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King Of The Birds

From Stories in Faith: Exploring Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources through Wisdom Tales, by Gail Forsyth-Vail ( Boston : Unitarian Universalist Association, 2007).

Tales like this are part of the folklore of many different cultures. There are references to its appearance in a Jewish collection from the 13th century; there are variants in Irish, Scottish, Manx, English, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian folk cultures. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published a version in German Household Tales in 1812. Similar stories appear in both Chippewa and Ojibway folklore in North America and in a tale from India .

Often, "King of the Birds" tales serve as explanations for why a particular kind of small bird darts about noisily. Each version of the tale has its own natural setting with the trees, terrain and kinds of birds drawn from the familiar surroundings of the storyteller. A surprising and wonderful version of the tale was collected and translated by Loreen McDonald, a first-grade teacher at the John Wesley School in Eshowe, Zululand, Natal, South Africa . The tale here draws from this Zulu version, which portrays the birds deciding together who will be their leader, with an unexpected result.

Once upon a time, when the world was new, the Great Eagle called a meeting of all the birds. On a bright beautiful morning, they all assembled: the flamingo, the weaver, the steppe buzzard, the warbler, the owl, and all the other birds of the wild.

There was chirping, hooting, and all manner of singing as the assembled birds greeted one another. Eagle called for silence. When all had quieted down, he said, "We know that Lion is king of all who dwell on the land. But a land dweller like Lion should not rule the birds of the air. We must choose our own leader!" There was great cawing and chirping and chattering of agreement. When all was quiet again, Eagle spoke once more: "The King of Birds should behave like a king. I am the bird with royal bearing. I am the best choice for king!"

The birds murmured and mumbled.

Another voice spoke: "Yes, you are indeed majestic. But I think I, Owl, should be king. I have the largest eyes of any of you and can see everything that happens. I am known for my wisdom and will know best how to act when the king must choose wisely."

The birds began to chatter and argue back and forth. Should their leader have wisdom like Owl or majesty like Eagle? Or perhaps strength like that of the steppe buzzard was the most important thing. The birds had chosen sides and were preparing to vote on who should be their king when another voice emerged from the chatter. It was the voice of the tiny warbler: "I'd like to be king. I think you should elect me!"

The assembled birds began to laugh. What a silly idea! Electing this small warbler king was unthinkable! How dare this ridiculous little bird even suggest such a thing! "Whatever makes you think we should consider choosing a bird like you for our leader? What have you got to offer? You are not the wisest, or the strongest, or the most majestic of the birds," said Eagle.

"Well," said Warbler, "I think I'm as able to be a good king as any of you others who have declared yourselves. I want the opportunity to try!"

The birds laughed. "He certainly has courage," one said.

"Let's have a contest!" declared Eagle, and every bird agreed. "We will meet right after the next full moon. We'll wait until the sun is going down, and when it touches the very top of the mountain, the contest will begin. We'll all fly as high as we can go, maybe even high enough to touch the place where the sky begins. Whoever flies highest will be our new king."

When the contest day arrived, all the birds met once more. Warbler was among the birds who gathered. He had figured out a special plan to prove that he had as much right to be king as any other bird. Just before the beginning of the contest, Warbler crept under Eagle's wing. He pushed his way so deep into Eagle's feathers that as Eagle flew upward, determined to win the contest, he did not feel Warbler buried deep in his feathers.

The birds flew higher and higher. The ones with small wings were soon out of the competition, unable to soar with the larger birds. In time, there were only three birds remaining: Eagle, Owl, and Buzzard. They were exhausted, but they pushed on, flying ever higher. When Owl could no longer continue, he dove back toward earth, resigned. Up and up, higher and higher flew Eagle and Buzzard, until at long last even Buzzard gave up, too exhausted to continue. When Eagle saw that Buzzard was not able to continue, he flew just a little higher and proudly declared himself the contest winner — and the new King of the Birds!

"Not so fast," chirped Warbler, who emerged from Eagle's feathers. "You have not won yet!" And Warbler rose above Eagle, who could not muster the strength to continue flying.

The birds did not declare Warbler their king. They were angered by his trickery and ready to pounce upon him when he came back down. Warbler was frightened by their anger and flew into a deserted snake hole, where he hid from all the others. Owl was appointed to watch the entrance to the hole night and day, lest the little bird escape without facing the consequences of his trickery.

After a while, Owl grew tired. He decided to close one eye and watch with the other. It wasn't long after that when his second eye closed as well and Owl fell asleep. Warbler, who had been waiting for this moment, flew out of the hole and deep into the forest, where even today he flits from place to place, never staying long enough to be caught, calling "I am king! I am king!"

And to this day the birds are still undecided about who should be king.

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Last updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

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