the highway braked suddenly for ducklings. I bet she had read Make Way For Ducklings, the Robert McCloskey children’s classic.
Ducklings are also loyal, in a very naive sense: They are known to fall in love with whomever they first clap eyes on. The adorability of ducklings can be exploited for ironic purposes, for instance in an episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog, in which a cute duckling turns out to be evil.
Header painting: Henry Stacey Marks – A Select Committee 1891