The Martlet And Footless Birds

Of the Martin, or, as in Heraldry it is written, Martlet, Guillim thus

writes:--"The Martlet, or Martinet, saith Bekenhawh, hath Legs so

exceeding short, that they can by no means go: (walk) And thereupon,

it seemeth, the Grecians do call them Apodes, quasi sine pedibus;

not because they do want Feet, but because they have not such Use of

their Feet, as other Birds have. And if perchance they fall upon the

Ground, they
cannot raise themselves upon their Feet, as others do, and

prepare themselves to flight. For this Cause they are accustomed to make

their Nests upon Rocks and other high places, from whence they may

easily take their flight, by Means of the Support of the Air. Hereupon

it came, that this Bird is painted in Arms without Feet: and for this

Cause it is also given for a Difference of younger Brethren, to put them

in mind to trust to their wings of Vertue and Merit, to raise

themselves, and not to their Legs, having little Land to put their foot


The Alerion is a small bird of the eagle tribe, heraldically depicted as

without beak or feet.

Butler in "Hudibras" writes--

"Like a bird of paradise,

Or herald's Martlet, has no legs,

Nor hatches young ones, nor lays eggs."

The Bird of Paradise was unknown to the ancients, and one of the

earliest notices of this bird is given in Magalhaen's voyage in

1521:--"The King of Bachian, one of the Molucca Islands, sent two dead

birds preserved, which were of extraordinary beauty. In size they were

not larger than the thrush: the head was small, with a long bill; the

legs were of the thickness of a common quill, and a span in length; the

tail resembled that of the thrush; they had no wings, but in the place

where wings usually are, they had tufts of long feathers, of different

colours; all the other feathers were dark. The inhabitants of the

Moluccas had a tradition that this bird came from Paradise, and they

call it bolondinata, which signifies the 'bird of God.'"

By-and-by, as trade increased, the skins of this bird were found to have

a high market value, but the natives always brought them, when they came

to trade, with their legs cut off. Thence sprang the absurd rumour that

they had no legs, although in the early account just quoted, their legs

are expressly mentioned. Linnaeus called the emerald birds of Paradise

apoda or legless; whilst Tavernier says that these birds getting drunk

on nutmegs, fall helpless to the ground, and then the ants eat off their


"But note we now, towards the rich Moluques,

Those passing strange and wondrous (birds) Manueques.

(Wond'rous indeed, if Sea, or Earth, or Sky,

Saw ever wonder swim, or goe, or fly)

None knowes their Nest, none knowes the dam that breeds them;

Foodless they live; for th' Aire alonely feeds them:

Wingless they fly; and yet their flight extends,

Till with their flight, their unknown live's-date ends."