Hawke’s Grease

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I wrote earlier of a paper by M. Cline, published in 1905 in which the author claims that birds are able to fly because they make themselves lighter than air by taking a deep breath. Once in a while they take too deep of a breath and explode, which is why you occasionally find a pile of feathers. This was a serious paper. But it was written a long time ago. We, us humans, believed a lot of things in the distant past which now seem silly, including a bunch of medicinal uses for birds.

For example, from 1737, cormorants are “very strengthening to the Stomach and also the Bloody Flux.” You don’t want to know what bloody flux is. “The Grease or Fat cleanses the face from Morphew (facial blemish) … and their oil helps the Gout.” Apparently, the grease or oil from geese is also handy as it “cures baldness, helps deafness, pain and noise in the ears, is good against Palsies, Lameness, Numbness, Cramps,” and many other disorders. “Hawkes grease is good for the eyes.” And Mourning Dove blood is particularly good against the bloody flux (look it up if you are morbidly curious).

And then there are poison birds. According to a 1912 story, the Wood Ibis scratches scurf (whatever that is) from its bald head, which, falling into the water stupefies fish and makes them easy prey. And the “Turkey Buzzard (Vulture) has the power to kill rattlesnakes by its intolerable stench – which it most powerfully emits by a violent fluttering in the air a little above the snake’s head.” And, apparently the Osprey attracts fish as it skims over the water with a little bag of oil on its body. The oil drips into the water and the fish gather at the surface. Sounds like a great lure for fishermen if someone could market it.

Birds may also have an effect on you, for if one uses a hair from your head to weave into its nest, you will have headaches until the nest crumbles. And if you see a turkey standing alone under an oak tree or an albino robin, a death will be in your future.

All this stuff was written, and seemingly taken seriously, in the last couple of centuries when science was still in its infancy. But I still hear things that people believe today. How about the eagle shedding its beak and talons every 30 years and growing new ones? Or hummingbirds hitching a migratory ride on the backs of geese? Or the hawks catching their fledglings on their back when the young birds jump out of the nest before they are quite ready to fly? Or touch a bird’s nest and you’ll cause the parents to abandon the nest and young or even kill them? And one of my favorites, a question I have received several times from India: do female peahens get pregnant by drinking the tears of the peacock? I guess that’s some sort of religious belief.

In these days of social media, it’s sometimes hard to know what is actually the truth. But at least with birds, you can look it up in the scientific literature.

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