Swan: Richard the Lionheart is said to have brought the first swans back to Britain from Cyprus after the Third Crusade, and for centuries swans have been royal property. A person’s ‘swan song’ - his final work - is derived from the belief that swans sing only once - just before they die.
Magpie: These are among the most ominous of British birds, and most people will know a version of the rhyme which begins:
One for sorrow, two for mirth
Three for a wedding, four for a birth
There were traditional methods of protection against the sorrow that a single magpie might bring. In England, people used to cross themselves, raise their hats to the bird, or spit three times over the right shoulder and once towards the bird, saying: ‘Devil, Devil, I defy thee.’ In Somerset, the customary safeguard was to carry an onion with you wherever you went. In Scotland it was considered such an evil bird that it was said to carry a drop of the Devil’s blood hidden underneath its tongue.
Owl: For centuries, the cry of an owl has been taken as an omen of disaster. It warns of death or bad luck, especially if it is heard near a house, and it promises a cruelly unfortunate life to any child born within the sound of it.
On the credit side, the skin of an owl nailed to a barn door was believed to protect the building from evil. Owl eggs would also reportedly restore drunks to their senses, prevent epilepsy and improve bad sight. Owl broth (yum…) was used to treat whooping cough and an ointment made of pulverised owl mixed with boar’s grease was said to ease the pains of gout.