Carnivorous Crossbills

red crossbill

Forgive the alliteration—it’s the lowest of poetic figures—but there really isn’t any other way to say it.

The rhythms of bird migration are so regular, so reassuring, that any deviation is bound to inspire uncertainty in the human observer. In no case is this more striking than in the so-called winter invaders, birds whose winter wanderings take them far out of their “normal” range on an unpredictable schedule and sometimes in unsettlingly large numbers. A classic example: the Bohemian waxwing, whose infrequent incursions into western Europe were long believed to presage war, starvation, and plague.

Bohemian Waxwing

Crossbills, too, with their even more erratic habits, were suspected of serving as harbingers of evil. In 1603, Caspar Schwenckfeld, the Silesian physician, naturalist, and antiquarian, noted that the crossbill invasion of 1596/97, in which “huge” flocks were seen even in towns and villages, had been quickly followed by famine and pandemic.

red crossbill

Even more disturbing is the notion that these birds put their bizarre bills to use not just in cracking pine cones and scarfing up sunflower seeds—no, crossbills, some say, also dine on carrion. I do not know who introduced this idea into the scientific record, but it goes back to at least Gesner, half a century before Schwenckfeld, and it was still being reported by Jan Jonston nearly half a century after.

All of the references I have found to this belief are expressly second-hand: Gesner writes “I have heard that,” Aldrovandi “they say that,” Jonston “as some report,” crossbills eat flesh. None of those authors will vouch for that assertion on his own experience, none of them is able to name his sources. I am fairly sure that I have now read every word published about crossbills before the 1555 publication of Gesner’s ornithology, and I cannot locate a single claimed observation of crossbill carnivory.

red crossbill

Moving the other direction, though, with a look to the scientific literature published after—long after—Jonston, one runs across some hints at a possible origin for the story of scavenging crossbills. In the 1880s, William Hubbell Fisher saw crossbills “gather[ed] in flocks to eat the refuse salt thrown out of the salt-pork barrels”; surely, as Fisher points out, those birds were in the first instance after the salt, but it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t also consume a fair bit of grease and fat while they were at it.

Even more richly suggestive are Robert B. Payne’s observations in Death Valley in March 1970. “The melting of snow had uncovered several old feces . . . perhaps of a coyote . . . and I saw a female crossbill picking at one. She extracted several bone fragments from it.” Payne posits that the bones provided the female with extra calcium while she was forming eggshells.

The great failing of euhemerism lies in its disregard of the creative force of human anxieties. Perhaps the story of the flesh-eating crossbill was simply a further uneasy embellishment of the bird’s perceived alliance with the supernatural, another way to deal with the dread of a bird that seemed so uncannily powerful. If not, though, and if the tale is in fact somehow grounded in anonymous observation, then its inspiration may well have been the sight of birds lurking around a place where meat was being trimmed or bones discarded. We’ll never know.


Basket Shakers: More on Those Naughty Kestrels

Familiar wild birds. v.1. London ; New York :Cassell,1883.

What the German bird books now know as the Turmfalke has enjoyed a huge range of names over the centuries, among them Wannenweher.


A Wanne is a winnowing basket, among many other things. Since antiquity, the regular back-and-forth of winnowing has inspired what J.N. Adams delicately styles “a rustic metaphor” for other rhythmic motions, and in German, the successors of the lexicographic brothers Grimm remind us that Wanne, the instrument subjected to those motions, has been expressly glossed as denoting the feminine pelvis and associated structures. (I do not know whether the French criblette, also attested as a kestrel name, occurs with the same meaning.)


The second part of the compound, wehen, in the context of winnowing or thrashing also refers to a swaying or shaking movement. Thus, Wannenweher occupies precisely the same risqué semantic field as our English name.

This observation raises a question about the apparently innocent alternative name Rüttelfalke. The verb rütteln, meaning to sway or shake
violently, has also been used since at least the mid-nineteenth century to
refer to the hovering flight of kestrels, kites, and ospreys. That word, too,
however—and no surprise here—has been used with coarse physical signification.


The DWB declines to take a stand, noting only that “perhaps” such
raptor names as Rüttelweihe and Rüttelgeier were formed with
the more innocuous meaning of the verb in mind.



Or something kinda like that.

The most notoriously colorful of English names assigned the common kestrel of the Old World is first attested at the very end of the sixteenth century in Thomas Nashe’s Lenten Stuff, a satirical panegyric on the fish served during Lent. “Filling themselves with wind [to] fly against the wind evermore,” Nashe’s hovering kestrels play the role of flag-bearers in the military campaign to restore a herring to his throne.

The offending name may have been current at the time for the real living bird, too, but it seems to have been used mostly as a crude insult, as when George Chapman sniffed at a certain “envious” such who, like a fluttering bird, could do no more than seek to impregnate the wind.

As far as I know, everyone has assumed—as I long did—that the notion of the hovering kestrel copulating with the breeze was an entirely English conceit. But I no longer believe that. Unless I’ve been misled by wild surmise, the same image was already afloat in Italy in the early sixteenth century.

In his Emblem 83, Andrea Alciato rebukes indolent poseurs—the ignavi—with the story of Asterias, a slothful slave who was transformed into an “ardeola stellaris,” presumably a bittern. Ancient poets, Alciato goes on, used the name ardelio for such a degenerate, “who moves his haunches lewdly in the air like the falcon.”

Leaving aside the catachresis, it is obvious that Alciato is describing the kestrel’s hovering exactly as Nashe and Chapman did. The Latin verb he uses, ceveo, has no meaning other than the prurient one, a counterpart to the better-known criso (from which ornithology has the terms “crissum” and “crissal“). Thus, kestrels appear to have exhibited the same aerial proclivities in Italy as in England—or rather, the Italians and the English seem to have humorously interpreted their motions in the same way.

It is important to note that just as Alciato uses the image of the hovering kestrel disparagingly, all of the English-language citations in the OED are taken from contexts ranging from the satirical to the insulting: none, in other words, applies the offensive label to a real bird. In addition to the quotations offered by the OED, it is also found in Pepys and in Jonson, but there too only as a term of opprobrium for a human, not as a genuine bird name.

Is it possible that the English moniker was in fact never used to straightforwardly denote the bird we know as Falco tinnunculus, and that behind it lurks a jocular, perhaps learned, simile like Alciato’s to the effect that the lazy poseur cevet in the wind like a kestrel? At the moment, at least, that is my suspicion.


The First

He was the first to depict birds in conjunction with environmentally relevant plants.”

For all his great attainments, Mark Catesby was not really the first in everything, as his fans (among whom I count myself) would sometimes have it.

It is true that Catesby—always in the first instance a botanist—paid particular attention to the relations between the plants and the animals that depended on them, particularly the birds, as “having oftenest relation to the Plants on which they feed and frequent.” In composing his plates, he tells us, he made an explicit principle of “adapt[ing] the Birds to those Plants on which they feed, or have any Relation to.”

But Catesby, working in the first decades of the eighteenth century, was by no means the first to have struck upon such an idea.

More than a century before Catesby set out for Virginia and points south, the Bolognese polymath Ulisse Aldrovandi published an Ornithology in three volumes, the first in what would become one of the most massive natural histories ever, illustrated throughout with carefully prepared—and thoughtfully composed—woodcuts.

Like Catesby 125 years later, Aldrovandi set many of the birds in his illustrations in a botanical environment (and like Catesby, he forwent such backgrounds in the case of most water birds and birds of prey). Aldrovandi’s snowfinch, for example, is shown taking seeds from a millet stalk, identified as such in the caption of the illustration.

This is neither accidental nor merely decorative. In listing everything he has done for his reader, Aldrovandi conspicuously points out that

“I have furthermore included on the plates figures, drawn from life, of many plants and animals which these birds eat or otherwise profit from, or which help them preserve their health or recover from illness,” a neat summary of what Catesby would later call “relations.”

I know of no reason to suggest that Aldrovandi’s proto-ecological approach directly inspired Catesby’s. Instead, the two seem to have come up with the idea independently. But which of them carried it through better?

It’s an invidious question. Consider, though, the two authors’ treatments of the northern cardinal.

Aldrovandi’s bird perches on the branch of a chokecherry. Catesby’s emerges from a cluster of hickory leaves.

Flat and weird as Catesby’s engraving is, there is still a certain elegance to it, while the woodcut from Aldrovandi is so stiff as to almost belie the text’s claim that it was made after a living bird captive in Pisa.

All the same, though, Aldrovandi’s cardinal engages with the plant as a food source; it is as if the bird had looked up from feeding on the cherries and now waits for the observer to turn away. The bird in Catesby is grotesquely dwarfed by the surrounding leaves and hickory nuts, where it appears to have landed entirely by chance: there is no “relation” to be seen here.

It’s quite possible that others before Aldrovandi commissioned pictures intentionally illustrating the connection between birds and their botanical surroundings. What is certain, though, is that the tradition did not begin with the great Mark Catesby.


To Catch a Whippoorwill


It’s only logical, I suppose.

Variously attributed to the second-century Oppianus or to the slightly older Dionysius Periegetes, the De aucupio gives good advice to the birdcatcher eager to rid his pastures of an annoying pest:

To capture the aegithalos, or caprimulgus, smear glue on the udder of a goat. When the bird flies over the fence and into the stall and begins to suck on the goat, it can be captured when the glue gets onto its feet.