The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Why Do We Like Some Birds and Dislike Others?

The top of a telegraph pole is visible in the centre of the photograph, silhouetted against a cloudy and blue sky. A stork sits in its nest on top of the telegraph pole

By Dr Stefan Dorondel, New Europe College

I have always wondered why people like some birds and hate, or at least are indifferent to, others. Some reasons may have to do with the color of the birds and their song.[1] The canary (Serinus canaria domestica) for instance is brightly colored and sings nicely. Other birds such as crows (Corbus frugilegus) are black – the color of death and mourning in all European cultures – and thus remind us of unpleasant things and moments of life. Yet, there are birds which are not particularly colorful nor perform songs which are still carefully protected by people. This is the case of the stork (Ciconia ciconia). A comparison between crows and storks and the way they are treated in Romania would show incredibly differentiated human treatment.

A stork nest in IC Brătianu village (Tulcea County, Romania). 20th of May 2021. Photo by Stefan Dorondel

In the early 1990s, when I was a student in a Transylvanian town, the local Association of Hunters and Fishermen posted an announcement: on certain days in the central parks of the town the hunters were going to shoot the crows. The administration considered that their numbers were way too high and created issues in the town parks. Hunters were paid for each killed bird. Along the same lines, other cities display a similarly negative attitude towards crows. The inhabitants of one of the largest Romanian cities called Timişoara constantly joke about the name of the city. Because the homophony of the Romanian word for crow (cioară) and the termination of the city’s name people would call the city “Timicioara” in order to flag up the high number of crows in the city’s parks. This irony pinpoints negative feelings towards this bird.

Such negative associations have a long history in Romania. For five hundred years the name of this bird was attributed to enslaved Roma people reflecting the despised and marginalized place they occupied (and continue to occupy) in Romanian society.[2] This is the equivalent of the “n” word in English used by Whites until quite recently for Afro-American people. In the Romanian social imagination the crow plays a negative role: it is portrayed as stealing seeds from agricultural fields.[3] Nothing could be worse for an agricultural population. Hence its bad reputation.

Storks are animals that occupy a perfect opposite role in the Romanian imagination. Despite not being particularly beautiful, storks are prized throughout Romania. People take care of their nests and it is no wonder that the first citizen science project unfolded by the Romanian Ornithological Society was the census of storks. There are multiple popular beliefs concerning the stork – all of them positive. These birds are considered to bring good luck to the household where they nest. Their arrival announces spring. Storks are associated with the coming of human babies – “a aduce barza” (brought by the stork in Romanian) is similar to “being born” in Romanian. This association may be due to their migratory behavior and also to the fact that they seem to return to the same nest every year.[4] They are considered almost like members of a family.[5] Albeit a family member that may cause small problems such as dropping small snakes and frogs from their beak when they feed their babies. I remember these stories from my mother who grew up in a village close to the Danube Delta. The small “gifts” they would constantly receive – snakes, frogs, insects – from the winged members of the family living on the roof of the house were not particularly pleasant. Yet no one would have dared to destroy the nests. This situation continues until today. There are many nests, especially in the villages along the Danube (see photo). People enthusiastically attend their census according to the Romanian Ornithological Society. These birds are obviously liked by humans.

Two different birds – neither of them particularly colorful or good singers – yet with such a different place in the social imagination. There must be many explanations for the radically opposite treatment they are subjected to but none linked to esthetics. It is the way these birds were perceived through the centuries, the things they were associated with, which make them be perceived as good or bad rather than their own physical appearances.

[1] See for instance Nancy Jacob, Birders of Africa. History of a Network, New Haven and London, 2016.

[2] See for instance Radu Rosetti, Amintiri. Ce am auzit de la alţi. Din copilarie. Din prima tinereţe [Memoirs. What I have heard from the Others. My Childhood. My Youth]. Humanitas, Bucureşti, 2013 [1925].

[3] Mihai Coman, Bestiarul mitologic românesc [The Romanian Mythological Bestiary], Bucureşti, Editura Fundaţiei Culturale Române, 1996.

[4] For similar beliefs in other cultures see Jean Chevalier and Alan Gheerbrant, Dicţionar de simboluri [Dictionary of Symbols]. Vol. 1 (A-D). Bucureşti, Artemis, 1994 (1969 for the French Edition), p. 181.

[5] Idem, pp. 100-104 for more popular beliefs about storks.