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Crossbill Tales

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red crossbill

In North America, crossbills are “birder’s birds,” entirely unknown to the unbinoculared among us.

Things are different in the Old World, where over the centuries the birds with the sanguine plumage and twisted beaks have accumulated a heavy burden of legend and lore. Thanks to etiological myth, the crossbill of Europe is still a bird of good luck and good health, owing the bright plumage and bizarre bill shape to its intervention in Christ’s Passion.

Held in captivity, a crossbill was believed to cure disease, avert lightning, and forecast a household’s financial future — superstitions that apparently held on well into the twentieth century in rural regions of the continent.

What I did not know (maybe you did) is that these magical properties once made the crossbill a hot commodity. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Erlangen physician, ornithologist, and Volksforscher Josef Gengler reported having seen “a great number” of these birds “piled up” in the house of a Thuringian birdcatcher, awaiting shipment to dealers in the city.

In 1893, not far from the Silesian city now known as G?ucho?azy, Paul Robert Kollibay discovered that the local weavers supplemented their income with an “extensive” campaign to capture and sell crossbills:

In the middle of the village, in front of every house, a caged decoy called out to the masses of wild crossbills in the nearby forest; limed wands were attached to long poles, and the birds striking them as they flew in were taken effortlessly by the birdcatchers sitting there at their work.

Prominent among the purchasers of these unlucky luck birds were the nursing staff of German hospitals, where the birds were used as therapy for patients with gout and other illnesses. It was very important, though, to select not just any crossbill: those whose upper mandibles cross to the right cure the ills of men, those whose bills cross to the left are more effective for female complaints.

Not sure why, but I just have this feeling that that might not be invariably the case. True or not, though, this and other stories make seeing these nifty little birds even more exciting — think about them when you hear a kip kip from the pines above your head, or maybe the next time your gout starts to act up.

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Edme, Edme!

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Screenshot 2017-04-15 19.39.18

In the first volume of his natural history of the birds, Buffon tells a funny story:

While I was sleeping one night in one of the old towers of the chateau of Montbard, a little before daybreak, at three in the morning, a little owl landed on the windowsill of my room, and woke me up with its call “heme, edme.” As I listened to this voice, which struck me as the more interesting given that it was so near, I heard one of my servants, who was sleeping in the room below mine, open the window, and deceived by the owl’s clearly articulated “edme,” he answered the bird: Who is down there, my name isn’t Edme, my name is Pierre! This servant actually believed that it was a person calling out, so similar is the voice of the owl to the voice of the human, and so distinctly does it say the word.


One more reason — as if one were needed — to look forward to our next Birds and Art tour of Burgundy.

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The Rosy Starlings of Villafranca

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Birders all across western Europe — and yes, some die-hards in North America, too — are always on the lookout for this fancy bird, which occasionally moves west, far west, of its Asian and east European range. My VENT group in Catalonia last year was fortunate enough to discover an adult near Barcelona, but we can’t really hope for pink lightning to strike twice.

It’s not impossible, though, as the astonishing Italian incursion of June 1875 shows. The gentleman-naturalist Edoardo de Betta wrote:

The rosy starling arrived in Villafranca on June 3. Around 4:00 pm on that day a small flock of 18 to 20 of these birds perched on the high, crumbling interior walls of the fortress, and was followed half an hour later by a second flock of about 100 individuals; their constant vocalizing drew the attention of everyone living inside the fortress bounds…. Towards evening, still more, thousands and thousands, of these starlings appeared, and joining those that had preceded them, remained until dark, at which point they all flew out and scattered through the open countryside in very many flocks.

The gathering human crowd was unhappy that these “strange and beautiful birds, which they had now seen for the first time in their lives,” should disappear so promptly.

But around 3:00 the next morning, the residents of Villafranca were unexpectedly awakened by the deafening calls of twelve to fourteen thousand rosy starlings that had arrived to take definitive possession of the fortress….


Scaliger Castle
Wikipedia, by Ugo Franchini 

Five days later, the starlings commenced their breeding activities, to the delight of the human residents:

Copulation was undertaken with unbelievable ardor, atop the fortress walls and the roofs of the houses; these birds proved so concupiscent that they lingered in their embrace even if they accidentally fell from their high perches, with the result that it was easy for all the people to obtain some as the birds fell in pairs to the street below.

Some “speculators” made hundreds of lire by selling those birds on what seems to have been a very lively black market centered on the Villafranca train stataion.

The surviving pairs went about their business, and by July 10 all the nestlings were entirely feathered. Four days later, the adults and their newly fledged young all left Villafranca for sites to the south. But de Betta reports that they left behind them a three-fold legacy:

The birds carried out an immense massacre of the locusts in the agricultural fields; they were a source of great fortune for a few clever entrepreneurs; and finally, what matters most to us, they added an entirely new chapter of the greatest significance to the history of Italian birds.

I would like to have seen that.

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Nebraska with VENT: Day Three

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It was cold and windy and spitting snow when we arrived at Fort Kearny this morning to watch the moon set and the sandhill cranes rise. It’s still, 40 years on, one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in the outdoor world — rivaled only by the evening flight, which we witnessed tonight a half dozen miles downstream, tens of thousands of birds pouring in over our heads, shouting and gurgling and rattling and laughing.

In between we birded south of the Platte, from Kearney to almost Grand Island, marveling at cranes and arriving flocks of western meadowlarks out on the windy fields. Perhaps the most surprising bird of the day was hunkered down out of the elements on one of those fields, a gray blob that had me making one of those simultaneous screech-to-a-halt-and-make-a-U-turn maneuvers that mark us, sure as our binoculars, as birders.


I don’t know offhand how many migrant peregrine falcons I’ve ever seen in this state, but I’m guessing that a quick digital tally would likely involve neither of my feet.

Tomorrow: the cranes again, of course, and then a day of northing and westering into the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape on the continent.

Stay tuned, and come with us next year.

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Nebraska With VENT: Day Two

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sandhill crane

The first full day of our tour ended with an hour and a half of the bird in the photo: this is the second year in a row that we’ve lucked into an early whooping crane, and only the fourth or fifth time, if rightly I remember, that we’ve managed to score this rare bird at all on this trip. Peak migration for the species on the Platte River in spring falls a good month from now, in the second week of April or so, and I assume that this individual — which we watched somewhere in Kearney County for a good hour and a half in the early evening — wintered inland in north Texas or somewhere nearby, where it fell in with a group of sandhill cranes and has adopted, I hope only temporarily, their seasonal rhythm.

sandhill crane

The afternoon belonged to cranes, as it inevitably does on the central Platte in March. The “official” tally from a few days ago is 406,000 on this stretch of the river, and we found it easy to believe. Sandhill cranes were never out of sight or glorious, glorious sound once we reached easternmost Hall County, and though scanning the flocks on the ground and the air failed to produce a third gruid species, we did come across no fewer than three “cinnamon” sandhills, juveniles that for some reason skipped their molt in late summer of 2016 and retained their first plumage, stained brown with the mud of the tundra and now ragged and worn. I rarely see three such birds over the course of a season, and that many in a single day was a treat.

We started the day on the floodplain of the Missouri River, where a pair of pileated woodpeckers called and drummed and were all in all impressively incongruous. The skies were dull and the air cold, but red fox sparrows were in full song. The barred owl flying down the bottom of the bluffs landed out of sight to become a “leader-only” species, but maybe we’ll fix that on our return end of the week. Meanwhile, cranes!

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