Rampant ravens, clawing eagles, and the odd fiery phoenix can be seen on just about every mud- and blood-spattered battlefield on TV the world over, but what of the other birds on the family crest? We take a look at some of the more obscure birds to adorn a flag, and why they were chosen at all.
Heraldry is the term used to describe the study, design and display of images used in armour, along with their associated paraphernalia such as flags and banners. Symbols of birds have been used to represent individuals or nations since Egyptian times, with one of the most famous being a falcon, depicting the god Horus, thought to embody whichever king happened to be ruling at the time. There is little evidence in existence today as to why modern heraldry became so widespread and varied, although some theorise that as there were so many battles in olden times, and the armour had to cover every fleshy part due to the vast array of damaging weapons available, it made sense to know if you were massacring for the right side: so put a picture on your helmet, for heaven’s sake.
Symbols of birds have been used to represent individuals or nations since Egyptian times.
Humans like to assume the form of something quicker, stronger and mightier than themselves, and have always looked to the mysteries of the animal world for inspiration, but there’s only so many eagles and lions to go around, no matter what colour you paint it. And so feudal times gave rise to a huge range of designs, each one imbued with a message meant to be more long-lasting and nobler than everyone else’s: my standing up goat is better at war than your swimming otter. Well, my three spinning windmills can make more money than your four running rabbits. And so on.
As well as the eagle or any other type of falcon, birds have been used in heraldry more than any other animal. We’ll take a look at some of the more notable examples here.
Always a favourite with us because of the pouch that can hold so much food on board, the pelican first took place on a shield because of precisely that – its ability to provide sustenance. Combined with the gleaming white plumage and a perhaps comedically matronly waddle, the pelican symbolises maternal or parental concern and comfort. She is always depicted with her wings spread and her head and neck in a posture called vulning, which means to wound oneself. In medieval legend, the pelican would have the power to revive its dead young with blood from its own breast.
In heraldry, swallows are known as martlets. Martlets are always depicted with no feet, a remnant of the times when people believed that swallows literally had no feet, because they were never seen to land on the ground or perch. This now bizarre notion is still believed in some parts of the world today, and even in modern heraldry the martlet is always drawn with feathers in place of feet.
In heraldry, swallows are known as martlets.
The image of the martlet is to represent a similar standing in land and wealth succession – it is always used for the fourth son of any noble family: the first gets the father’s land, the second gets the mother’s, the third gets any land the other two get if they die, and by the time there’s a fourth child in line it’s assumed there is no land left, so they have to fly away and find their own.
Always white with wings closed and usually holding a branch, the dove is the symbol of the Christian god, arising from the story of Noah and the Ark with the olive branch clasped in its beak. Signifying innocence, peace and love, the dove is the symbol of Ireland. Curiously, they are often depicted with a small tuft on the back of their heads, and it is thought that this is to distinguish them from the wholly unheralded pigeon.
Naturally, the swan symbolises poetry, music and harmony, given that they can be seen gliding along noiselessly through still waters and managing somehow to belie their somewhat more truthfully aggressive side. In Greek mythology, Zeus took the form of a seductive swan, and they are also associated with Aphrodite/Venus, whose chariot was pulled through the air by two swans. It is thought that one of the good things about dying is that you get to hear the swan’s song as you enter the Afterlife, hence the phrase meaning your final notable gesture.
It is thought that one of the good things about dying is that you get to hear the swan’s song.
In the Middle Ages the swan was said to have black skin but be white on the outside, symbolising hypocrisy. Others claimed the swan actually symbolised noble purity. So that was something else to fight about.
Slightly more obscure, the parrot is known as the Popinjay in heraldic terms, and symbolises business acumen or administrative achievement. Used more in tropical countries than the soggy cold west, the parrot also signified love and fertility. To show a parrot on your crest was to show that not only were you top notch at all that economics stuff, you were a very successful lover and propagator. Little wonder, then, that when they were brought across the seas in the Middle Ages, Henry VIII simply had to have one.
Finishing up with that marvel of musicianship, that harbinger of spring and warm sunlit days, the lark in heraldry is the indicator that a new day has begun. Families bearing larks on their crests are almost always called Lark(e), of course, although the Clarkes across the ages have also appropriated this little bird. These families purport to almost always bring hope, happiness, good fortune and creativity to the world. Larks are said to sing at the gates of heaven, such is their boundless energy for all things amazing and worth it.
Peacocks, herons, lapwings, magpies, pheasants, moorhens; almost every species of bird has been used at one point or another in history to lay claim to a parcel of land or the next marital triumph. The convoluted world of heraldry is rightly fascinating; it is therefore also only correct that one of the world’s most diverse species is used to convey the complexities of our mortal struggle in plain sight.