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When the eagle grows old, its wings turn heavy and its eyes turn dim, a medieval bestiary explains. The eagle sensibly seeks out a fresh spring but then does something counterintuitive: flies upward away from the spring and toward the sun where its wings catch fire. Then the eagle dunks itself three times in the spring, completely revived. "In the same way, you, O man, with your old clothes and dim eyes, should seek the spiritual spring of the Lord." As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, naturalists replaced morality tales with observations of living habits, but legends lingered for centuries.

Most Recent Additions

The Pope Aug-08-2014
Pelican Jun-08-2014
Phoenix Oct-26-2013
 
Phoenix

Century: 12th
Originally published in: Royal Bestiary
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg (Also discussed in Wonder Beasts by the same author)
Phoenix legends in various forms have flourished since the days of Ancient Egypt. Perhaps the most common version of the legend says that the bird has red, purple and gold feathers, and jeweled eyes, and that it lives in a lovely garden that's always far away from wherever the phoenix legend happens to be told. When the bird realizes it's getting old, it builds itself a nest, catches fire from the sun's rays, and burns to ashes. From the ashes, a new, young bird rises. In this way, the phoenix is reborn over and over throughout eternity. A popular symbol in European heraldry, the phoenix is also a symbol of triumph over adversity — the comeback kid on steroids. Over the centuries, various scholars expressed skepticism about certain elements of the phoenix legend, but many people believed the phoenix to be real.

 
Phoenix

Year: c. 1356
Scientist: Sir John Mandeville
Originally published in: Travels
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
In his Travels, Mandeville wrote that the priests of the temple of Heliopolis relayed the story of the phoenix, "and there is none but one in all the world. And he cometh to burn himself upon the altar of that temple at the end of five hundred year; for so long he liveth. And at the five hundred years' end, the priests array their altar honestly . . . and then the bird phoenix cometh and burneth himself to ashes." This poor phoenix, adorned with what appears to be an avian crown, looks less than happy to be on fire.

 
Phoenix

Year: 1584
Scientist: Geofroy Linocier
Originally published in: Histoire des Animaux singuliers
Material discussed in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
Though he didn't believe it, Herodotus relayed the Egyptian tale of a bird flying out of Arabia every 500 years. On each trip, the story went, the phoenix "brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the Temple of the Sun, and there buries its body." In subsequent centuries, the Phoenix became a symbol of the resurrection for Christians, and by the 4th century AD, fire became pivotal to the bird's story, reducing the animal to ashes from which it would be reborn. Both the sun and flames figure into this 16th-century woodcut.

 
Cranes

Century: Early 14th
Originally published in: Peterborough Bestiary
Now appears in: The Bedside Book of Birds by Graeme Gibson
"Cranes divide the night into sentry-duties and they make up the sequence of the watches by order of rank, holding little stones in their claws to ward off sleep," the bestiary explained. "When there is danger they make a loud cry." Given the deferential poses of most of the birds in this picture, this nicely gilded illumination apparently shows an officer crane, small white stone in claw, inspecting the troops.

 
Bird with human face

Year: 1491
Scientist: Johanne Wonnecke von Caub
Originally published in: Hortus Sanitatis
Now appears in: Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick
Highly influential if not terribly accurate, Hortus Sanitatis ("Garden of Health") focused on the medicinal uses of plants, minerals and animals. This illustration dates from a reprint of an edition released in Germany in 1485.

 
Goose barnacle

Year: 1581
Scientist/artist: Mathias de L'Obel
Originally published in: Plantarum, Seu Stirpium Icones
Now appears in: The Jewel House by Deborah Harkness and The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
By the 16th century, many scholars had turned their efforts toward understanding what really happens in the wild, but errors persisted about both animals and plants. One of the best examples of this was the fabled barnacle goose. While prestigious printers were publishing the Herball of botanist John Gerard, they fielded a complaint that he had appropriated the work of fellow plant lover Mathias de L'Obel — and done a sloppy job at that. L'Obel was briefly retained to tidy up Gerard's book, but didn't fix up the whole thing. Before Gerard published his version of the barnacle goose, L'Obel published his own. The creature was said to come from a tree in northern Scotland that sprouted barnacles instead of fruit. The long-lasting fable of the barnacle goose may have been inspired partly by convenience — or hunger. A Welsh ecclesiastic traveling through Ireland around the turn of the 13th century observed, "In some parts of Ireland, bishops and men of religion make no scruple of eating these birds on fasting days, as not being flesh, because they are not born of flesh."
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Tree geese

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Bestiary
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts and Sea Monsters by Joseph Nigg
Errors that persisted in the 16th century developed long before. Folklore recorded around the 10th century, including what was probably considered common knowledge at the time, said that certain kinds of geese grew from trees. Not everyone believed it, however. In the 13th century, the German Dominican friar and bishop Albertus Magnus observed geese mating and laying eggs, and he called the legend absurd. Such commentary wasn't enough to dissuade the 16th-century naturalist Conrad Gesner from describing the animal, though he apparently did so with trepidation.

 
Caladrius

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: A Caladrius Bird Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Discussed in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg
Said to be snowy white and reside in royal courts, the caladrius (or charadrius) bird was thought much more useful than a doctor. Medieval Europeans did not believe the caladrius could heal everyone, but they did believe that the bird could tell whether a sick person would live or die. When the patient was beyond help, the bird would avert its eyes. When the patient could be healed, the caladrius would peer into the patient's eyes, absorb the sickness, and fly toward the sun to burn off the malady. Not surprisingly, the bird was a symbol of Christ.

 
Bird-fish

Year: 1593
Scientist: Cornelis de Jode
Originally published in: Speculum Orbis Terrae
Now appears in: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet Van Duzer
In 1578, Gerard de Jode published an atlas, Speculum Orbis Terrarum. Fifteen years later, his son Cornelis published a revision with a slightly different title. In the new atlas, a map titled Novae Guineae Forma and Situs featured this strange hybrid creature. Its head and neck are those of a bird, but most of the rest of its body belongs to a fish. The wings look bat-like, although they might just be very stylized bird wings. Perhaps tales of fishy birds stemmed from swift sightings of fish leaping out of the water, or birds flying off with their fish dinners. But the younger de Jode published pictures and relayed legends of other odd creatures, too, including a goose with four fins and an aquatic wolf. Like other places far from the homes of European readers, the islands depicted in de Jode's atlas probably seemed like perfectly suitable homes for weird animals.
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Waldrapp

Year: 1617
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: On Rare Birds by Anita Albus
Renaissance naturalists passed along plenty of tall tales about odd creatures, but sometimes they erred too much on the side of caution. This might have been the case with Gesner's depiction of the waldrapp, native to Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe. Gesner depicted the bird with a crest vaguely like that of a blue jay or cardinal, but another name for the waldrapp is "bald ibis." It has long feathers on the back of its head, but they are situated behind a bald head. In short, the waldrapp is much weirder than Gesner imagined.
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Goatsucker

Year: 1617
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: On Rare Birds by Anita Albus
For many years, ugly rumors persisted about nightjars, and the rumors gave them a less flattering moniker: goatsucker. According to Pliny, the troublesome bird would enter goat pens at night, drink milk from a she-goat teat (gross), leave the teat permanently dry and the goat permanently blind (weird), and fly off without a backward glance (cavalier). The bird's unpleasant reputation might have had something to do with its habit of becoming active at night, when more respectable creatures were asleep.
Expanded image available

 
Bird of Paradise

Year: 1555
Scientists/artists: Conrad Gesner, Conrad Peutinger
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: The Great Naturalists edited by Robert Huxley
The antiquarian Peutinger gave the Swiss naturalist Gesner a picture of the fantastic bird of paradise, and Gesner dutifully reported that a specimen had been for sale in Nuremberg for 100 talers. A legend that persisted for many years about the bird — and enhanced its mythological status — was that it had no feet. The origin of the legend turned out to be prosaic. Descriptions of this bird were usually based on stuffed specimens whose feet had been removed.

 
Pelican head

Year: 1555
Scientists/artists: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: "The Sources of Gessner's Pictures for the Historia Animalium" by S. Kusukawa in Annals of Science
This pelican head rendition, sent to Gesner by a "certain painter" appeared in a trio of images, the other two being an illustration of a specimen Gesner saw himself, and a picture copied from a map by Olaus Magnus. Needless to say, Gesner had the most confidence in the pelican he saw with his own eyes. Gesner often included multiple versions of plant or animal illustrations, even when the images contradicted each other. The figure copied from Olaus Magnus appeared the furthest from the truth. It sported a rooster comb and dragon-like feet attached to a body shaped like a duck's.
Expanded image available

 
Urogallo

Year: 1555
Scientists/artists: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: Historia Animalium
Now appears in: Early Birds: A Selection of Bird Books from Belon to Audubon (https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/27669/Early%20Bird%20CS3.pdf)
Gesner devoted the third volume of his Historia Animalium to birds. That volume included this semi-accurate illustration of a grouse, or urogallo. This picture of from a copy, in the collections of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that was hand-colored after printing, something well-off book buyers could afford before the days of color printing.

 
Roc

Year: 1599
Scientist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Ornithologia
Now appears in: "'Roc': An Eastern Prodigy in a Dutch Engraving" by Rudolph Wittkower in Journal of the Warburg Institute (Also discussed in Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg)
As Europeans traveled the world with increasing frequency, they encountered strange animals and stranger legends. Multiple travelers brought back to Europe from the East stories of the roc or rukh, a bird of astonishing size. Perhaps derived from the Persian term for a magical bird called the "simurgh," the roc appeared in works on geography as well as fairy tales, and it often appeared carrying an elephant. Ulisse Aldrovandi wasn't the only naturalist to pass along roc renditions. The bird also appeared in the work of the publisher Matthias Merian. In his 1875 book on giant bird legends, Sir Henry Yule suggested that the roc legend relayed by Marco Polo might have had origins in fossil remains, citing the similarity of big bird legends from New Zealand to Madagascar. Sir Richard Owen's description of the extinct moa from New Zealand might have helped Yule to this conclusion.

 
Fung Hwang

Century: 12th BC
Now appears in: Dragons, Unicorns, and Sea Serpents by Charles Gould
In 1886, Charles Gould reproduced this picture of the Fung Hwang, or Chinese Phoenix. In fact, the male was called Fung, and the female called Hwang. Just as dragons could be auspicious, so could these birds, said to tower over most people and enjoy music.
Larger image available

 
Ostrich

Year: 1573-1585
Scientist: Ambroise Paré
Originally published in: Des Monstres
Now appears in: On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré, translated by Janis Pallister
Though it probably looked monstrous to Renaissance Europeans, this depiction of an ostrich was pretty accurate. Paré described the ostrich in detail, and included a drawing of its skeleton. Paré borrowed a lot of his illustrations from the naturalist Conrad Gesner, and Gesner relied heavily on an old bestiary that was likely assembled in the fourth century. Calling the ostrich a "sparrow camel," the bestiary claimed that the giant bird would ditch its eggs in the sand, return some time later, and hatch the eggs by staring at them. This fit with the belief that eyes emitted a kind of ray or light beam.

 
Ostrich

Year: 1675
Scientist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Arca Noë
Now appears in: Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World by Joscelyn Godwin
Like his predecessors, the German Jesuit polymath Kircher struggled to describe the ostrich. As naturalists had a century before, Kircher concluded that some of the creature's qualities — having feathers and laying eggs — placed it in the category of birds. But its massive body looked more like a camel's. An unfussy eater, the bird also had the singular capacity, he explained, to digest iron "either to strengthen its stomach or for some hidden ailment." While Kircher didn't accuse the ostrich of hiding its head in the sand, he did state that the animal plunges its head into dense shrubs "and fancies that if its head cannot be seen, neither can the rest of its body."

 
Ostrich

Century: 13th
Originally published in: Medieval manuscript
Now appears at: An Ostrich Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Produced in the late 13th century, this picture of an ostrich got some things right, namely the long legs and robust thighs. Unfortunately, the catlike ears and paw feet attract more attention. Given how rare ostriches must have been in medieval Europe, though, this depiction is impressive for the time. Whether the illuminator understood that the ostrich is a flightless bird is hard to tell.

 
Eagle

Year: 1675
Scientist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: Arca Noë
Now appears in: Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World by Joscelyn Godwin
Along with this picture of a vulture, Kircher relayed a story of one Father Joannes Baptista Cysatus, a mathematician of the Society of Jesus, who ascended a rocky mountain "never before penetrated by man." The remote mountain sported a crater with an oak tree growing in its center. The tree held a huge nest with three nestlings. Alas for the curious Jesuit, the parents were returning to the nest, and thanks only to his well-armed companions, the curious Jesuit escaped death. Unfortunately for the nestlings, their mother did not. Besides reporting the freshly killed mother's 12-foot wingspan, the brethren took stock of the detritus below the tree: skulls of rabbits, dogs, sheep and human children, as well as deboned goats and assorted fish parts.

 
Pelican

Year: c. 1515
Originally published in: Physiologus
Now appears in: Beasts: Factual and Fantastic by Elizabeth Morrison © J. Paul Getty Museum
In an obvious parallel to Christ, the mother pelican was said to peck her own side and use her own blood to revive her dead chicks. A 16th-century bestiary shows a devoted mother pelican doing just that.

 
Pelican

Year: 1584
Scientist: Geofroy Linocier
Originally published in: Histoire des Animaux singuliers
This 16th-century woodcut offers yet another depiction of the selfless pelican mother feeding her babies with her own blood. The image was perhaps intended to serve as a parable of good human parenting more than a realistic account of pelican life.

 
Birds of Jamaica

Years: 1707-1725
Scientist: Hans Sloane
Originally published in: Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica
Now appears in: Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick
Sloane labeled the bird at the top of this arrangement a "Small Wood-owl" though it was likely a nightjar. He likened the bristly feathers around the bill to a "Cat's Mustachoes." The birds' feathers all look a little plump and stiff, and the birds all have oddly humanlike expressions, but this illustration isn't a bad effort for a young naturalist in a strange land. Sloane didn't get to spend as much time as he had hoped in Jamaica. He had been hired as the personal physician of the Second Duke of Albemarle, but the duke died an untimely death, and the young naturalist-physician had to return home.

 
Birds

Year: 1707-1725
Scientist: Hans Sloane
Originally published in: Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica
Now appears in: The Great Naturalists edited by Robert Huxley
Upon returning from Jamaica, Hans Sloane published "big as life" pictures of the animals he saw there, including this trio of birds. The bird at lower left is described as a bittern, though it sports a somewhat serpentine neck. The little bird in the upper right Sloane called the "green sparrow" or "green hummingbird," and he described it as one of the most beautiful birds he ever saw. The picture might represent a Jamaican tody, and while it is no iridescent hummingbird, its characterization as a beautiful bird is well justified.
Larger image available

 
Birds

Year: 1755
Scientist: Erich Pontoppidan
Originally published in: The Natural History of Norway
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
This assortment of birds includes a "Cock of the Wood," perhaps meant to be a woodpecker, in the lower right corner. Pontoppidan described it as "a large Wood-bird, in the general appearance not unlike an Eagle, and is the largest of all the eatable Birds in the country." The bird depicted next to it, captioned as "The Pope," was said to have a "striped prettily" but very sharp beak. Pontoppidan alleged that this bird had a no-nonsense method of dealing with its nemesis: "He defends himself against the Raven, his enemy, whom he holds by the throat, and will carry him out to sea, and drown him, before he looses his hold."

 
Toucan

Year: 1651
Scientist: Johannes Faber
Originally published in: Thesaurus
Now appears in: The Eye of the Lynx by David Freedberg
This depiction of a toucan isn't a bad job, except that this bird's delicate body and slender neck hardly look robust enough to hold up that big, honking bill. Despite its size, however, the bill is actually pretty light, which would be necessary for the bird to fly. The same thesaurus that made a near miss in depicting the toucan took the intriguing step of showing the contents of eggs, both avian and reptilian.
Larger image available

 
Bird vignette

Year: 1734
Scientist: Albertus Seba
Artist: J. Fortuÿn (coloration)
Originally published in: Thesaurus
Now appears in: Natural Curiosities from the Cabinet of Albertus Seba by Albertus Seba
This is part of a vignette of birds in Seba's four-volume work on plant and animal life. The big white crest on the left belongs, not surprisingly, to a cockatoo. The bird in the upper right that appears to smile is a tricolored blackbird. The parrot below it is a hawk-headed parrot. Both birds a generally accurate except for some slight mistakes in color. The technology for color printing was centuries off, so people fortunate enough to afford Seba's Thesaurus were hopefully also fortunate enough to afford a colorist to add the correct pigments, Regrettably, Seba's text didn't provide much guidance on color, so mistakes occasionally crept in. The hummingbird's color may be exactly right, depending on the species, although the shape of the wings is off. And one suspects that Seba never saw one of these iridescent jewels in flight; if he had, he might have depicted the wings as a blur.
Larger image available

 
Vain bird

Year: 1735
Scientist: Albertus Seba
Artist: J. Fortuÿn (coloration)
Originally published in: Thesaurus
Now appears in: A Cabinet of Natural Curiosities by Albertus Seba
Seba describes this simply as a bird from America, and the creature is clearly quite proud of its tail. (If you had such a pretty tail, wouldn't you be equally proud?)
Larger image available

 
Dinosaur tracks

Year: 1836
Scientist: Edward Hitchcock
Originally published in: "Ornithichnology: Description of the Foot Marks of Birds (Ornithichnites) on New Red Sandstone in Massachusetts" in American Journal of Science and the Fine Arts
Now appears in: The Dinosaur Papers by Weishampel and White
After locals found "turkey" tracks in the Connecticut Valley, Hitchcock rushed to the scene to examine what they had found. He described the tracks of large and small "birds," some with thick toes and some with skinny toes. Hitchcock speculated that the littler tracks might have been made by juveniles. He stuck to his interpretation even as evidence mounted of strange prehistoric reptiles. In 1904, Richard Swann Lull of Yale University determined that these tracks belonged to dinosaurs.
Expanded image available

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