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Waxwing Nightlight

Do Bohemian Waxwings glow in the dark?
© Sindri Skúlason View Large

The warm colors and bright accents of the Bohemian Waxwing might make you think it glows in the dark. For the better part of two thousand years, that’s what people believed. Pliny reported that their feathers “shine like flames” in the dark forests of central Europe. The Germans allegedly used captive birds to light their way at night. But at the end of the sixteenth century, the great Italian birdman Ulysses Aldrovandi dismissed the notion that waxwings emit light. Today, we are fortunate that these winter nomads brighten our days.

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Transcript: 

BirdNote®
Waxwing Nightlight
Written by Rick Wright

This is BirdNote.

For the better part of two thousand years, the waxwing was credited with an amazing power. [Richard Wagner, Siegfried-Idylle][Bohemian Waxwing calls and “song,” ML 170762, 04:26 and following]

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.[Richard Wagner, Siegfried-Idylle]

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. [Richard Wagner, Siegfried-Idylle][Bohemian waxwing calls and “song,” ML 170762, 04:26 and following]

For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.

###

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.
Producer: John Kessler.
Executive producer: Dominic Black.

© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org         December 2015         Narrator: Mary McCann

ID#  BOWA-03-2015-12-30  BOWA-03

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