The Bird that was a Fish

barnaclegoose2

Birds have feathers and fish have scales, right? So how could people have ever thought that a large black and white bird came from a crustacean or some strange form of fish? But, amazingly, just a few centuries ago in parts of Western Europe, many folks actually did.

In all fairness, when considering our forbearers’ limited scientific knowledge, bizarre notions were bound to arise. Superstitions, folklore, and hearsay are early attempts at making sense of the world, and often a lack of experience and understanding factored into the development of some off-the-wall ideas. This lack definitely led to some interesting beliefs regarding one particular bird—the barnacle goose.

Where are the Eggs?

Overall, folks throughout Europe were quite familiar with geese. But not so much with this particular species. Barnacle geese winter in the Scottish Hebrides and in some western areas of Ireland, but they do not breed at these sites. This means that onlookers there who saw the birds could never find any of their eggs. The reason, inconceivable to many people at the time, was that the birds were nesting during the summer within the Arctic regions of the North Atlantic.

Clearly, the barnacle geese, like all other forms of life, were reproducing. But if there were no eggs, how exactly were their offspring formed? This was the puzzle. And based on the evidence available at the time, the answer seemed obvious, even if quite unusual. The answer, as many thought centuries ago, must be related to something commonly found in the birds’ wintering areas: barnacles. Frequently spotted on driftwood and the like, these formations were thought to be the young geese, an explanation that today accounts for the bird’s name. Thus, by means of association, in appearance and location, the barnacle and the bird became causally connected in people’s minds.

Remarkably, even first-person reports supported this fallacious logic. In Giraldus Cambrensis’s twelfth-century account within Topographia Hiberniae, the royal clerk and clergyman notes, “… with my own eyes [I observed] more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and already formed” (1). Some variations of the story by other writers indicate that fruit, dropping off trees into the water, developed into the geese (2, 3). Either way, the notion that the barnacle goose was not really a bird persisted with the support of erroneous eye-witness accounts from Cambrensis and others. But the pervasiveness of this belief likely continued for a more convenient reason.

Fish on Friday, Fish for Lent

Wishful thinking was without doubt a critical component for these legends’ popularity. Why? Well, periods of fasting within Catholicism (such as Lent) forbid the consumption of meat, including fowl; however, fish were acceptable. So since many people believed the barnacle goose was not really a bird, eating it was deemed excusable. Doing so, in fact, offered a win-win situation. The goose was a tastier (and plumper) alternative to fish. Secondly, according to this widely held misconception about the bird’s status, consuming it posed no problem for maintaining religious dietary restrictions.

Obviously, other folks who knew better or at least found the barnacle-bird connection suspect could not let this issue rest. How to classify the barnacle goose became such a problem that eventually the Roman Catholic Church intervened. At the Fourth Council of the Lateran gathering in 1215, Pope Innocent III declared that the bird should not be consumed during Lent (4). Despite this papal ruling, misinformation about the barnacle goose’s origins still remained rampant for centuries. Only as explorers ventured north, documented the areas where the birds breed, and reported their findings did many people at last recognize the barnacle goose as a true bird (5).

Eventually, the wintering and breeding aspects of migration became clearer to scientists and laypeople. Looking further into more misunderstandings about migration next week, we can see that the barnacle goose story, quite remarkable from today’s perspective, was just one of many incredible fallacies.

Sources:

  1. Cambrensis, G. Wright, T. (editor). Forester, T., and Colt, R. (translators). The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis. London: George Bell & Sons, 1905. p. 36.
  2. Lee, H. Sea Fables Explained. London: William Clowes & Sons, Limited, 1883. pp. 98, 101–103.
  3. Heron-Allen, E. Barnacles in Nature and in Myth. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. 10–25
  4. Ibid. p. 16.
  5. Ibid. p. xv of forward.

Not just another Blog on Birds

First Post Pic-Triptic

This blog is dedicated to the significant roles birds play in our everyday lives. Testimony to our feathered friends’ importance, of course, already lies in the many websites that provide tips for birdwatchers, instructions for setting up bird-feeding stations, and forums for photographs and first-person accounts from birders. Such online resources offer abundant materials for learning more about these wonderful winged creatures. But this blog seeks to make something available online that’s a little different but also essential, focusing instead on the cultural influence of birds upon human society and the numerous ways in which they have enriched and continue to impact our world.

We exist with all things, including birds, in relationship, and not in a vacuum or isolation. So the weekly posts here will seek to explore how our current and historical depictions of birds can help us better understand ourselves, appreciate their influence, and improve our interaction with them. After all, humans’ relationship with class Aves is extensive, spanning back further than civilization itself. Evidence from diverse locations ages ago reveal how birds influenced the earliest forms of art and religion. Ornithologist Tim Birkhead explains, “Images of birds decorate the walls of European caves; in Africa the forms of birds were chipped out of slabs of hot, red sandstone; and in Arctic chambers the skulls of great auks were placed alongside the dead to accompany them to the next world” (1). Over time, ideas about birds developed throughout all cultures into countless myths, legends, and superstitions.

Birds also figure prominently in world literature, religious scriptures, and other stories. In the Bible, we find several instances, such as Noah’s dove (Genesis 8:8–12) and Elijah’s ravens (I Kings 17:2–6). Other notable examples exist in Aesop’s Fables, the Buddhist Jataka, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr (The Conference of Birds), and tales collected by Hans Christian Andersen (e.g., “The Ugly Duckling”) and the Brothers Grimm (e.g., “The Six Swans”). Even William Shakespeare’s plays frequently refer to bird folklore.

Poets, of course, have long been fascinated by birds. Nobel laureate Pablo Naruda dedicated an entire book to them with his Arte de Pajaros (Art of Birds). One of Ted Hughes’ most well-known books remains his Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. His wife Sylvia Plath, however, seemed drawn to the rook, another member of the Corvidae family, which appears in at least four of her poems. Perhaps the bird best known from poetry remains the nightingale, memorialized in classical mythology and having inspired important works by T. S. Eliot, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Milton.

Folktales and legends about birds have also informed classical music masterpieces, including P.I. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and Richard Wagner’s operas Seigfried and Lohengrin. Also, some songbirds even have interesting connections to famous composers. For instance, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling that could sing part of his Concerto in G Major (2, 3). Antonio Vivaldi found the European goldfinch a worthy enough muse to name a flute concerto for it (Il Gardellino). And British musician David Hindley has discovered similarities in the skylark’s song with aspects of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the woodlark’s with J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (the 48 Preludes and Fugues) (4, 5).

Humankind’s affection for birds has infiltrated just about every aspect of our culture, including movies, fine art, advertising, sports, common idiomatic expressions, and pop songs. It also has impacted history in some interesting ways. So this blog will not just be another website on birds. It will look at how we humans view our winged neighbors, hopefully illustrating the many invaluable functions that birds provide for us.

Sources:

  1. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 3.
  2. Ibid. p. 259.
  3. West, M.J., and King, A.P. “Mozart’s Starling,” American Scientist, 1990, 78: pp. 106–14.
  4. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. pp. 23, 52.
  5. Davies, G.H. “Bird Songs,” PBS: http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/songs.