Both doves and pigeons are constantly associated in the popular mind with death. Every reader of Westward Ho! will remember the white dove which was the habitual death-token of the Oxenham family.
We have in Shropshire a less poetical record of a similar death-warning, which, however, seems to have been attached not so much to a particular family as to a particular house. The narrative shall be given verbatim from the pages of the old writer who has preserved it for us.
‘Beecause many maryages of persons in this parish of Myddle have beene made with persons of Cayhowell, I will say something of that farme. . . . There is a wounderfull thing observable concerning this farme, of which I may say, in the words of Du Bartas—
Strang to bee told, and though believed of few,
Yet is not soe incredible as true.
It is observed that if the chiefe person of the family that inhabits in this farme doe fall sick, if his sicknesse bee to death, there come a paire of pidgeons to the house about a fortnight or a weeke before the person’s death, and continue there untill the person’s death, and then goe away. This I have knowne them doe three severall times. 1st. Old Mrs. Bradocke fell sicke about a quarter of a yeare after my Sister was maryed, and the paire of pidgeons came thither, which I saw. They did every night roust under the shelter of the roofe of the kitchen att the end, and did sit upon the ends of the side raisers. In the day time they fled about the gardines and yards. I have seene them pecking on the hemp butt as if they did feed, and for ought I know they did feed. They were pretty large pidgeons; the feathers on their tayles were white, and the long feathers of theire wings, their breasts, and bellyes, white, and a large white ring about theire necks ; but the tops of theire heads, their backs, and theire wings (except the long feathers,) were of a light browne or nutmeg colour. (My brother-in-law, Andrew Bradocke, told mee that hee feared his mother would die, for there came such a pair of pidgeons before his father’s death, and hee had heard they did soe beefore the death of his grandfather.) After the death of Mrs. Bradocke, the pidgeons went away. 2ndly. About three-quarters of a year after the death of Mrs. Bradocke, my father goeing to give a visit to them at Kayhowell, fell sicke there, and lay sicke about nine or ten weekes. About a fortnight beefore his death, the pidgeons came; and when hee was dead, went away. 3rdly. About a yeare after his death, my brother-in-law, Andrew Bradocke, fell sicke, the pidgeons came, and hee died; they seemed to me to bee the same pidgeons at all these three times. When I went to pay Mr. Smalman, then minister of Kynerley, the buriall fee for Andrew Bradocke, which was in April, Mr. Smalman said, this is the fiftieth Corps which I have interred here since Candlemas last, and God knows who is next, which happened to bee himselfe. Andrew Bradocke died of a sort of rambeling feavourish distemper, which raged in that country, and my sister soone after his decease fell sicke, but shee recovered, and dureing her sicknesse, the pidgeons came not, which I observed, for I went thither every day, and returned att night. Afterwards my Sister sett out [= let] her farme to John Owen, a substantiall tenant, who about three yeares after fell sicke; and my Sister comeing to Newton, told mee that shee feared her tenant would bee dead, for hee was sicke, and the pidgeons were come; and hee died then.’
From Richard Gough, Antiquityes and Memoyres of the Parish of Myddle, 1700, Ed. 1875, pp. 45-48
Shropshire folk-lore: a sheaf of gleanings, edited by Charlotte Sophia Burne, 1885: p. 227-9
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: On several recent mornings Mrs Daffodil has noticed the mourning doves making moan in the shrubberies. The creatures visit only intermittently and Mrs Daffodil does not know whether to take it as an omen or a directive…
Doves and pigeons are often conflated in folk-lore. One suspects that their reputation as downy death omens comes from their role as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. In some parts of England there was a superstition that if pigeon feathers were found in the feather bed or pillow of a dying person, that person would not be able to pass on until the offending feathers were removed. See this post on “Feather Superstitions” for the particulars of death-preventing feathers.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.