Missy Dunaway

Birds of Shakespeare: Barnacle Goose (Branta Leucopsis), 2022 (1/75)

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30 x 22  in

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Painting Key

Fauna: 2 Barnacle geese, male and female; gooseneck barnacles

Flora: Willow (Salix caprea); driftwood

Objects: 5 Barnacle goose eggs; 8 barnacle goose feathers

Plants mentioned by Shakespeare: Willow (Salix caprea)

Natural Science Guide

Scientific name: Branta leucopsis

Conservation: Least concern[1]

Distribution: Four primary populations breed across the European Arctic, Greenland, Svalbard, Russian Arctic, and Novaya Zemlya. Populations migrate south to winter in the British Isles, coastal Netherlands, and northern Scotland. While en route, flocks stopover in Iceland and the western coast of Norway.[2]

Habitat: Barnacle geese occupy grassy fields, pastures, and salt marshes of coastal areas. They may also be found grazing in farming and suburban sites.[3]

Diet: Barnacle geese are herbivores that feed on grass, aquatic vegetation, and crops.[4]

Predators: Predation includes polar bears, arctic foxes, and peregrine falcons.[5]

 Breeding: They reach sexual maturity at 2 years, depending on food availability and favorable weather conditions. Breeding occurs from May to June. Barnacle geese form monogamous, lifelong partnerships reinforced with an annual dance called a triumph ceremony.[6]

Nest: Barnacle geese roost on tall, stony cliffs and peaks to avoid ground-dwelling predators. They construct nests with mud, dead foliage, and down feathers. Males will guard the nest and brooding females. Chicks plunge to the ground 36 hours after hatching, as soon as their down dries, to forage for their first meal—only 50% of hatchlings survive the jump.[7] Both parents will guide and defend hatchlings until they fledge, becoming fully independent after 40 – 45 days.[8]

Eggs and clutch size: 1 brood a year of 4-5 pale, grey eggs.[9]

Literary Guide

Occurrences in text: 1

Plays: The Tempest

Name as it appears in the text: “barnacles”

The word "goose" appears twenty-nine times. However, only one mention of "barnacles" can confidently be attributed to the barnacle goose,[10] found in The Tempest. Caliban warns Stephano and Trinculo to be quiet and move quickly, or they risk being discovered by the powerful magician, Prospero, who could turn them “to barnacles, or to apes.”

 

The Tempest; Act IV, Scene 1, line 244

 

Caliban: I will have none on't: we shall lose our time,
And all be turn'd to barnacles, or to apes
With foreheads villanous low.

 

Apes are a straightforward symbol of transformation for today’s audience because they allude to human evolution. However, Shakespeare's choice to link apes with transformation is coincidental foreshadowing, as Charles Darwin's theory of evolution would not appear for another two hundred and fifty years with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

On the other hand, the barnacle goose was an unmistakable symbol of metamorphosis for a seventeenth-century audience. The barnacle goose breeds and raises its young in Greenland and the arctic, so its reproductive process was mysterious. Each year, the geese flew south to descend upon northern Scotland, Ireland, and the British Isles, inspiring ideas of how the species repopulated.

Description: John Gerard speculated that barnacle geese were born from driftwood that originated from shipwrecks. How fitting that the barnacle goose’s singular mention in Shakespeare’s work appears in The Tempest, a play which begins with a shipwreck.

Image: “[Plays. 1709] The works of Mr. William Shakespear : in nine volumes : adorn'd with cuts / revis'd and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author, by N. Rowe, Esq.” Ford, H.L. Shakespeare 1700-1740, p. 10-11

Link: The Folger Shakespeare Library – LUNA Folger Digital Image Collection - Digital Image 38754

The sixteenth-century Italian mathematician Gerolamo Cardano argued that the birds dropped their eggs into the ocean, and the waves whisked them into seafoam, which turned into barnacles, then geese.[11] Others proposed the geese started their life journey as the downy buds of the willow tree.[12] A riddle in the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon codex, Exeter Book of Riddles, suggested the geese were born from driftwood. The latter theories may be credited with giving the barnacle goose the alternative name of “tree goose.”[13]

 

Exeter Book of Riddles, Riddle 10

 

My nose was in narrowness, beneath the water,
a flood underflowing, sunk deep in the ocean's current,
and I sprung forth in my swimming,
covered over by waves, near those ones
sailing in wood, by my body.
I keep a quick spirit, when I come
from the embraces of waves and wood,
in black garments—some of my bangles
were white, when the breeze heaves me up,
pulsing with life, the wind from the waves,
after that it bears me widely across the seal's bath.
Say what I am called.[14]

Description: An illustration of the “tree geese” found in the margins of Topographia Hibernia by Gerald of Wales, c 1196-1223

Image: Scan found in the Digitised Manuscripts collection of the British Library - Royal MS 13 B VIII

The English herbalist John Gerard echoes the riddle’s answer in The Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). Gerard even includes a compelling, although fabricated, eye-witness account of handling the goslings after watching them evolve from rotten wood:

 

There is a small Island in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders, wherein are found the broken pieces of old and bruised ships, some whereof have beene cast thither by shipwracke, and also the trunks and bodies with the branches of old and rotten trees, cast up there likewise; whereon is found a certaine spume or froth that in time breedeth unto certaine shells, in shape like those of the Muskle… which in time commeth to the shape and forme of a Bird: when it is perfectly formed the shell gapeth open, and the first thing that appeareth is the fore-said lace or string; next come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as it growth greater it openeth the shell by degrees, til at length it is all come forth, and hangeth onely by the bill… that which I have seene with mine eies, and handled with mine hands, I dare confidently avouch, and boldly put down for verity.[15]

Description: John Gerard’s illustration depicting the reproductive lineage of the “tree goose.”

Image: Gerard, J. Gerard’s Herbal. Studio Editions Ltd. (Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Co Ltd., 1994), Pg. 284.

According to Gerard, the barnacle goose came from rotten driftwood, which “breedeth” into a small crustacean like a mussel, which grows into a gosling. He describes explicitly gooseneck barnacles, named after the same myth. If one accepts the lateral logic of the early modern era and engages their imagination, one can appreciate why naturalists connected these two unlikely animals. They share a striking amount of aesthetic similarities—at least, as many as one could hope for between a crustacean and a goose.

Gooseneck barnacles cluster by the thousands, tethered to the rocky coastlines of northern England and Scotland. Aside from inhabiting the same geographic location and coastal habitat, the barnacle has a distinctive goose-like neck, or peduncle, that allows the rock-bound creature to float with the tides, suspended in the water. A fibrous, feather-like arm scoops forward debris and plankton for food.[16] The base of the peduncle, where it meets the shell, has a black and white scalloped pattern that is not so different from the patterning displayed on the goose's breasts and flanks.

Not all early modern naturalists accepted Gerard's account, including Pierre Belon, a contemporary of Gerard who ridiculed his barnacle goose observations.[17] Other scientific minds shared Belon’s skepticism, and yet the belief was well-accepted enough that the fowl was considered a proper meal during Lent because it was part fish and not born from flesh.[18] Although the theory's validity died, the myth lives on as a primary example of the ancient and medieval concept of “spontaneous generation”—the belief that living things could come from non-living matter.

Endnotes

[1] BirdLife International. 2018. Branta leucopsisThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-

2.RLTS.T22679943A131909954.en. Accessed November 14, 2021.

 

[2] Heinzel, H., Fitter, R., and Parslow, J., Collins Guide: Birds of Britain & Europe, 4th ed (Norwich: HarperCollins, 1997), 60.

 

[3] Heinzel, H., Fitter, R., and Parslow, J., Collins Guide: Birds of Britain & Europe, 60.

 

[4] Carboneras, C., and Kirwan, G. M., “Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis),” Birds of the World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, March 4, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bargoo.01

 

[5] Carboneras, C., and Kirwan, G. M., “Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis),” Birds of the World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, March 4, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bargoo.01

 

[6] Carboneras, C., and Kirwan, G. M., “Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis),” Birds of the World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, March 4, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bargoo.01

 

[7] Main, D., “Not yet able to fly, three barnacle geese chicks must free fall hundreds of feet to reach their next meal,” National Geographic, March 28, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/how-barnacle-geese-survive-extreme-falls. Accessed August 13, 2021.

 

[8] Carboneras, C., and Kirwan, G. M., “Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis),” Birds of the World, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, March 4, 2020. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bargoo.01

 

[9] Coward, T.A., Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs. 2nd ed. (London: Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1975), 70.

 

[10] Schmidt, A., Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, 3rd ed, (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 78, 486.

 

[11] Buckeridge, J., and Watts, R., “Illuminating our World: An Essay on the Unraveling of the Species Problem, with Assistance from a Barnacle and a Goose,” Humanities, Earth & Oceanic Systems Group, RMIT University, Melbourne, October 15, 2012.

 

[12] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 247-256.

 

[13] Shakespeare, William. "The Tempest." The Norton Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W Norton, 2008. 3106. Print.

 

[14] Chambers, R. W., Max Förster, and Robin Flower. 1933. The Exeter book of Old English poetry. London: Printed and Pub. for the dean and chapter of Exeter cathedral by P. Lund, Humphries & Co., Ltd.

 

[15] Gerard, J. Gerard’s Herbal. Studio Editions Ltd. (Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Co Ltd., 1994), Pg. 283-284.

 

[16] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, 253-255.

 

[17] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, 253-255.

 

[18] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 68-69.