WHENEVER the 13th day of a month arrives on a Friday, as it does today, concern is expressed about the bad luck which may lurk in unexpected places.

This is even more pronounced when Friday 13 arrives in May because Friday is an unlucky day, 13 is an unlucky number and May is an unlucky month.

Years ago, I knew a man who would not get out of bed to go to work or do anything else if the 13th arrived on a Friday.

But does bad luck or ill fortune really associate itself with things like numbers, days, months or things like colours and good luck charms? Or is bad luck little more than the result of individuals being rather careless?

Despite doubts in our modern society, we continue to heed these ancient superstitions. How many brides, for example, would dare to get married on Friday, May 13, or how many other people would dare to begin a new enterprise or start a long journey today because it is Friday 13?

February is not regarded as an unlucky month, but I think it is fair comment that lots of us will take extra care today as we go about our daily routine, just in case!

Despite the ill-fortune associated with today's date, it seems it is considered, in some parts of the country, to be a stroke of good luck to be born on Friday 13.

Furthermore, anyone born on Friday 13 will be lucky in starting new enterprises or beginning long journeys on the 13th of any month.

There are lots of other superstitions linked to the number 13. People dislike that number on their house, flat or hotel room, and I have known people refuse a restaurant table because it was table 13.

The idea that it is unlucky to have 13 people sitting around a dining table continues to be strong and people will go to considerable lengths to avoid this.

Years ago, I knew a woman who placed a large teddy bear on a vacant dining chair and put a plate of food before him to avoid the risk of attracting bad luck.

In some areas, it was thought that if 13 were seated at table, then the first to rise after the meal would suffer some kind of serious mishap or even death. In other districts, it was thought the last person to rise would suffer those fates.

This belief is said to date from the time of Christ when 13 were seated around the table during the Last Supper. And we all know what happened to Him!

Friday, probably the unluckiest day of the week, has its own list of superstitions, such as never turning a bed on a Friday. In some districts, sick people would never call in the doctor for the first time on a Friday and a rather peculiar belief is that it is unlucky to cut your fingernails or toenails on a Friday.

And did you know it is unlucky to sneeze on a Friday? This is an old verse which relates the benefits or otherwise of sneezing on certain days:

Monday for danger, Tuesday kiss a stranger,

Wednesday for a letter, Thursday for something better,

Friday for sorrow, Saturday - see your lover tomorrow.

Tomorrow, of course, is another significant day in the calendar because it is the feast day of St Valentine.

Precisely which St Valentine is honoured today is not completely certain because there are 52 saints of that name, but the list can be narrowed down to two.

It is known that a church of St Valentine was built on the Flaminian Way in Rome during the middle of the fourth century. This was in honour of a Valentine, either a Roman priest or a physician, who was beheaded during the persecutions of Christians by Claudius the Goth about AD 269-270.

He was buried on the Flaminian Way and his grave became the focus for pilgrims, as a result of which the church was built in his honour.

The other Valentine was Bishop of Terni, which is in Umbria, Italy, and he shares his feast day with the Valentine mentioned above, February 14.

He was beheaded in Rome, probably about AD 273, and his body was returned to Terni where, in AD 350, a church was built over his tomb.

Records of that time are necessarily poor and it is just possible that these Valentines are really the same person, with differing accounts of their lives and martyrdom, but there is nothing in their histories which suggests they were responsible for the modern custom of sending Valentine cards.

Romantic associations with St Valentine were known during medieval times because there had long been a tradition that the birds selected their mates on St Valentine's Day.

Chaucer referred to Valentine, as did Shakespeare, both of whom mentioned the legend of birds selecting their mates on his feast day.

It does appear, however, that the romantic behaviour of humans on this date goes back much further than either of the Valentines. In ancient Rome, long before Christianity appeared, February 14 was the eve of a pagan feast called Lupercalia.

This was in honour of the moon goddess of marriage, sexuality and childbirth - she was called Februa. At the height of the lusty celebrations, young men and women drew lots for sexual partners in readiness for the following day.

Hopeful girls placed their names into a large urn to be drawn at random by young men, rather like a modern lottery. They had no idea who their partner was to be, but it was the custom for the couple to then spend time together for the rest of that year.

When Christianity arrived, this kind of behaviour was considered sinful. As the Church tried to stifle those celebrations or change them into something worthy of Christians, priests hit upon the idea of substituting saints' names in the lottery, the idea being that youngsters who drew out such a name would then try to emulate the good behaviour of the saint.

It was fortuitous that the eve of Lupercalia happened to be St Valentine's Day and a Christian festival thus developed from the pagan original. Today, of course, people still send anonymous cards to the objects of their desire, so really nothing much has changed!

In addition to the birds mating, St Valentine's Day was also regarded as the time to plant one's beans, but four had to be planted for each one expected to reach maturity.

An old verse says: "One to rot, one to grow, one for the pigeon, one for the crow." Another old belief was that the crocus, a flower dedicated to St Valentine, also makes its first appearance on his feast day.

If you wonder about the whereabouts of the mortal remains of St Valentine, some relics are held in the St Valentine shrine at the Carmelite church in Whitefriars Street, Dublin.

In 1835, they were donated to that church by Pope Gregory XVI and were installed in a special shrine on November 10, 1846. A special mass is celebrated on February 14 in that church. Other relics remain in Terni, Italy.

Those of us who enjoy watching birds, whether in our garden or further afield, will always welcome a good reference book to help us identify and understand our varied species.

I was pleased to see, therefore, that the British Trust for Ornithology organises an annual competition to decide which is the best bird book of the year.

Each year, a panel of judges representing the BTO and the journal British Birds, gathers to discuss the range of newly-published titles, whittling them down to the final ten, and then down to the winner and runners-up.

In third place for 2003 was Birds and Light: The Art of Lars Jonsson by Lars Jonsson (published by Christopher Helm/A & C Black), second was Birds, Scythes and Combines: A History of Birds and Agricultural Change by Michael Shrubb (published by Cambridge University Press) and the winner was The Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland edited by Chris Wernham, Mike Toms, John Marchant, Jacqui Clark, Gavin Siriwardena and Stephen Baillie (published by T and AD Poyster, A & C Black).

This is described as the most extraordinary compilation of bird data ever seen in a single volume, being crammed with fascinating details.