People Once Believed Bohemian Waxwings Had an Amazing Superpower

Until the 16th century, it was thought that the birds could glow in the dark.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

For the better part of two thousand years, the waxwing was credited with an amazing power. 

It was believed in all earnestness that these gentle, crested fruit-eaters glowed in the dark.

Pliny reported that their feathers were said to “shine like flames” in the dark forests of central Europe. The Latin scholar Solinus went further: Not only did waxwings throw off a warm glow, he said, the Germans used captive birds to light their way when they were obliged to travel by night.

But at the end of the sixteenth century, the great Italian bird man Ulysses Aldrovandi was skeptical. In his twelve-volume encyclopedia of ornithology, Aldrovandi admits that the waxy red tips on the bird’s wing feathers are beautiful, but he dismisses the notion that they give off any kind of light. 

How could he be so sure?

“For nearly three months,” he writes, “I kept a waxwing alive in my house and observed it through the night.” He goes on to note the bird stubbornly failed to emit flames or light of any kind. 

Today, no one thinks that waxwings glow in the dark. But that doesn’t stop these winter nomads from brightening the birdwatcher’s day.

For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.

Support comes from Sasquatch Books, offering BirdNote, the Book. Full of chirps and quirks, and it's wrappable for holiday gifts. More at SasquatchBooks.com.



Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Bohemian Waxwing, ML 170762, recorded by David A. McCartt.

Richard Wagner, Siegfried-Idylle. youtube.com/watch?v=891JUSQplzU Performed by Sergiu Celibidache and the Münchner Philharmoniker.

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Written by Rick Wright 

Narrator: Mary McCann

Producer: John Kessler.

Executive producer: Dominic Black.

© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org         December 2015/2018      

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