For the Birds: Examining Outlander's Avian Imagery

Written by: Kendra Spring Klasek





Outlander is a literary work replete with metaphorical imagery, none of it accidental. Perhaps no single image is more ubiquitous than that of a wide variety of birds. In this piece, I will examine the species of birds which make major appearances in both the book and the show and what they mean in the context of character and locale. Because of the wealth of variety in regards to species, behavior, and folklore, bird imagery is rife in literature, and much of it resonates here. So, because this is Outlander, and some of you have been keeping a boob count, we'll start with a pair of tits.


Colum's Caged Songbirds

"As I entered, my attention was drawn at once by an enormous cage, cleverly engineered to fit the curve of the wall from floor to ceiling, filled with dozens of tiny birds: finches, buntings, tits and several kinds of warblers." - Outlander, Chapter 5 (The Mackenzie) Diana Gabaldon

This is the first glimpse Claire gets of Colum Mackenzie's inner sanctum and the birds in that cage say a lot about the man she is about to meet. So what do these birds symbolize? Let's not focus on the immediate overall metaphor that caged birds always represent, but take each species individually.

At the risk of being a tease, let's leave those tits in the cage for just a moment and have a look at the finches:

Photo courtesy: http://www.petermoorewildlifephotography.co.uk

Finches are easily identifiable by their tiny bodies, bright red heads and bellies, and long twittering songs. (allaboutbirds.org)

Now the buntings:

Photo courtesy: http://birdingpooleharbourandbeyond.blogspot.com

Buntings are bright colored song birds. Because they do not do well in captivity, passing disease on to other animals, they are illegal as caged birds. Their songs are so beautiful, however, that some species of buntings (specifically, the painted bunting) have led to an illegal trafficking market. As ludicrous as it may seem, these birds are sold to be secretly pitted against each other in singing competitions. It's like 'Bird Idol', except highly illegal and the birds tend to die. (allaboutbirds.org)

The warblers:

Photo courtesy: http://www.the-soc.org.uk


Old world warblers are small and, because of their wide variety, often indistinguishable and, again, known for their songs. (rspb.org.uk)

Finally, as promised, lets examine those tits.

Tits came by their name due to their minuscule size. Though tiny, they are the most vocal songbird. Highly intelligent and quick learners, Tits are also known as Chickadees, due to their boisterous rallying call. This cry "chickadee-dee-dee!" is used to summon all others nearby to attack an invading predator. The number of "dee" syllables at the end of the call increases with the level of the perceived threat. (Templeton, Christopher; Greene, Erick; Davis, Kate)

So in researching these birds, I found frail little songbirds trapped in a cage; one songbird known to grow ill in captivity, one known for it's beautiful red plumage and then boom! Tiny little badass warrior bird.

Now we've got a pretty clear picture of Colum Mackenzie and he's not yet even entered the picture.  Colum is a proud man, described by Diana in the book as striking, were it not for his diminutive stature brought about by his withered legs. The finches' red plumage represent this striking nature, all the way down to the small stature. The buntings represent the contradiction resultant from his diseased body and eloquent and cunning speech.  The warblers also echo his eloquence. And then we have the tits. These represent the military power and cunning of The Mackenzie, disguised by his crippled body. The birds tell us who he is, all trapped inside a cage of deformity.

Jamie and the Plover

The next bit of imagery we'll look at are the birds Jamie and Claire discover just before their encounter with Hugh Munro.

"This tarn at least had birds; swallows dipped low over the water to drink, and plovers and curlews poked long bills into the muddy earth at its edges, digging for insects." - Outlander, Chapter 17 (We Meet a Beggar) Diana Gabaldon

Before we delve into the overtly stated metaphor of the plover, let's quickly look at the other two species, keeping in mind the chronological context of our story at this point.

First, the swallow:

Photo courtesy: http://tomgradwellphotography.co.uk

Let's resist the urge to discuss their air-speed velocity and keep in mind that this would be a European swallow, as we all are well aware that "African swallows are non-migratory." European swallows are highly migratory. Their blue backs, red faces and long forked tail feathers make them quite distinctive and what's equally important . . . established pairs mate for life, however, they do sometimes breed outside the pair, making them socially monogamous but genetically polygamous. (Møller, Anders Pape)

Sound like anyone we know?

Let's move on to the curlew:

Photo courtesy: http://www.birdforum.net


The curlew is a widespread and quite common bird found in wet grasslands and meadows, near moorlands, estuaries or wherever packed mud is present, where they can forage to satisfy their diet of worms, invertebrates, and small crabs. Their nest is a bare scrape. (http://www.birdforum.net)

We've gathered our colors, as it were, so let's paint our picture of Jamie and Claire at this point in the story. They are in their "honeymoon" period. They have paired up, but Claire is essentially involved in "extra-pair copulation" (Møller, Anders Pape) Those familiar with the larger scope of the series of books will see further parallels, but I'll not spoil them here. It is enough to know that Claire is involved with, and bound to, two men at this point. However exciting and profound this new pairing is, it is not without it's hardship.  Claire and Jamie are on the road and, while not yet on the run, they have no real home they can go to, sometimes making camp with the men of Leoch under the stars, "nesting", if you will, on a "bare scrape" of ground. Throughout the course of their story, they are highly migratory, always on the move.

Let's now look at that plover I mentioned earlier. This little lady is going to act as our primer for this entire exploration.

Photo courtesy: http://nubijar.blogspot.com

First, we'll look at the context:

"Jamie called my attention to a plover, calling and dragging a seemingly broken wing near us. 'She's a nest somewhere near,' I said." - Outlander, Chapter 17 (We Meet a Beggar) Diana Gabaldon

They find the nest and Jamie pokes at it with a stick, throwing the momma bird into a tizzy. He waits quietly and then "in a flash of movement" has her in his hand, calming her in Gaelic. When he finally releases her, he crosses himself. Claire questions him about it and he explains.

"Ah, well.  It's an old tale, is all. Why plovers cry as they do, and run keening about their nests like that . . . Plovers have the souls of young mothers dead in childbirth . . . The story goes that they cry and run about their nests because they canna believe the young are safe hatched; they're mourning always for the lost one - or looking for a child left behind."

Claire makes the connection to his own mother.

"'How old were you?' I asked.  He gave me a half-smile. 'Eight,' he answered.  'Weaned, at least.'"

So here we have the first outright correlation between character and bird. Jamie identifying this bird with Ellen Mackenzie tells us how to look at the specific birds mentioned in the text. This is literature, not a documentary film. They can't just flutter into the camera's view, they have to be purposefully placed there. As I said, this is the primer Diana has left us to break her bird code.

We've looked extensively at some of the birds found in the book, so let's look at some of the avian imagery found in the show.

Sandringham's Peacock Pie

Let's talk about the Duke of Sandringham and that peacock pie, shall we?

Photo credit: Rina Caffarella for National Geographic Magazine

No need for citations here.  I grew up in south Florida and we had a peacock infestation.  Some well-to-do folks thought they were pretty and decided to raise them as pets before realizing they were extraordinarily unpleasant birds.  Before you know it, they bred and they spread.  No matter how beautiful these iridescent fowls are, they have a call that sounds like Fran Drescher being bludgeoned with a shoe. Not only are they loud, but they're nasty.  They treat their mates aggressively and abandon the peahens and their offspring after mating. This bird should not be this attractive. It should strut around in a wife-beater with a pack of Camels, not sporting such brilliant plumage.  That's what makes this foul fowl the perfect representation of the Duke of Sandringham.

To take this metaphor one step further, the peacock is presented stuffed and mounted atop a gigantic meat pie. Everything about it is a deception; a semblance of life, prettily adorning death. Simon Callow may not bear much resemblance to the Sandringham in the text, but he gets the foppishness and the nastiness just right. He's so fancy and fluffy in his powdered wig and little pants amongst all the highland regalia, but underneath it all is a rotten heart.

A Murmuration of Starlings

That brings us to 'The Devil's Mark' and those spectacular starlings:

Photo courtesy: http://all-that-is-interesting.com

Much has already been said about the imagery in this episode, but I think it bears repeating. Starling murmurations are some of the most beautiful and haunting things in nature. These murmurations are scientifically described by "equations of critical transitions". (wired.com)

Something I found out when I began researching this piece was that the starling population has undergone a steep decline since the 1970s.  New studies have been launched to discover how and why murmurations form, in an effort to find out how to save the species. A couple of interesting theories arose. One, that the starlings join together to avoid larger predators and two, that they fly together en masse to keep warm, multiplying their body heat by the hundreds. (http://all-that-is-interesting.com)

Interestingly, though we see that stunning murmuration in the title card, when Claire mentions the starlings, she sees only a single bird.

She has come to realize how alone she is. The terror and desperation of her proclamation, "No one is coming, Geillis!" speaks to that knowledge and manages to also snap Geillis out of her cool detachment. When they finally understand just how far up the creek they are, they turn to each other for strength. This is their critical transition.

Claire is a natural loner. Though she longs for stability, family, and community, these were foreign to her in her former life.  She has some of the natural traits of a starling (she is never able to keep her mouth shut for long) however, flocking is alien to her.  She has to learn this. We've seen how easily she has fallen in step with Jamie and they make a powerful team, but up to this point, he has been all she had.  It is beautiful and heartbreaking to see the depth of that newfound bond between Claire and Geillis, where each, in turn, demonstrates her willingness to go to the pyre for the other, sisters caught out of time.

St. Francis and the Birds

Finally, we'll look at Father Anselm.  There are no birds here, either in the film or the text, except in historical folklore.  Father Anselm is a Franciscan, thus named for St. Francis of Assisi. (Eleny via StoryWonk.com)

Image courtesy: https://sbfranciscans.org

There are two legends involving St. Francis and birds.

The first tells of him traveling with several companions near a small village and, upon seeing a flock of a great many species of birds, he approaches them and begins to preach.  Incredibly, the birds do not fly away.  They stay, as if they are listening, rapt by the power of his words. (americancatholic.org)

The second involves doves. St. Francis sees a young man walking to market with a cage containing a pair of wild doves he has captured.  Feeling sorry for the doves, who's eventual fate is surely to be the main ingredient in a pie of some sort, he convinces the man to give him the doves. He takes the doves out of the cage, cradles them gently (quite like Jamie and the plover), and tells them that he will build nests for them at his monastery and take care of them, but never hold them captive in the cage. He takes them home and does just that. He sets them free, but because his gentleness has tamed them, they stay until he gives his blessing for them to leave. (http://www.fisheaters.com)

First, we need to ask ourselves, if Father Anselm is Francis Assisi, then who do the birds represent? Clearly, they represent Claire and we see both legends reverberate through his interaction with her.

Claire hasn't come out and actually stated at this point that she is an atheist, but the implications are there, so when Father Anselm approaches her and asks her to participate in the ritual of Perpetual Adoration, we would expect her to flee, but instead, she walks with him and listens to his reasoning.

"For me, in that moment . . . it's as though time has stopped.  All the humors of the body, all the blood and bile and vapors that make a man; it's as though just at once all of them are working in perfect harmony." 

He continues . . .

"But just then, for that fraction of time, it seems as though all things are possible.  You can look across the limitations of your own life, and see that they are really nothing.  In that moment when time stops, it is as though you know you could undertake any venture, complete it and come back to yourself, to find the world unchanged, and everything just as you left it a moment before . . . As though, knowing that everything is possible, suddenly nothing is necessary."

Claire asks, "But do you actually DO anything?"

"'I?  Well,' he said slowly, 'I sit, and I look at Him.' A wide smile stretched the fine-drawn lips.  'And He looks at me.'" - Outlander, Chapter 38 (The Abby) Diana Gabaldon

She chooses to stay and listen, much like St. Francis' flock of birds and thusly, opens herself up to an experience that, though perhaps not purely "religious", is nonetheless profound.

Later, she confides in him the entirety of her story; her guilt involving the soldiers (including the adolescent boy) she kills while rescuing Jamie from Wentworth as well as her journey through the stones and through time, her marriage to Frank, and the circumstances surrounding her marriage to Jamie.  Anselm astounds her with immediate acceptance and deems it miraculous.  He absolves her of everything she may have (or thinks she has) done wrong, effectively releasing her from her cage of guilt and setting her free.  I, myself, think life and our choices in it are a bit messier than this tidy little package of absolution makes them out to be, but it does work in rounding out our final bird metaphor.

So, what imagery have you picked up on in either the books or the show? Did I miss any major bird cameos? Do you think Father Anselm's absolution was a cop-out or am I way off base?

23 comments

  1. Such a brilliant and well researched piece! Loved the humor as well. You got me at the non-migratory swallows! This is such great information and insights not easily picked up by the casual reader / viewer. Kept my interest from beginning to end! Well done!!

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    1. Thank you, Mom! When you take into account Diana Gabaldon's background (she holds three degrees in science: Zoology, Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology) it totally makes sense that she would weave this stuff into her story.

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  2. Kendra this was a fantastic piece!!! Loved it!!

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  3. A really great description of these pieces. I especially love the peacock pairing.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time, Caroline! I realize this is a lengthy one. :)

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  4. Wonderfully and thoroughly researched.

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  5. Kendra-that was such an insightful piece. Btw-after this, my view of peacocks has changed LOL

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, they're so pretty, but ridiculously obnoxious. People started petitioning to be able to just shoot them. It was pretty bad.

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  6. Kendra, thank you! Another amazing example of the richness and depth of Diana's work. But, again, one has to "dig" to understand it. Thank you for digging out the truth of this.

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    1. Thank you, Barbara! It's like a set designer who knows certain areas of the stage probably won't be seen, but still goes all the way with every minute detail, anyway.

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  7. Kendra, thank you! Another amazing example of the richness and depth of Diana's work. But, again, one has to "dig" to understand it. Thank you for digging out the truth of this.

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  8. Kendra, thank you! Another amazing example of the richness and depth of Diana's work. But, again, one has to "dig" to understand it. Thank you for digging out the truth of this. It's just beautiful work.

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  9. The critical flaw in your argument is the overestimation of the quality of Outlander. Good show for sure, but far from great. Behind closed doors, the viewer demographics and 'real' critical response is going to reinforce this to anybody making decisions.

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    Replies
    1. Haha! I wasn't aware I was making an argument. Were you meaning to comment on the Starz letter?

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