Through the narrator, Chaucer extensively lists many characters present in the dreamland, many of whom represent or personify a larger concept. Chaucer additionally includes a very detailed list of all of the birds surrounding Nature. However, he describes certain birds in more detail, characterizing them both directly and indirectly through their speech and the revelation of their opinions regarding the matter of the “formel egle”.
What groups do various birds (the eagle, falcon, goose, etc.) represent? Is there a connection between the type of bird and the group being represented? Why does Chaucer choose to represent these groups and their thoughts through birds?
While there is speculation amongst scholars of the representation of certain visual persons by the birds in the poem, this is all debatable. More immediately, the birds represent certain human vices or virtues. We see almost the entire range of Hunan personality in the species of birds present for this parliament from nobleness to gluttony (337-364). This imposition of human attitudes onto birds, a product of the natural world, can be seen as commandeering the attributes of nature to fit human ideals.
Chaucer spends much more time on the “foules of ravyne,” the birds of prey, than any other group of birds (line 323). The small birds are situated lower than the birds of prey, and the birds “that liveth by seed” are on the ground, and both of these are only mentioned in passing (328). For the birds of prey, however, Chaucer dedicates long and extended descriptions of each species, from the eagle to the falcon to sparrowhawk, the owl, the heron, etc. He also gives preference to the dove and the swan, the beautiful birds, and the peacock, which is described as having angelic feathers.
All this is to say that, though Chaucer seems to give descriptions of a variety of kinds of birds, he definitely mentions the birds which are seen as most noble the most, and those kinds that people are most familiar with. The birds of prey, then, I would guess are akin to the nobility, the small birds the middle class (I know they didn’t really have one in the Middle Ages, but for convenience’s sake), and the ones on the grass the peasants. I can only guess that he chooses to to represent all of these in order to mimic most closely the workings of parliament where, of course, the noble would be most heard and peasants least, or not at all.