The Barnacle Goose

Of all extraordinary beliefs, that in the Barnacle Goose, which obtained

credence from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, is as wonderful

as any. The then accepted fact that the Barnacle Goose was generated on

trees, and dropped alive in the water, dates back a hundred years before

Gerald de Barri. Otherwise Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in 1187, about

these birds, the following being a translation:--

"There are here many birds which are called Bernacae, which nature

produces in a manner contrary to nature, and very wonderful. They are

like marsh-geese, but smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed

about at sea, and are at first like geese upon it. Afterwards they hang

down by their beaks, as if from a sea-weed attached to the wood, and are

enclosed in shells that they may grow the more freely. Having thus, in

course of time, been clothed with a strong covering of feathers, they

either fall into the water, or seek their liberty in the air by flight.

The embryo geese derive their growth and nutriment from the moisture of

the wood or of the sea, in a secret and most marvellous manner. I have

seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute bodies of these birds

hanging from one piece of timber on the shore, enclosed in shells, and

already formed. The eggs are not impregnated in coitu, like those of

other birds, nor does the bird sit upon its eggs to hatch them, and in

no corner of the world have they been known to build a nest. Hence the

bishops and clergy in some parts of Ireland are in the habit of

partaking of these birds, on fast days, without scruple. But in doing so

they are led into sin. For, if any one were to eat of the leg of our

first parent, although he (Adam) was not born of flesh, that person

could not be adjudged innocent of eating flesh."

We see here, that Giraldus speaks of these barnacles being developed on

wreckage in the sea, but does not mention their growing upon trees,

which was the commoner belief. I have quoted both Sir John Maundeville,

and Odoricus, about the lamb-tree, which neither seem to consider very

wonderful, for Sir John says: "Neverthelesse I sayd to them that I held

y^t for no marvayle, for I sayd that in my countrey are trees y^t beare

fruit, y^t become byrds flying, and they are good to eate, and that that

falleth on the water, liveth, and that that falleth on earth, dyeth,

and they marvailed much thereat." And the Friar, in continuation of his

story of the Borometz, says: "Even as I my selfe have heard reported

that there stand certaine trees upon the shore of the Irish Sea, bearing

fruit like unto a gourd, which at a certaine time of the yeere doe fall

into the water, and become birds called Bernacles, and this is most


Olaus Magnus, in speaking of the breeding of Ducks in Scotland, says:

"Moreover, another Scotch Historian, who diligently sets down the

secret of things, saith that in the Orcades, (the Orkneys) Ducks

breed of a certain Fruit falling in the Sea; and these shortly after,

get wings, and fly to the tame or wild ducks." And, whilst discoursing

on Geese, he affirms that "some breed from Trees, as I said of Scotland

Ducks in the former Chapter." Sebastian Mueenster, from whom I have taken

the preceding illustration, says in his Cosmographia Universalis:--"In

Scotland there are trees which produce fruit, conglomerated of their

leaves; and this fruit, when, in due time, it falls into the water

beneath it, is endowed with new life, and is converted into a living

bird, which they call the 'tree goose.' This tree grows in the Island

of Pomonia, which is not far from Scotland, towards the North. Several

old Cosmographers, especially Saxo Grammaticus, mention the tree, and it

must not be regarded as fictitious, as some new writers suppose."

In Camden's "Britannia" (translated by Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London)

he says, speaking of Buchan:--"It is hardly worth while to mention the

clayks, a sort of geese; which are believed by some, (with great

admiration) to grow upon the trees on this coast and in other places,

and, when they are ripe, to fall down into the sea; because neither

their nests nor eggs can anywhere be found. But they who saw the ship,

in which Sir Francis Drake sailed round the world, when it was laid up

in the river Thames, could testify, that little birds breed in the old

rotten keels of ships; since a great number of such, without life and

feathers, stuck close to the outside of the keel of that ship; yet I

should think, that the generation of these birds was not from the logs

of wood, but from the sea, termed by the poets 'the parent of all


In "Purchas, his Pilgrimage," is the voyage of Gerat de Veer to China,

&c., in 1569--and he speaks of the Barnacle goose thus:--"Those geese

were of a perfit red colour, such as come to Holland about Weiringen,

and every yeere are there taken in abundance, but till this time, it was

never knowne where they hatcht their egges, so that some men have taken

upon them to write that they sit upon trees in Scotland, that hang over

the water, and such eggs that fall from them downe into the water,

become young geese, and swim there out of the water: but those that fall

upon the land, burst asunder, and are lost; but that is now found to be

contrary, that no man could tell where they breed their egges, for that

no man that ever wee knew, had ever beene under 80 deg.; nor that land under

80 deg. was never set downe in any card, much lesse the red geese that

breede therein." He and his sailors declared that they had seen these

birds sitting on their eggs, and hatching them, on the coasts of Nova


Du Bartas thus mentions this goose:--

"So, slowe Booetes underneath him sees,

In th' ycie iles, those goslings hatcht of trees;

Whose fruitfull leaves, falling into the water,

Are turned, (they say) to living fowls soon after.

So, rotten sides of broken ships do change

To barnacles; O transformation strange!

'Twas first a green tree, then a gallant hull,

Lately a mushroom, now a flying gull."

I could multiply quotations on this subject. Gesner and every other

naturalist believed in the curious birth of the Barnacle goose--and so

even did Aldrovandus, writing at the close of the seventeenth century,

for from him I take this illustration. But enough has been said upon the