History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Feather beds, cockfights and midnight flights to the moon: 5 fascinating chapters in avian history

From seeing feathers as omens of death to saving soldiers with homing pigeons, our interactions with birds have always been contradictory. Roy and Lesley Adkins select five chapters from avian history to illuminate this complex relationship...

Cockfighting pit with crown surrounding a fight
Published: April 14, 2022 at 6:02 pm

Feathers, fowl and fear: Why the superstitious cast birds as omens of disaster and death

Due to their apparent link between the heavens and Earth, birds have long been revered, feared and assumed to be capable of predicting weather, marriage partners, disaster and death. While goose feathers and down didn’t have any deadly connotations, many Britons were deeply against having game feathers in their feather mattresses and pillows, with pigeon feathers being particularly reviled.

In 19th-century Wiltshire, the Reverend William Grey said that whenever his housekeeper made pigeon pie, the feathers were burned: “She assured me that if a single feather found its way into a bed or pillow, they would be ‘dying hard’ [experiencing a lingering death] until the feather was removed.” And Charlotte Latham, a vicar’s wife, recorded: “You must not turn a feather-bed on a Sunday, or you will have fearful dreams for the rest of the week.”

Peacock feathers were especially dreaded, something that Hull headmaster John Nicholson mentioned in 1890: “Though peacock feathers are now fashionable and aesthetic, they are looked upon with disfavour by those of the old school, for these feathers were always deemed unlucky.” He knew somebody who had burned an expensive gift – a peacock-feather firescreen – because of the terror of ill-luck.


Britain’s bloody sporting obsession: The country’s passion for cockfighting united poor schoolboys and kings

Cockfighting, known as “the sod”, was for centuries Britain’s most popular sport, reaching a peak in the 18th century and banned only in 1849 (1895 in Scotland). Enjoyed by all classes, this national obsession was underpinned by gambling. Boys were actively encouraged to train fighting cocks for matches that were held in their schools on Shrove Tuesday.

Boys were actively encouraged to train fighting cocks for matches that were held in their schools on Shrove Tuesday

Most cockfighting was staged in thousands of indoor and outdoor cockpits across the country – even in churches and churchyards. Specially bred fighting cocks were taken to fights in bags, and the bony spurs on their legs were sharpened or fitted with metal spurs to inflict worse injuries.

When Friedrich von Kielmansegge from Hanover was in London in 1762 to see George III’s coronation, he attended the Royal Cockpit to see a cockfight “which lasted the whole of this week”. He reported: “In the middle of a circle and a gallery surrounded by benches, a slightly raised theatre is erected, upon which the cocks fight... to the legs of which a long spur, like a long needle, is fixed, with which they know how to inflict damage.” This long-lived national sport resulted in a legacy of numerous words and expressions, such as “battle royal”, “cock-eyed”, “pit against” and “get your spurs on”.


Migrating to the moon: Lighthouses illuminated a bizarre aspect of bird behaviour

Many birds migrate thousands of miles to spend winter in a warmer climate. But our ancestors didn’t discover this for centuries, believing instead that birds went to the moon, hibernated or changed into different species. Even when the phenomenon was better understood, it was difficult to appreciate how many species of birds were on the move – most migrated at night, when people were sleeping. However, the advent of street lamps made it easier to see migration in action. Birds are attracted to lights, and the ornithologist Henry Stevenson in Norwich noted that flocks of golden plovers were drawn to the city’s gas lamps. In August 1865, during a storm, they were heard right across the city.

Lighthouses were also a magnet, and from 1879 lighthouse keepers were asked to complete questionnaires, with extraordinary results, showing that unimaginable numbers of birds passed over the seas in all directions. Another ornithologist, John Harvie-Brown, remarked: “Almost all records of birds caught or killed, or striking at the lanterns, are noted on dark or cloudy nights, with fog, haze or rain, or snow and sleet... Birds on such nights often remain around the lights all night or rest on the window-sills of the tower and balconies, or endeavour to obtain entrance to the tower.” When the spell was broken at dawn, they resumed their flight.


Children’s crusade: Young members of the Dicky Bird Society signed a pledge of kindness

In 1876 the editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, William Adams, began to enlist children in a global campaign against cruelty to birds. Under his pen-name Uncle Toby, he founded the Dicky Bird Society (medal shown inset) to persuade children not to be cruel towards birds, but instead to feed them. On joining they signed a pledge of kindness, and their names and locations were recorded.

When the membership reached 100,000 a decade later, huge celebrations took place in Newcastle. Adams described the society’s incredible growth: “Although the Dicky Bird Society was initiated in the north of England, it very soon extended to all parts of the civilised world.” The first foreign branch was established in Norway on 3 February 1877, followed by another in Victoria, Australia. “Then the cause was taken up in Nova Scotia,” he continued, “in New Zealand, in Tasmania, in South Africa, and in other of our distant colonies.” Eventually it spread across the world, with members from Constantinople to Canada.

Honorary celebrity members were also recruited, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Florence Nightingale. Just after the First World War, the society had more than 400,000 members, but it ceased in 1940 in the early days of the Second World War, when the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle closed. Uncle Toby made a final plea for members both young and old to “keep the pledge they took on joining the society”.


Flying to victory: How homing pigeons helped save Allied soldiers during the First World War

Homing pigeons have an uncanny ability to return home and so were used to take messages back to their loft or coop. The arrival of the railway
system enabled these birds to be easily transported, which made long-distance pigeon racing hugely popular and led to the realisation that they
could fulfil a military role. At the end of the 19th century the Admiralty introduced a pigeon service, but it was scrapped in 1908. When the First World War started, Alfred Osman, founder of The Racing Pigeon magazine, provided pigeons for fishing trawlers that were minesweeping in the North Sea, as well as for ships and seaplanes of the Royal Naval Air Service.

During the war, pigeons that were released in emergencies flew home with messages to pigeon lofts on the east coast. In September 1917, after trying to intercept two Zeppelins, a DH 4 aircraft had to turn back to Great Yarmouth, but ditched in the sea. The accompanying flying boat landed on the water and rescued the crew but could not take off, and so their four homing pigeons were released. A successful rescue took place, and the grateful crew preserved one pigeon that had died of exhaustion. It is now in the Royal Air Force Museum, labelled “A very gallant gentleman”.

Roy and Lesley Adkins are historians and archaeologists. Their latest book is When There Were Birds: The Forgotten History of Our Connections (Little, Brown, 2021)

This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Sponsored content