A Guide to the Imaginary Birds of the World
From the Preface
"This guide introduces the reader to imaginary, or fabulous, birds--birds which because of their size, shape, or magical attributes live only in the mind. Not content with the seemingly infinite variety of actual birds, which are wonders in themselves, the imagination creates it own avian shapes. Some of the creatures included here are fantastic relatives of actual birds; others are hybrids, composites of two or more species of this Earth. These fowl are often larger than life. They are either malevolent or benevolent. They can carry off human prey, turn people to stone, scare travelers to death in the night; or they can feed the poor, cure disease, and bring happiness to an entire village."
The Barnacle Goose
"In a monastery on the windy coast of the Irish Sea, monks were shivering and fasting through the bleakness of a Lenten season. The wind moaned outside the cold gray walls of their cells, and the fires burned low.
"One old monk ventured out into the biting cold and down to the shore of the sea to gather driftwood for the fires. As he walked in the sand, clutching his robe tightly around him, he heard the honking of geese and he followed the sound to a gaggle of black and white fowl bobbing on the water. He imagined their plucked, plump bodies browning on a spit above the fire; but roast goose being meat, and meat being forbidden in that time of fasting, he tried to put the picture from his mind.
"At the sea's edge, young geese were entering the water, and behind them were goslings, waddling from a bare tree washed up on shore. The old monk watched while a gosling dropped from the tree. He noticed what looked like globes of fruit dangling from its branches. As he approached the mysterious tree for a closer look, the goslings hurried toward the water. He was wondering what strange fruit the tree bore when he saw white, mussel-like shells suspended from filmy stems.
"He touched one of the shells, which was nearly the size of his hand. The shell had swollen open, and inside was a silky substance like a cocoon. He studied this wonder from the sea: a cocoon in a shell, attached to a stem growing from a branch covered with fungus and seafoam. He jerked back in surprise when he noticed another shell, open wider than the first. Dangling from inside was a pair of webbed black feet. In another shell, he saw the breathing body of a gosling. Inside another was a gosling hanging from its black bill. As he looked at the gosling in wonder, it dropped to the sand beside his feet and waddled off.
"The old monk stared at the geese born from barnacles. These geese were not of mortal flesh, he thought. Born of the sea, they were food for the period of fasting. He dropped to his knees, praised God for His wonderful bounty, and hurried back to the monastery where he told his brothers of God's gift to them from the sea. Soon after his announcement, sea-fowl roasted over the fire. That night, in the depths of the Lenten season, the monks feasted on food not born of flesh.
"It was not until months afterward that the Pope, learning of the incident, issued a Papal Bull declaring the Barnacle Goose was not permissible Lenten fare."
"On the birthday of the King of Birds, all the birds of China dressed in their finest feathers in honor of the occasion. Naked Wu-Ling-Tzu, shivering and blue, gazed enviously at the host of birds so lovely and warm in their finery. He cried out so shrilly in his despair that the King of Birds heard him and, taking pity on him, ordered all the other birds to share their dress with him by each giving him a single feather.
"Wu-Ling-Tzu grew warmer and more proud with every soft, bright feather he added to his plumage. When he looked down at his colors, he was amazed at his beauty and proudly declared he was the most magnificent bird at the festivity. In fact, he said--his head rising and his breast rounding with importance--the only bird whose appearance could even begin to compare with his was the Royal Phoenix.
"The other birds soon tired of hearing Wu-Ling-Tzu's high opinion of himself. Deciding to strip him of his pride, they flew about him, plucking from him the feathers they had given him. Then they all flew off to continue their celebration, leaving Wu-Ling-Tzu blue and shivering once again, as he is today."
"Long ago in the land of the Iroquois, evil powers below the earth drank the water from the summer streams, They choked the maize and beans of the fields. The animals of the forest lay in dry shade with heavy eyes, and the people groaned with thirst. In their suffering, the people looked to the clouds, but the clouds were white and far away, and the prayers of the people withered in the dry heat. Old men of the village smoked the Calumet of Peace to the Great Spirit, sending the smoke to the spirits of life at the four corners of the world.
"Day after day, as the parched earth cracked and the growth of the fields bowed closer to the ground, the people received no answer to their prayers. Instead, the Fire Spirits rose from the dry forest earth and began eating the brittle needles of the pines. The Fire Spirits spread across the ground and up the trunks of trees, chasing the animals and birds from their homes. Bears and deer and porcupines, bluebirds and falcons, all fled toward the village of the Iroquois. The people saw the animals and birds coming from the forest and they, too, were filled with terror when they saw smoke filling the sky and the First Spirits leaping across the treetops. They cried out to the sky to save the living things of the earth.
"Through the Great Spirit, Hino the Thunderer heard the cry. He had long before slain the great Serpent which was devouring mankind, and he still cared about the people of the forest. Lightning flashed from his eyes. He flapped his eagle robe, shaking the sky with thunder. He sent the lesser Thunderers down into the rising smoke to battle the Fire Spirits, and he commanded Oshadegea to fly about the earth. The Great Dew Eagle flew out of the clouds with a lake of dew shining on his back.
"When the people saw the arrows of lightning flying through the smoke and heard the rumbling of the thunder, they knew the Great Spirit had heard their prayers. Then they saw the great shape of Oshadegea passing over them, rain falling from his back with each movement of his wings. The Fire Spirits left the trees, returning to the place from which they had come, and the plants of the earth began to rise again. As Oshadegea circled overhead, the lake streaming from his back, the people stood in the life-giving rain and praised the powers of the heavens."
"Nigg and his artistic accomplice, David Frampton, have produced a book that is as much about folklore as it is about birds, but I don't think you could read this book without pondering how it is we came to ascribe to birds the many magical powers enumerated herein. In this respect, the authors have brought off a nifty somersault of sorts, for while they have managed to very specifically set down everything known about these phony fowl, they have done nothing to fetter our imaginations. If anything, the book fuels our thoughts about creatures of the air, both real and not so real."
"Joe Nigg's Guide to the Imaginary Birds of the World . . . is not at all a utilitarian volume, but it's not to be missed. This is a compilation of esoteric information that is also the excuse for some wonderfully fanciful, tongue-in-cheek woodcuts by David Frampton."
Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg