Skerples's recent post called out how helpful birds can be in folklore. In Die Nibelungen, a bird tattles about someone coming to kill Siegfried. That's pretty useful!
Here's an idea I just want to get down onto paper:
Like many beasts, birds can speak the common tongue. Birds carry rumors. Some birds are known liars, some are cheaters, some require gifts, some are honest, some are naive. But every bird knows something.
Players can spend a long turn bird watching. The GM will draw from the major arcana (or roll a d20, if use dice like a peasant). If he draws a bird that could feasibly be in the region you're travelling, you spot it. If you find a bird species you haven't found yet, they'll tell you a rumor.
Here are some birds that you might find, and the regions they frequent.
I. The woodcock (forest, fields) - Remarkably religious. Will be very moved by acts of virtue and extremely unfriendly to the impious.
II. The swan (steadings, shores, fields) - Swans love stories of knights and maidens, and think of themselves as bird royalty.
III. The starling (fields, barrows, mountains) - Starlings are incredible gossips. Their rumors are almost always about embarrassing things that happen to people.
IV. The loon (fens, shores) - A fussy perfectionist. Type A personality.
V. The heron (fens, shores) - Into astrology. Looks down into her pool at night to interpret the heavenly signs. Wants to know when you were born so she can make your birth chart.
VI. The crow (steadings, barrows, forest) - A consummate trickster and known liar. His feelings would be very hurt if someone ever called him either of these things.
VII. The kite (forest, mountains, fens) - A reserved gentleman, long retired from his campaigning days.
VIII. The buzzard (steadings, barrows, fens) - Suffers from terrible ennui.
IX. The eagle (shores, mountains, forest) - Proud. Children of the West Wind. Will be furious if you ask them to transport you around willy nilly. What do they look like, a horse?
X. The chicken (fields, forest, steading) - Silly and sweet.
XI. The sandpiper (fens, shores) - Knows the saddest song ever written. Forgets what it's about. Maybe it hasn't happened yet.
XII. The hoopoe (fields, forest, mountains) - Loves jokes. Wants to hear jokes. Wants to try out new material on you.
XIII. The auk (shores) - Thinks of themselves like warrior poets. Want to flyt with you.
IXX. The dove (fields, mountains, steading) - Naive to a fault. Will believe anything they are told.
XX. The owl (steading, forest, barrow) - Has a reputation of being "wise" to uphold. Terrified of embarrassing himself.
XXI. The ouzel (where indeed?) - The ouzel cock so black of hue with orange and tawny bill. See Silent Titans for details.
Note: The regions here correspond to my reagents post.
GMs, make a corresponding 21 entry rumor table. Let your PCs go into the wilderness and find out the things birds know.
If you're reading this and wondering why the hell I wrote this, I'll explain:
- By putting rumors in the wilderness, PCs can search for clues no matter where they are. This is great for hex crawls (which I tend to run).
- Rumors will be easier to get in the early game and are less likely to occur as the players gain experience (and therefore information from other sources). This feels about right.
- By making "bird watching" a discrete action, PCs will track what birds they've seen and what birds they haven't. There's a Pokemon/Zelda-esque charm here that really appeals to me.