Tag Archives: birds

Good deeds will always be repaid: The Grateful Magpie

Main Piece:

“A man travels to the royal palace to receive employment but lives in the middle of nowhere and crosses a mountain to get to the examination building. As he goes through the mountain, he sees two snakes going up a tree trying to eat a bird’s nest. The man sees the bird in danger, a particular breed that is synonymous with good fortune in Korea, and pulls out his bow and arrow and kills one of the snakes. The other snake runs off and the man mends the bird’s leg and puts it back into its nest. A couple days pass and he’s still crossing the mountain. Night falls and the man needs to find shelter on the mountain or else he fears that he might die if he spends the night in the mountain.

The man passes by an old house, sees a light, and it seems to be inhabited. The man hopes to stay the night and pay any amount to make it so. He knocks on the door and is met with a slithery and pale woman who comes out asking what he wants. The man explains his situation and asks to stay the night as he does not wish to risk dying out in the wilderness. The woman in raspy voice agrees, and guides him to an empty room. The man unloads his baggage and prepares to sleep but hears a knock on the door. The woman brings him some food and he thanks her for the hospitality. The woman lays down the tray of food and the woman leaves, but the man swears he heard some “ssss” noises from her. He passes it off as exhaustion and the man eats what he was offered, falls asleep, but in the middle of the night he hears footsteps and wonders whats going on. The door flings open and he notices it’s the woman again, whispering “murderer murderer”, and the woman transforms into a huge snake. The man wakes up, the snake woman screams that he killed her husband and they were a couple days away from becoming dragons. The woman swears to kill the man, binds him, and prepares to eat him but a far off gong noise scares the snake. “If that bell rings two more times and the sun rises, I cannot eat you anymore as I will ascend”. “But I still seek vengeance for my husband”. The snake becomes distracted and the man runs away. The snake chases him, another gong sounds and the snake begins to transform as the snake grows larger. The gong rings a second time and becomes a dragon and wails as she cannot seek vengeance and pleads for forgiveness from her husband.

The man survives the night and is relieved for whoever rang the bell on the mountaintop, which must mean there was a temple nearby. He seeks the temple out to thank the monks for saving his life. He finds the temple abandoned and the man tries to find the person who could have helped him. By the temple’s bell gongs, the man finds the dead bodies of a number of birds. The magpies had bashed themselves toward the bell to ring it and save the man from the snake and he recognizes the mended leg of the bird he had saved earlier among them.”


My informant is my brother who had recently returned home after many years away from the family due to the Covid pandemic keeping him longer than he planned for at home. He is more culturally more attuned to Korean stories compared to me and his own enthusiasm towards mythology and history rubbed off on me early. Most of his stories were told to him by our mother before I was born. The Korean Magpie is a symbol of good fortune in Korea as well as the national bird and the snakes in this story are a mythical kind known as “imugi”. Imugi are creatures who normally make homes near the water and they are considered imperfect dragons who must meet a certain requirement to fully become dragons. This story has the snake woman be distraught over the fact she will be unable to seek vengeance once she fully transforms as dragons are inherently forces of good in wider Asian mythology and cannot seek action in vengeance. My brother likes these types of folklore as he is an avid fan of mythologies and belief systems all over the world despite having been active debater against organized religion as well as having it be a fond memory of his country and family’s history before Christianity began phasing things out on the traditional spectrum of Korean culture.


Before my brother returned to work, I asked him if he could share any stories he remembers from his childhood that our parents told him. He picked out a couple stories while tabling a few others, not confident in being able to retell it as our mother did many years ago.

My Thoughts:

A story that relays the message “Good deeds are always returned in kind” promoting benevolence between all peoples. My father told me a similar story to this when I asked him for something to use for this project but his involved a different animal. The toad was the animal that helps out a human and the malevolent creature in question was an enormous centipede, yet another creature whose body symbolized a false dragon like snakes. It speaks highly to the benevolent light the Asian folk circles sees dragons as if they cannot commit acts of vengeance once they become one. As both of my parents originate from the Southern but different parts of South Korea, their stories seem to differ from each other in slight ways. Even in the most unlikeliest of expectations that animals would knowingly repay humans, it is a good mantra to live by to help and any and all living creature trying to survive out in the harsh realities of life. Even if Buddhist beliefs were starting to phase out individual names away from these types of stories, their message still carries a contextually Korean or humanistic element favoring a helpless bird over that of snakes as Buddhism usually speak against killing any living creature.

Hair in a Bird’s Nest

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Informant: So my – so my grandmother, on my moms side… was a…. Old German lady. She had German – half German, but anyway. She was staunch Catholic but, my mom would tell me this story that, you know, she would never – she yelled at her once because she was cleaning out her brush and she was gonna throw it out like the window of the car. She told – cleaning out – gonna throw her hair out the window, that is, not the brush. And she said you know, you never – never throw your hair away, you gotta burn it, like if you clean out your brush or anything like that, because if you throw it away and a bird gets it, puts it in their nest, build their nest with it you’ll have headaches for the rest of you life.

Interviewer: Do you know why?

Informant: Nope. Just something to do with the birds and bad luck, I guess.

Interviewer: And did your mom enforce this on you, or like, tell it as a joke?

Informant: No, no! My mom told me the same story, so…

Interviewer: Wait so you did have to follow it.

Informant: No, she just-

Interviewer: Oh. So for your grandma it was a belief but for your mom it was just a saying.

Informant: Yeah, yep.

Background: My informant was raised by a very religious but not too strict Catholic family. They were not very wealthy growing up, and he has heard a great deal of sayings like these growing up in a rural area on a farm.

Context: This piece of folklore was collected when I asked the informant to tell me about the stories and sayings they remembered from their mother. The informant is my father, and he is a very outspoken person so the setting was relaxed.

Thoughts: I enjoy collecting pieces of folklore that reveal contradictory aspects of a person. That a staunchly religious person would believe and enforce a superstition – a bit of magic – in this way is funny to me. The concept of this is directly tied to contagious magic, and it even evokes classic cliches of voodoo. It is a good example of the nature of belief being flexible and form fitting.

Signs from the Dead

My informant for this piece of folklore was recalling a time shortly after her father had died over two years ago. My informant, now 54, discussed with me a charm that she spotted that brought a sort of closure to his death. She told me that outside of her home window, just a week after her father’s death, she saw a Western Meadowlark, Oregon’s state bird, flying in her backyard.

My informant says that this specific bird seen incredibly rarely, and that she had never seen one before in her life, despite living in Oregon for over 40 years. Many cultures, my informant says, “believe that the dead send messages to their loved ones in a form that they are likely to recognize as a sign that they are on their journey and that all is well”. She says that her father loved birds, and throughout his life always had a birdfeeder in his backyard. She says that she and her only sister had grown up with a love of birds because of this, and shared a deep connection with their father on this topic.

“It must have been more than just a coincidence to have one of these rare birds even be spotted outside our home, let alone hang around for almost an hour flying in our yard for my family and I to see”, she said. Even more amazingly, her sister, who lives about an hour away, and is an “amateur birder”, had the same experience just a day later! My informant remembers being in awe when she spoke to her sister and they realized that they had both had the same experience with these birds. “What are the random chances of that?” asked my informant. “It must have been dad”.

She said that both her sister and her found that a sign from their father in the form of a meadowlark was “so appropriate” and that they believe that this was a sign sent down from him as a form of parting words or symbols.

My informant’s take on this occurrence was also grounded in reality, as well. “An openness to messages and miracles from beyond reveals some pretty comforting, awe inspiring experiences”, she said. It’s a way of comfort and of closure.

I agree with my informant in this case- the rarity of such an event, especially happening to both her and her sister, points to something supernatural occurring here. I believe that this folklore, of signs sent back from the deceased, likely dates back very far, possibly to the Native Americans and beyond, like my informant said. It is a way for those still living to find comfort in knowing that their loved one is safe in whatever new life they are leading now, depending on the beliefs of those who still live. I thought that this is a pretty phenomenal piece of folklore and example of it in action, and that it is important to share and archive for the future.

“Más vale un pájaro en la mano que cinco en vuelo.”

Más vale un pájaro en la mano que cinco en vuelo.

A bird in hand is worth more than five in flight.


My informant, who is bi-lingual, remembers hearing this proverb from her grandmother, born in 1915, and who moved to the United States from Cuba in 1976. (My informant’s mother came to the United States at the same time in 1976).

My informant said that her mother and grandmother are the ones who say these proverbs, she claims that her generation does not repeat them as much.

For this particular proverb, my informant could not recall the context in which she heard it,  just that she thought it was clever. It refers to the value of money today as opposed to possibilities of money in the future.

This proverb appears in many different regions, so therefore the uniqueness of this variant is the comparison of a bird in hand to five in flight. Other variants have the birds in a bush, not in flight. Therefore, the Cuban influence on this proverb is evident through the influence of Cuba’s aviary wildlife.


Annotation: This proverb, (worded as “a bird in hand is worth a thousand flying”) and its comparison to a western variant are mentioned in the article, “Capital Financing, An Old Approach Reapplied” by Ronald W. Chapman Public Productivity Review, Vol. 7, No. 4. (Dec., 1983), pp. 378-387.