In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:
“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)
In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home. Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages. Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.
However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird. The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder). These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.
The other feature is the bird. I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.
Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless. Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows. (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7) From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men. She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned. The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her. To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren. She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.
From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour. Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume. Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit. Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face. After this, Jack lost all his luck. When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard. Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again. Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack. From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival. His downfall followed inexorably. The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.
Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth. Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.” In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.
This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish. Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison. The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years. (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)
The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin. It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.
For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.