(n.) a small flock of birds, especially plovers, that emit a light whistling sound as they fly at night, once considered a sign of impending disaster
Birds are often the subject of bizarre folktales and folklore, but few are as peculiar as the so-called seven whistlers.
Written accounts of this expression date back to the 1800s, but the story attached to it is likely much older. The seven whistlers are a flock of screeching birds heard flying overhead at night, the eerie sound of which is said to be a portent of doom. This appears to have been a traditional upheld in the folklore of the north of England in particular, and indeed there are a number of contemporary accounts claiming that the seven whistlers were heard screeching on the night before some suitably tragic disaster—including an infamous mining disaster at Hartley, Northumberland, in 1862, that claimed over 200 lives.
Precisely what species these birds are is rarely specified (and indeed some versions of this tale claim that the seven whistlers are not birds at all, but witches, spectres, or some similar supernatural entity). But more often than not the name is associated with plovers—and in particular, lapwings and curlews—which often produce a plaintive screeching or weeping sound as they fly overhead.
If that’s what the whistling is, then why seven? Well, as we mentioned on Twitter, that number is said to refer to the seven officials who aided in the crucifixion of Jesus according to the New Testament. These birds represent these characters’ damned souls, adding even more ill-fame and portent to their peculiar call.