Welcome once again dear friends to another instalment of Species of Spectres in which we attempt to devise categories to classify assorted ghosts and ghouls. Now last time we were looking at Animal Apparitions, and discovered that according to folklore the most common varieties of spectral creatures are two species that have had a long relationship with humanity, horses and dogs. However what of our feathered friends?
Now in the realm of folklore there are many supernatural beliefs associated with birds, but most usually these are related to the presence of birds at certain times, i.e. seeing a certain type of bird is good luck, while the appearance of another is a harbinger of misfortune. More closely relating to all things ghostly, it is commonly held that the absence of birds a sure sign a particular place is haunted - no birds will nest in the eaves of a haunted house, and in lonely countryside places where uncanny things are said to walk there will be no sound of birdsong. For example, at Nibley Green, Gloucester in 1469, the troops of Thomas Talbot, 2nd Viscount Lisle and William Berkeley, 2nd Baron Berkeley fought a terrible battle. And it is said the soldiers who perished there were buried in a mass grave in a nearby wood. Sightings of ghostly soldiers have been reported there, and it is said that no bird sings in that particular stretch of woodland.
Actual spectral birds however are another matter, and although uncommon there are enough accounts of avian apparitions to separate into three groups. Firstly we have simply the shades of bird that have ceased to be… The famous ghost hunter Elliot O'Donnell reported that at a house on Dean Street, London, a phantom black bird was often seen by locals. While not far away a house on Great Russell Street was prey to a phantom magpie that would tap on the windows, before appearing inside perching on a phantom baton that floats in thin air. In Leamington, an old (and now demolished) house called Brookhurst was a Sonic Spectre ( is a ghost that is only heard) which manifested as the sounds of a large bird flapping round the place. As many varieties of birds have been tamed and kept by folks, it's not surprising there are a good few accounts of feathered friends returning from beyond the grave. Once upon a time, the Blue Bell Inn at Tushingham, Cheshire had a pet duck that playfully pecked at patrons ankles, a practice it perpetuated even after it perished, and its psychic predations were only prevented thanks to pious priests exorcising the phantom fowl!
However, aside from mere ghosts of birds that have joined the choir invisible, many old legends tell of phantom fliers that appear serve to a specific purpose. The first are harbingers, usually appearing to foretell a death. For a typical example of this, let us call in at Salisbury, where it is said that when a Bishop is going to die, two spectral white birds appear, either hovering over his house or on the roof of the cathedral. In a similar fashion it is said when there is to be a death in the family a flitting white bird-shaped apparition flaps about Arundel Castle and taps at the windowpane. A rarer variant of these traditions is recorded in Bangor, where at the Faenol estate, trespassers are warned away by the eerie crying of a spectral bird. And it is said that this particular avian apparitions is actually the ghost of a man executed for stealing timber from there, now doomed to warn others of the perils of theft.
Finally we have a strong body of lore that tells of more fearsome feathered phantoms. At Temple Grafton in Warwickshire, there is a hill called Rolls Wood Hill. However locally it is also known as Alcocks Arbour, as it is claimed that the notorious highwayman John Alcock hid a cache of buried treasure there. However these riches are guarded by a demonic cockerel, and despite the risk of sounding like Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I must warn you that while this guardian sounds ridiculous it is not to be messed with. For the last fellow who attempted to retrieve the treasure was eaten alive by the evil avian! And the only way to gain safe passage past the creature is to be holding one of Alcock’s bones, which I fear are in somewhat short supply these days…
There is a similar tale told of Bransil Castle in Herefordshire - once again it said that there is a hidden hoard of riches, guarded by a huge black bird, who may only be warded off by holding the bones of Lord Beauchamp who allegedly buried the treasure in the first place. And there are many more legends of supernatural treasure guardians that take the shape of birds. Interestingly these feathered fiends are very often described as having black plumage.
In Shorwell on the Isle of Wight, there is said to be a treasure chest buried in a quiet wood, beneath an elm tree. However if that sounds like a road to easy wealth, once again beware, for it is guarded by a fearsome spirit in the shape of a large black bird. Likewise at Penyard Castle at Weston Penyard in Herefordshire there is said to be more buried treasure, again guarded by a hideous black bird. While at Verwood in Dorset, there is a large rock known variously as St Stephen's Stone, the Hoarstone, or simply the Verwood Stone. And beneath this stone is said to be a hidden golden vessel containing yet another stash of treasure. However once again, these riches are guarded by a black bird that attacks anyone who tries to claim it.
Next time we will be further considering Animal Apparitions, looking at some of the odder ghostly creatures that lurk in folklore and legend...