Plagues, Birds, and Plague Birds

Have a look at the alerts posted by Dutch Birding, and there among the scattered reports of Red-breasted Geese and Rosy Starlings you’ll find a solid daily mass of Pestvogels.

British Columbia, February 2010

This species — known to English-speaking birders as the Bohemian Waxwing — is having a good winter in western Europe, and so are the Dutch pestvogelspotters, “to the great dismay of local residents,” who find themselves overcome, “terrorized,” by the masses of birders who have descended like a plague onto their neighborhoods:

I’m a big animal lover myself, perhaps even more than that. I understand your interest in the waxwing and that you want to document these numbers with all your gigantic telephoto lenses. But you aren’t entirely seeing the other side. Meanwhile an average of about twenty people are standing here in front of my door from sunrise to sunset. You’re going up and down past all our new cars, with scratches as a result, you’re taking up parking spaces, parking bikes right up against the cars, and so on. All in all you’re creating a big nuisance for the neighbors…. You’ve had a whole week to document the birds and I sincerely hope that both the waxwings and the neighborhood will get some peace now.  [my translation]

And you can imagine how the discussion continues: it’s photographers, not birders; it’s just a few bad apples; it’s a public right of way; your car isn’t all that new, and it isn’t scratched, and it was already scratched when I got there. And on and on in tones familiar from every e-brouhaha to have ever erupted in any birding community.

The situation is even more resonant, though, given the Dutch name of these beautiful birds. “Pestvogel” means “plague bird,” and the association of these winter nomads with the equally unpredictable visitations of pestilence seems to have been historically widespread in western Europe. Suolahti writes of the species’ former German name:

Furthermore, the unexpected occurrence of certain birds in the vicinity of houses or their sudden appearance in a given region inspires uncanny notions. In particular, the occurrence of northern species that travel in great flocks, such as waxwings, bramblings, and redwings, is considered a bad omen, and so they are called “death birds,” “plague birds,” or “war birds.” [my translation]

Suolahti finds the German name “Pestvogel” — plague bird — attested from Austria, Swabia, Switzerland, and Westfalia; he quotes Aitinger‘s 1631 tract on bird catching to the effect that these birds are seen in some areas no oftener than every fourteen years, and that many people are of the “remarkable opinion” that when they do appear, they bring with them “war, pestilence, hunger, and inflation” (watch out, Euro Zone).

The always interesting Philippe Glardon points out that

it was not until the very end of the sixteenth century that Ulisse Aldrovandi first drew the connection between the waxwing’s appearance in unexpected localities and a biological cause for such displacement, even though the concept of certain species’ migrations during the harsher season was already beginning to be perceived, thanks largely to wintertime trips to the southern Mediterranean, on which observers recognized some of the birds present in Europe during the summer. But the mental horizon in which that discovery is rooted means that several different interpretations can still co-exist for one single fact. And for a long time the occurrences of waxwings were related to other exceptional phenomena, among them meteorological or cosmic phenomena, still interpreted as signs or warnings of divine origin. [my translation]

Myself, I would observe that for many of us l’horizon intellectuel hasn’t lifted that much: Who doesn’t shiver when suddenly the feeders are aswarm with a tightly packed, ferociously gobbling flock of Dark-eyed Juncos — or should I say snowbirds?

Many thanks to Kenn for suggesting this topic —