English Poems about Birds and some Bird Proverbs
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
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
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’ ”
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
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
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, -
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
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
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
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.