Barnacle Goose: The Bird That Was Believed to Grow on Trees

Barnacle Goose

In the days before it was realized that birds migrate, ancient scholars struggled to explain why some species of birds appeared and disappeared as the seasons changed. The idea that these little feathered creatures can travel thousands of miles in search of food and warmth was unimaginable. But the notion was not entirely an alien one.

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Greek writer Homer believed that cranes flew south in winter to fight the pygmies of Africa, a fable that’s repeated by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. According to Pliny, these pygmies fought the cranes with arrows while mounted on goats and rams. Aristotle suggested that the tiny swallow avoided the strain of migration by hibernating in the ground instead. These myths were kept alive for centuries. In the 16th century History and Nature of the Northern Peoples by Swedish Archbishop Olaus Magnus, there is a passage on swallows that say that the bird congregate in vast numbers in fall, and sink down into the mud and water, packed like sardines. A woodblock print accompanying the passage shows fishermen pulling up a net loaded with hibernating swallows from a lake.


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