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English Poems about Birds and some Bird Proverbs

Updated on June 2, 2012

A Shorter Variation of the Magpie Counting Chant

One for sorrow, two for joy

Three for a girl, four for a boy

Five for silver, six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.

Don't Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg

snow geese
snow geese | Source

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

A Canada Goose Family
A Canada Goose Family | Source

English Proverbs about Birds

Wild birds have always been part of our lives whether we're more familiar with feral pigeons living in town, blackbirds in a suburban garden or lapwings out in the countryside. It's not surprising that birds have made their way in to our conversations by means of proverbs, sometimes urging us to follow birds good example such as "the early bird catches the worm." others demonstrating superstitions that grew up around certain birds like the magpie.

There are many variants of the 'magpie counting chant' whereby the number of magpies is believed to predict future events for example:

One for sorrow, two for mirth

three for a wedding, four for a birth

five is silver, six is gold

seven for a secret never to be told

eight for heaven , nine for hell

ten for the devil his own sell’ ”

OTHER PROVERBS

One swallow doesn’t make a summer.

Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

As the crow flies.

Fine feathers make fine birds.

Birds of a feather flock together.


Poems about Birds

Of course, poets have always had plenty to say about birds, sometimes devoting whole poems to them, like William Wordsworth’s ‘To the Cuckoo’, other times including them to bring atmosphere to a poem as with the robin in Rossetti’s ‘The Day-Dream’.

From 'To the Cuckoo' – William Wordsworth

“O blithe newcomer! I have heard,

I hear thee and rejoice.

O Cuckoo! Shall I call thee Bird?

Or but a wandering voice……..”

This is a lovely reference to the fact that you rarely see a cuckoo, but know they’re around because of their distinctive call. Sadly that call is heard much less frequently in England these days as the UK has lost 65% of its cuckoos since 1987. As the adult cuckoo only spends a few months in the UK, efforts to establish why the bird’s numbers are declining so rapidly are being concentrated on what happens to the cuckoo when it’s away from Britain.


'The Downy Owl' John Keats

Owlett
Owlett | Source

Use of Birds to Create Atmosphere in Poems

From 'The Day-Dream' – Dante Gabrielle Rossetti (1828-1882)

“ The thronged boughs of the shadowy sycamore

Still bear young leaflets half the summer through;

From where the robin ‘gainst the unhidden blue

Perched dark, till now, deep in the leafy core;……”

John Keats (1795 - 1821) uses a lack of bird song effectively in his atmospheric poem 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'

"...Oh what can ail thee, knight at arms

Alone and palely loitering;

The sedge has withered from the lake.

And no birds sing..."

Still on a somber note in 'Ode on Melancholy' Keats writes

"... nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow's mysteries. ....."

More cheerfully, Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) in'Duns Scotus's Oxford' describes the city of Oxford as "... Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked...."

It would be rude not to mention Shakespeare, whose 'Sonnet 73' contains the phrase "Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."


"Four larks and a Wren" Edward Lear

Fledgling Wren
Fledgling Wren | Source

Humorous Poems about Birds

Thomas Hood (1799-1843) included no birds in his very modern sounding poem 'No!'

"........No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, -

November!"

Edward Lear (1812 -1888) got four species of bird into his well known limerick:

"THere was an old man with a beard

Who said 'it is just as I feared!

Two owls and a hen

Four larks and a wren

Have all made their nests in my beard!' "

Lear seems to have been fond of owls and began another Limerick "There was an Old Man with an Owl..."

Most famously, in a more whimsical than humorous poem, his 'The Owl and the Pussycat' contained the improbable pairing of an owl and cat setting sail in a "pea-green boat" who get married with the ring from a pig's nose and then dance "by the light of the moon".


"An’ there the lively blackbird, nigh us" William Barnes

Blackbird
Blackbird | Source

British Bird Species Mentioned in Poems

British bird species crop up in numerous poems. Some species like the nightingale and lark merit numerous mentions and even entire poems, less familiar species, such as the linnet, get only an occasional mention.

Linnets get a mention in ‘Thistledown’ by E M Holden

“…..Who but a flock of grey linnets shall seize’ little grey linnets in twos and in threes?”

William Barnes (1801-1886) gives blackbirds a line in his poem in Dorset dialect 'Zun-Zet' and a couple of lines to rooks.

Swifts are the subject of Anne Stevenson's (1933-present) joyful poem 'Swifts' which is one of my favourite poems about a bird as it describes them so aptly with phrases such as "scimitar upsweep" " earth-skimmers" and " sky-scyther". The same poem also gives ravens several honorable mentions.

"Peewits who never say Peewit" Anne Stevenson

Lapwing also known as Peewit
Lapwing also known as Peewit | Source

Whilst Anne considers herself American, she was born in England and currently lives here, so I am happy to include her here. Another of her poems 'Salter's Gate' brings us grouse, wagtails and lapwings,also known as peewits, although she clearly isn't convinced that their nickname is a good imitation of their call with "...peewits who never say peewit, more a minor,go'way, go'way...."

Swallows get to share the title of Lord AlfredTennyson's (1809-1892) "The Princess, O Swallow" by which begins

"O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,

Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded eaves,

And tell her, tell her, what I tell to thee...."

Kingfishers get the beautifully titled 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire' by Gerald Manley Hopkins but they aren't really the focus of the poem in spite of the opening line "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame..."

Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) gives us a short poem on eagles with 'The Eagle' which ends with "....He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls."

The Yellowhammer receives attention in 'The Yellowhammer's Nest' by John Clare (1793 - 1864) he aptly describes the nest and its contents "...Lined thinly with the horse's sable hair. Five eggs, pen-scribbled o'er with ink their shells ...."

"When Curlews Cry" Anne Finch

The kestrel is the subject of Gerald Manley Hopkins evocative poem 'The Windhover' where he describes the kestrel in flight ".....how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing.."

In 'A Nocturnal Reverie' Anne Finch (1661-1720) writes of "....When curlews cry beneath the village walls, And to her straggling brood the partridge calls ....."

In 'Home Thoughts from Abroad' Robert Browning (1812-1889) is missing English wildlife and birds mentioning the chaffinch, whitethroat and thrush.

Sky Lark heard Singing above Clowbridge Reservoir, Lancashire

Poems about Larks

Birds renowned for their song have attracted the most mentions in poems by English Poets with the cuckoo, lark and nightingale getting the prize for getting into more poems than any other birds.

William Wordsworth is very clear about his subject in his poem 'To a Skylark' which begins

"Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!...."

E M Holden is also one of many poets who has devoted a whole poem to the sky lark which begins;

“ Waken and sing and soar,

leaving the green earth-floor,

up to the wind-swept door,

the blue sky wold;…."

Staying with larks, Robert Browning (1812-1889) wrote;

“….The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn,

God’s in his heaven;

All’s right with the world.”

Although there are other species of lark, the sky lark is the one which has driven poets to verse and even when mentioned as lark, rather than skylark it is usually safe to assume that it is the sky lark being written about.


Poems About Nightingales

The nightingale, which is a bird that most people are more familiar with second hand through folklore and poetry, has been a subject or part of many poems. It is mostly talked of lyrically with reference to its song, but not all poets are entirely complimentary towards the nightingale as you shall see.

From 'Ode to a Nightingale' by Keats

"....Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down....."

From 'To the Nightingale' by Anne Finch (1661-1720)

"Exert thy voice, sweet harbinger of spring! This moment is thy time to sing...."

From 'The Mower to the Glow Worms' Andrew Marvel (1621-1678)

"Ye living lamps, by whose dear light

The nightingale does sit so late,

And studying all the summer night,

Her matchless songs does meditate; ......"

Although Wordsworth devotes a whole poem ('The Nightingale') to the nightingale, he is less effusive about it in his poem "To a Skylark' with the line "...Leave to the nightingale her shady wood......"

and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is really quite rude about the nightingale in 'Archy's Song from Charles 1'

"....Only the nightingale, poor fond soul, Sings like the fool through darkness and light....."

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) also devoted a poem each to the nightingale.

"Stay Little Cheerful Robin! Stay" William Wordsworth

European Robin
European Robin | Source

Poems about Robins

Of the birds known for traits other then song, the European robin is a species who gets a reasonable amount of attention from poets.

A nursery rhyme which I remember well and I believe has no attributable author is 'Who Killed Cock Robin?' the answer being "I said the sparrow with my bow and arrow."

William Wordsworth brings the robin, familiarly known as 'redbreast' into the poem 'September 1819' but also wrote two poems featuring the robin prominently:

'The Redbreast and the Butterfly' which begins

"Art thou the Bird whom Man loves best,

The pious Bird with the scarlet breast,

Our little English Robin...."

and 'To a Redbreast (in Sickness) where he begs "Stay, little cheerful Robin! stay, And at my casement sing..."

Wordsworth isn't the only poet to have written about robins, we also have;

From 'Auguries of Innocence' William Blake (1757-1827)

"...A robin redbreast in a cage

Puts all of heaven in a rage...."

From Charlotte Richardson (1775-1825) in 'The Redbreast' she writes of a storm during which "....A shivering redbreast sought my door, Some friendly warmth to share..."

From Thomas Heywood (approx 1570-1641) - better known as a playwright, we have 'Love's Good-Morrow' who invokes the robin to "Wake from thy nest" and mentions the blackbird, thrush, linnet, sparrow, lark and nightingale for good measure.

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      Spurwing Plover 2 years ago

      And cerian birds in england like the Skylark and Nightingale have inspired poets as well as some here in america like The Raven

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      cuttie 5 years ago

      loved all of it ,voted up

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Delicious hub Nettlemere, full of good content about the beautiful birds in all kinds of poems. Birds are such an inspiration - you just have to watch a lapwing for a few moments on display above a field or near its nest - such a wonder!

      I'll vote for this hub.

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      ignugent17 5 years ago

      voted up!

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 5 years ago from Scotland

      This is such a great hub. I love the mix of info about poems and the proverbs about birds. Voted up

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      summerberrie 5 years ago

      Nettlemere, this is just precious in every way- the poems and the photo's are so adorable. The robin is cute! Thanks for the fun and delightful read!

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      molmin 5 years ago

      Very well researched hub again. I always find it fascinating where our expressions, proverbs and sayings originate from.

    • Nettlemere profile image
      Author

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      I'm pleased you liked the baby owl Writer 20 and Marcy - she was called Bantu and was a captive bred owl we hand reared at work and trained to fly to the hand for food.

      Thank you for enjoying the poems as well Kashmir. I really enjoyed finding poems I hadn't come across before to add to the more familiar ones.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Love reading all the poems and enjoyed the beautiful photos,well done !

      Vote up and more !!!

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 5 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Loved the baby owl photo so cute.

      Great work on these proverbs.

      Voted up useful and interesting.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a great compilation! My knowledge of word images of birds is primarily limited to Poe and The Raven, so I learned a lot here. The downy owl is just too cute for words, by the way. That picture has a major Awwww factor.