Tag Archives: medieval birds

The miraculous mimicry of a jay

Two days ago I was very excited to receive advance copies of my brand new book.


It’s been way too long since I last posted, so I think the advent of my book’s publication is an appropriate excuse to offer something now as a preview into one of the chapters. Here, then, is a little something based on chapter two, which is all about transforming trickster birds in an astounding collection of Old English riddles that only survives–and might have only ever existed–in one manuscript from the 10th century, known as the Exeter Book because it’s been at the cathedral in that city for probably all its lifetime. One of these riddle birds is a jay. A talking jay.

In recent years there’s been a lot of focus on birds’ remarkable vocal abilities. This year, as it happens, is the ‘Year of the Bird‘ for the National Geographic. Their range of articles has sought to celebrate the colourful diversity of bird life, and one focuses specifically on birds’ cognitive abilities, exploring how ingenious and imaginative some species can be.

Not surprisingly, corvids feature pretty heavily. It’s well-known that corvids top the smart bird charts because of their comparatively large forebrains with densely packed neurons. In the article, an eight-year-old girl named Gabi has befriended American crows visiting her garden who habitually bring her gifts. Corvid species, more than any other genus of bird, have demonstrated all sorts of remarkable functions (see here, here and here–for a bit of fun!) that parallel the ‘unique’ capabilities that supposedly set us humans above other creatures.

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Jackdaw. Source: pxhere.

Knowledge of this ingenuity is by no means new, of course. It’s just that scientific studies now are proving the hunches or proverbial lore that has surrounded these species for millennia. Above all, it’s corvine mimcry that most captivates us, not only as a source of marvel, but because it raises questions about our own linguistic abilities. The Greeks and Romans certainly came across talking corvids. I particularly like an anecdote from Plutarch about a barber’s pet jay renowned for its vocal skills (which I came across in Jeremy Mynott’s new book), which one day, upon hearing a trumpet fanfare, falls silent for a period of time. The town’s people cannot fathom what has happened, until it reveals that it was only ‘withholding its mimetic skill while it adjusted and refashioned its voice like a musical instrument. For suddenly its voice returned … and there rang out the music of the trumpets, reproducing all its sequences and every variation in melody and rhythm’.[1]

These abilities are certainly no exaggeration. Jays have a repertoire that can encompass a wide range of other bird species, ‘and a motorbike horn, human voice, whistled songs, barking dog, and (probably) lawnmower’.[2] (See here for a jay mimicking a buzzard.)

When it comes to medieval knowledge of corvid mimicry, there are no shortage of examples again. One piece of classical writing on magpies, by the Roman poet Martial, was certainly known to medieval writers. He has the bird itself tell us that ‘if you did not see me, you would deny that I am a bird’ (Epigram 76). The point here, of course, is that the bird is such a good mimic that one needs to actually have the bird in sight to confirm that it is indeed a bird. It’s this aspect of avian brilliance that I love about Exeter Book Riddle 24 (see here for the Riddle in the original manuscript), which I write about in chapter two of my book.

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,     wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund,     hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos,     hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge      þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor,      hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne,      hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte.     . ᚷ. mec nemnað,
swylce . ᚫ. ond . ᚱ.      . ᚩ. fullesteð,
. ᚻ. ond . ᛁ .     Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas      sweotule becnaþ.
(Riddle 24)

[I am a wondrous creature. I vary my voice: sometimes bark like a dog, sometimes bleat like a goat, sometimes honk like a goose, sometimes yell like a hawk, sometimes I mimic the ashy eagle—cry of the warbird—sometimes the kite’s voice I speak with my mouth, sometimes the gull’s song, where I sit gladly. G they name me, also Æ and R. O helps, H and I. Now I am called as these six letters clearly indicate.]

The solution to Riddle 24 is definitely a corvid species, because the speaker tells us so: those funny letters which look like something out of Lord of the Rings are Germanic runes–the Anglo-Saxon alphabet from before the days of the Roman alphabet–and when re-arranged correctly they spell out higoræ (Old English for jay, though sometimes translated as magpie). This jay gives a virtuosic performance that suggests to us how tricky, even inadvisable, it can be to categorise and label species with particular characteristics that neatly separate them from all other creatures. As the jay shows us, comically, you can get yourself tied in knots doing this! A mimicking bird is the perfect subject to get across this idea because it can convincingly incorporate the ‘unique’ voices of other creatures into its vocal range in a way that makes things we thought were defining and distinguishable the very opposite–indistinguishable! A jay’s voice is a jay’s voice, but also a goat’s, and a hawks, and a dog’s, and a goose’s, and … . I imagine how this Riddle would change over time as jays in different centuries respond to different stimuli around them. (I think here of the well-known Attenborough clip of the lyrebird mimicking modern man-made sounds).

A medieval jay (gai). Source: Sherborne Missal (British Library, Add MS 74236).

So this Anglo-Saxon jay mimics other nonhuman voices. Interestingly, the human voice is not included in its repertoire. But I like to think this bird has another trick under its wing. You see, it’s very easy to assume that animals and objects being represented in the Exeter Book Riddles are personified: they usually speak in the first person voice as if they actually have a human voice. Once we remember, though, that we are dealing with no ordinary creature in this particular Riddle, but one that is renowned for mimicking even the human voice, the boundaries change again. The human speaker reciting the poem (and let’s remember that medieval poems were often read out loud) actually becomes one of the many voices adopted by the jay, thus craftily integrating the human voice that at first sight seems to be absent from its list. The jay is not personified, but is actually speaking the poem! This jay with its astonishing vocal abilities, like the magpie in Martial’s epigram, plays a game of hide-and-seek with us. If we did not see it, we would not believe it was a bird.

[1] For a selection of other classical sources dealing with mimicking birds, see Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 143-9.

[2] Stanley Cramp, gen. ed., Birds of the Western Palearctic, 9 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977-94), vol. 8, pp. 19-20.


A bittern booming in the mire

It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.

The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.

A well-camouflaged bittern. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning  something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.

Image: RSPB

The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.

Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.

RSPB Ham Wall reserve, April 2018