In Devonshire, the appearance of a white-breasted bird was considered an omen of death. This belief has been traced to a circumstance stated to have happened to the Oxenham family in that county. James Howell, in Familiar Letters (Epistolae Ho-Elianae), mentions a huge marble with a large inscription upon it:
Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished. Here lies also Mary Oxenham, the Sister of the said John, who died the next day, and the same apparition was seen in the Room.
Then another sister is spoken of:
Then, Here lies hard by James Oxenham, the Son of the said John, who died a Child in his Cradle a little after; and such a Bird was seen fluttering about his head, a little before he expired, which vanished afterwards.
At the bottom of the stone there is:
Here lies Elizabeth Oxenham, the Mother of the said John, who died sixteen years since, when such a Bird with a white breast was seen about her bed before her death.
- Omens and Superstitions: Curious facts and illustrative sketches. (1868). Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, p. 17.