Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Barnacle Goose: “An impossible thing to be”


The recent sighting of a Barnacle Goose in Massachusetts reminded me of the silly origin of the name of this handsome European goose. And since Christians are now deep into the Lenten season, this “information” is especially relevant.

During Lent, it has been traditional for Christians to give up luxuries, including foods considered to be luxurious, such as meat, sweets, etc. The Church carefully defined what was permitted for consumption on fast days, enumerating detailed rules and prohibitions. For example, “meat,” defined as the flesh of quadrupeds or birds, was forbidden on fast days; however, eggs, dairy products, and fish (including crustaceans) were allowed.

So what does all this have to do with the Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis), which is clearly a bird? Well, Barnacle Geese were once believed to be crustaceans, and therefore they were considered suitable for consumption during Lent.

What? Yes. Here’s the story:



Bodleian Library, MS.
Bodley 764, Folio 58v
In the centuries before people understood bird migration, they made up all sorts of stories to explain the annual disappearance and re-appearance of many bird species. According to one of these folk myths, the Barnacle Goose was not born of an egg as are other birds, but germinated and developed as a barnacle on a “barnacle tree,” from which it was said to eventually drop into the water to become a goose. This myth probably arose because the Barnacle Goose breeds far to the north of temperate Europe, and people of the time never observed it on its breeding ground. The “barnacle tree” was probably what we know today as the Goose Barnacle (images here), and yes, I suppose they do look like geese.

The “barnacle goose” idea was first recorded by a Welsh monk, Giraldus Cambrensis, in his Topographia Hiberniae (1188), though it had been in circulation for some time. Giraldus wrote about the birds, which he probably observed during the winter months:

There are here many birds that are called “Barnacles” [barnacoe] which in a wonderful way Nature unnaturally produces; they are like wild geese but smaller. For they are born at first like pieces of gum [pitch] on logs of timber washed by the waves.  Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air … They derived their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have myself seen many times with my own eyes more than a thousand minute corpuscles of this kind of bird hanging to one log on the shore of the sea, enclosed in shells and already formed. … They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are neither flesh, nor born of flesh.

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 36r
So, the Barnacle Goose, which was thought to be a sort of barnacle, was also deemed to be fish rather than fowl (that is, "neither flesh, nor born of flesh”) and therefore not considered to be meat, and thus acceptable for Lenten consumption. 

Convenient reasoning!
Sage and onions!


A few philosophers and theologians rejected the myth as absurd; among these were Albertus Magnus, who in his De Animalibus Historia (1250) claimed to have witnessed Barnacle Geese laying eggs. And in 1215, at the Fourth Council of the Lateran, Pope Innocent III had decreed that because the Barnacle Goose lived and fed as other ducks and geese, it “was of the same nature” as other birds, despite its odd reproductive habits, and included it with other birds as unacceptable for consumption during Lent.


The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)
John Gerarde (1545-1612)
Still, the odd beliefs about the biology of the Barnacle Goose continued for many years. One very popular book, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (circulated between 1357 and 1371) included this passage: “I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes. For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man's meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be.” Scottish historian Hector Boethius (1465-1536) believed that the barnacles from which the geese hatched were themselves derived from worms that bred in driftwood.

In 1596, a group of Dutch explorers came across colonies of Barnacle Geese nesting on islands in the Arctic Ocean; the explorers’ story was published in 1609. Still, the legend of the goose’s origins persisted, with all sorts of bizarre permutations. According to a version popular in Germany, the geese laid their eggs on the Arctic ice. The eggs rolled into the water and floated to the Orkney Islands, where they broke; their contents adhered to driftwood, and later changed into geese The version of one Norwegian theologian held that some “viscous substance” adhered to driftwood and caused the spontaneous generation of little worms in the wood which later developed into barnacles, and still later turned into geese, which then pecked their way out of the barnacles and fly away. According to a French version from 1757, the adult goose pecked at a barnacle, extracted the creature within, then laid its own egg inside the barnacle shell.

In 1780, two French zoologists finally published the true natural history of the Barnacle Goose, explaining that the birds bred in the normal fashion, though they did so far to the north of most observers. The facts were widely re-printed in newspapers of the day, and the myth of the Barnacle Goose was finally put to rest.

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Several interesting words derive from this odd tale.

The word barnacle derives from hibernicula, meaning Irish, for the birds were thought to be native to that land.

This was sort of a wild goose chase, yes? But it may also have been the origin of the expression l’histoire du canard, or duck story, meaning a ridiculous, unbelievable story. And to this day we use the term “canard” to mean a rumor or false story.

Here is John James Audubon’s painting of a pair of Barnacle Geese:


I’d love to include a photo of a Barnacle Goose, but I can’t do that legally and fairly, so just go find one on your own. Here’s one.


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