Pulling Chicks, Picking up Birds: The Romantic World of Early Modern Bird-Catching

By Ash Green (The University of Melbourne)

I’m the bird-catcher, who’s always happy! Hi ho!
I’m known all over by young and old.
I’d like to have a net to catch girls by the dozens.
I would lock them safely at home so that
they’d all be mine.[1]

Papageno the Bird-Catcher in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Act I, Scene 1.

Illustration of Emanuel Schikaneder as the first Papageno in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Front page of the original edition of the libretto of the Zauberflöte. Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Emanuel Schikaneder as the first Papageno in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Front page of the original edition of the libretto of the Zauberflöte. Wikimedia Commons.

Birds have always had a prominent place in the language of love and courtship. We need only think of the many expressions today that centre birds in the way we frame desire. Couples are described as ‘lovebirds’, girls are called ‘birds’ or ‘chicks’, and the art of seduction is described as ‘picking up chicks’ or ‘pulling birds’. Tim Birkhead explains that these expressions date back to the early modern period, and that to ‘pull a bird’ meant to pull the ropes of a clap net to entrap a bird, and ‘picking up chicks’ was what one did directly after the bird was recovered from the net.[2] 

Bird-catching was ubiquitous in the early modern period, whether for subsistence or pleasure. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Italian historian Polydore Vergil wrote that the English dined on a huge number of birds, both domestic and wild:

The daintiest woodland birds are partridges, pheasants, quails, blackbirds, thrushes, and larks. During the winter season, which is not harsh, the last little bird becomes marvellously fat. A huge number are then caught and chiefly garnish the tables of every man.[3]

The tools and techniques they used were often simple and ingenious at the same time, tailored to the species one wished to catch. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) gives us an idea of the diversity of fowling techniques:

Fowling is more troublesome [than hawking], but all out as delightsome to some sorts of men, be it with guns, lime, nets, glades, gins, strings, baits, pitfalls, pipes, calls, stalking-horses, setting-dogs, decoy-ducks, &c., or otherwise. Some much delight to take larks with day-nets, small birds with chaff-nets, plovers, partridge, herons, snipe, &c.[4]

In 1621, Gervase Markham wrote a treatise on fowling called Hungers Prevention: or The Whole Art of Fowling by Water and Land. This text delivers great insight into the diverse techniques utilised by early modern hunters and the range of species they pursued. While most hunted for food or pleasure, obtaining songsters for the home was a prime motivation for many fowlers, and many kept pet birds. Small birds were considered equally good for eating or keeping, particularly nightingales, larks, thrushes, linnets and bullfinches. The professional or avid fowler also kept large numbers of birds for use as decoys.[5]

Image of Vignette of bird-catching. Left, clap-net and caged decoys. Right, a fowler carries tools. His son has a bird-call in his mouth. From: William Yarrell, A History of British Birds (London, J. Van Voorst, 1871), p. 159. Smithsonian Libraries; Public Domain.
Figure 2: Vignette of bird-catching. Left, clap-net and caged decoys. Right, a fowler carries tools. His son has a bird-call in his mouth. From: William Yarrell, A History of British Birds (London, J. Van Voorst, 1871), p. 159. Smithsonian Libraries; Public Domain.

Unlike falconry, which could be performed by men and women alike, bird-catching was performed by men and boys. For them, it was serious business and crucial for providing meat for the table. Birds also made fine courtship gifts, so the boy who could catch and gift rare and lovely birds would win attention from the loveliest girl. A visual representation of the equation between sex and bird-trapping can be seen in Jan Steen’s paintings Rustic Love and the Merry Couple, both created in the mid-seventeenth century. These depict lovers tussling under trees. Above them, or nearby, we see cages and decoy birds, indicating that these young men have successfully lured and trapped their prey.

Across much of the early modern period, the language of bird-catching was applied freely in erotic and romantic contexts, while bird-catchers themselves had enduring reputations as womanisers. This stereotype is embodied in the high-spirited Papageno from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, who is employed catching birds for the queen and her ladies. While he revels in his work, he admits that what he really wants to catch is a girlfriend:

A girl or a little wife is what Papageno
would love to have!
Oh such a gentle turtledove
would be pure heaven.[6]

While birds were hunted year-round and close attention was paid to seasonal changes and migratory patterns, the season for bird-catching was seen as spring. Spring has been understood as the season of courtship since the classical period, aided by the explosion of sexual activity in birds.[7] This is best exemplified by Thomas Morley’s famous Now is the Month of Maying (1595), where ‘maying’ is a euphemism for sexual romps outdoors. Medieval and early modern Labours of the Months often defined May through its connection to courtly love and hawking, and to catching birds and plundering nests more generally.[8]

In spring, chief objects of the hunt (when not using a hawk or falcon) were songbirds, which could be taken alive and sold or given as gifts. Nicolas Lancret’s famous painting, Spring (1738), gives us a visual representation of the way spring, sex, and bird-catching intersected. This delightful painting depicts aristocratic French ladies sitting among the trees, waiting for men to catch songbirds for them.

Picture of the painting Spring by Nicolas Lancret, 1738. Held in the Louvre.
Figure 3: Nicolas Lancret, Spring, 1738. Louvre Museum. Wikimedia Commons.

The most obvious connection between love and birds is that Cupid is a winged creature. Authors played with the idea of Cupid as both a bird and a hunter armed with arrows.[9] The Anatomy of Melancholy calls a woman’s hair ‘Cupid’s nets, to catch all comers, a brushy wood, in which Cupid builds his nest’ (p. 466), so that Cupid is a catcher and a bird building a nest all in one sentence. One fable that was influential in the sixteenth century was Love and the Fowler, first told by the Greek bucolic poet Bion who lived in Sicily in the early first century BCE.

A fowler, still a boy, was hunting birds in a woodland grove and saw winged Eros sitting on a branch of a box tree. When he noticed him, he was excited because the bird seemed a good catch. Fastening all his rods together one to another he lay in wait for Eros, who was hopping here and there. The boy grew annoyed when he met with no success. He threw away his rods and went to an old plowman who had taught him that skill; he told him the story and showed him Eros perched in the tree. The old man shook his head with a smile and answered the boy:

Stop your hunting and don’t go near that bird; get far away from it; it’s a dangerous creature. You will be happy so long as you don’t catch him; but when you come to the measure of a man, this bird which now avoids you and has hopped away will suddenly come unbidden and land on your head.[10]

This fable is an allegory about sexual awakening. To the prepubescent boy, Cupid seems as harmless as a bird, but the wise old man knows better. Bion’s fable was retold by Edmund Spenser in the Shepheardes Calendar (1579). In his version, the bird-limer is replaced by two shepherds wielding bows and bird-bolts, blunt-headed arrows that were the go-to weapons for young fowlers in the sixteenth century.

Figure 4: The Shepheardes Calendar, March. Woodcut. Left, Cupid caught in a fowler’s net. Right, Thomalin throws stones at Cupid. From: The Shepheardes Calendar; The Original Edition of 1579 (London, J.C. Nimmo, 1890), digitised by Cornell University Library. Public Domain.

The scene proceeds thus: it is the month of March, and shepherds Willye and Thomalin are contemplating love. Thomalin scorns love, then one day he goes forth, ‘With bowe and bolts in either hand | For birds in bushes tooting’ (65–66). He spies the god of love with his ‘spotted wings’ (80) and shoots. He goes so far as to throw stones, but Cupid is too nimble. Finally, Thomalin flees in terror and Cupid shoots him, leaving a wound that will not heal, an obvious metaphor for the young man’s sexual awakening.[11]

Other authors took it further and enhanced the irony of Love being both a bird and a hunter by arming him with bird-bolts. In John Lyly’s Sapho and Phao, Venus laughs to Cupid about her husband Vulcan.

It came by lot, not love, that I was linked with [Vulcan]. He gives
thee bolts, Cupid, instead of arrows, fearing belike (jealous
fool that he is) that if he should give thee an arrowhead, he
should make himself a broad head (i. 1. 30–33).[12]

The term ‘Broad head’ means a head with room for a cuckold’s horns. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Biron declares, ‘Shot, by heaven! Proceed, sweet Cupid. Thou | hast thumped him with thy bird-bolt under the | left pap’ (iv. 3. 21–22).[13]

Bird-catching intersects with love and sex in many of Shakespeare’s plays, but particularly in the comedies. In Much Ado About Nothing, Don John calls Hero ‘a very forward March-chick’ (i. 3. 52), meaning a bird hatched too early in the season, a precocious youngster.[14] This ‘Hero-as-bird’ metaphor continues throughout the play. When her suitor Claudio believes Hero has been wooed by another, the jovial Benedick compares the perceived slight to ‘The flat transgression of a schoolboy, who, | being overjoyed with finding a birds’ nest, | shows it his companion, and he steals it’ (ii. 1. 195–205). Villains Borachio and Don John conspire to paint Hero as a ‘contaminated stale’ (ii. 2. 23), so when Hero is brutally rejected on her wedding day the prince declares, ‘I stand dishonour’d, that have gone about to link my dear friend to a common stale’ (iv. 1. 64–5).

A stale was a decoy used to lure wild birds into nets. It had the looser sense of meaning a sex worker who acted as a decoy for thieves, or simply an unchaste woman.[15] The insult has additional weight, for while an ordinary decoy bird was used to attract birds of the same species and was often well-loved and cared for, a stale could either be a live bird or a dead one that had been stuffed. These would be propped near food to show that the fowler’s bait was safe. Owls or bats were also stuffed to attract birds not of the same species through ‘mobbing’ behaviour, when small birds converge on a predator to chase it from their territory.[16] As a stale could be any vulgar prop and not a cherished decoy companion, it is particularly harsh on Hero. We may compare this to the insult in Hamlet. When Ophelia informs Polonius that Hamlet made vows to her, he replies that these declarations of love are, ‘springes to catch woodcocks’ (i. 3. 115). Woodcocks were proverbially stupid birds; the comparison is insulting.[17]

Fowling imagery continues in Much Ado About Nothing. In the attempts to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love during the gulling scenes, both are both compared to hunted birds. Knowing Benedick is in earshot, Don Pedro announces that Beatrice is in love with Benedick, and Claudio whispers, ‘O, ay: stalk on, stalk on; the fowl sits’ (ii. 3. 94). Benedick is painted as a foolish bird that has no idea that he is being stalked by a crowd of hunters. Stalking-horses could be actual horses or props that a hunter would hide behind in order to approach wildfowl undetected.[18]

Illustration of a hunter approaching the Fowl with Stalkinghorse. From: Henry Robertson, Life on the Upper Thames (London, 1875), p. 21.
Figure 5: Approaching the Fowl with Stalkinghorse. From: Henry Robertson, Life on the Upper Thames (London, 1875), p. 215. Public Domain.

When it is Beatrice’s turn to be tricked, the prince says, ‘Let there be the same net spread for her; and that must your daughter and her gentlewomen carry’ (ii. 3. 207–8). Hero and Ursula bait Beatrice, and at the scene’s conclusion, Ursula says, ‘She’s limed, I warrant you: we have caught her, madam’ (iii. 1. 104). Lime was a type of glue applied to bushes, twigs or strings that tangled a bird’s feathers and allowed the fowler to capture them alive. In romantic contexts, the limed bird was typically feminine, as in Twelfth Night when Malvolio, thinking Olivia loves him, gloats ‘I have limed her’ (iii. 4. 66), or in Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Proteus advises that ‘You must lay lime to tangle her desires’ (iii. 2. 68).[19] Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels (1600), which mocks courtly culture, describes attempts at witty exchanges as men going to ‘lime twigs’ so they may ‘catch their fantastic lady-birds’ (v. 2).

Having confirmed that Beatrice is sufficiently tangled in love, Hero responds in rhyming couplet: ‘If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: | some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps’ (iii. 1. 105-06). Love hunts not only with arrows, but with all the implements of an early modern fowler.

Given that the fate of a captured bird was death or imprisonment, we might assume that these bird-catching metaphors carried an inherent threat of violence. Yet when applied to a lover pursuing a beloved, in their minds they were intended to indicate a consensual chase. Women were thought to enjoy the chase and would let themselves be caught, mirroring the way that, in Markham’s words, birds were caught ‘either by enchantment, or enticement, by winning or wooing the Fowle unto you with Pipe, Whistle, or Call.’[20] Since a bird could not be caught without first being lured, styling the beloved as a snared bird was particularly appealing. Through enticement, they were seen almost as willing victims. Ben Jonson’s Epicoene (1609) contains the following scene:

A man should not doubt to overcome any woman. Think he can vanquish ‘em, and he shall: for though they deny, their desire is to be tempted […] They would solicit us, but that they are afraid. Howsoever, they wish in their hearts we should solicit them.

The knight’s friend warns, ‘a man must beware of force’, and adds, ‘But all women are not to be taken all ways.’ Truewit replies, ‘Tis true; no more than all birds, or all fishes’ (iv. 1). He then lists the methods by which different women ought to be wooed, aligning with how different birds had to be lured with methods appropriate to their species.[21]

The wisdom that a man must pursue because, under social constraints, a woman cannot, is echoed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helena, pursuing the obstinate Demetrius, calls herself a dove pursuing a griffin and rebukes Demetrius for not adhering to expected roles: ‘Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex: | We cannot fight for love, as men may do; | We should be wood and were not made to woo’ (ii. 1. 240–42). When he sees this, Oberon determines to set things right so that Helena shall be the one to ‘fly’ a pursuing Demetrius (ii. 1. 246).[22]

Even eminently willing women had to be chased, and their enjoyment of capture is also reflected in the literature. Pursued by Troilus, it is said of Cressida that she ‘fetches her breath as short as a new-ta’en sparrow’ (iii. 2. 34). The breathless, heart-pounding terror of a limed bird was thus thought to reflect the eager expectation of a woman in love. Even when the imagery is explicitly violent, it does not seem to reflect unwillingness on the woman’s part, as in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander when Hero enthusiastically embraces Leander: ‘Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring, | Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing, | She trembling strove’ (ii. 289–91).[23]

What was the conclusion of all this ‘catching’? In the Anatomy of Wit (1578), Lyly’s Philautus informs us ‘the end […] of birding [is] taking, not whistling; of love wedding, not wooing.’ He continues:

He that desireth only to talk and view without any further suit is not far different from him that liketh to see a painted rose better than to smell to a perfect violet, or to hear a bird sing in a bush rather than to have her home in his own cage.[24]

If wooing was birding, then bird-keeping was matrimony and the socially acceptable end of the hunt. The caged bird was a common motif in love poetry that is compared to the happy slavery of love. In Amoretti 73, Spenser compares his heart to a bird and begs his lady love to ‘gently encage’ it ‘that he may be your thrall.’ In Amoretti 65, he tempts her to matrimony by declaring:

Sweet be the bands, the which true loue doth tye,
without constraynt or dread of any ill:
the gentle birde feeles no captiuity
within her cage, but singes and feeds her fill.

Dr Ash Green is a recent graduate of The University of Melbourne, where she majored in classics and archaeology. Her research interests include the study of birds in the classical world, and more generally what human/animal studies can tell us about societies both past and present. Her doctoral thesis, Birds in Roman Life and Myth, will be published as part of the Routledge series Global Perspectives on Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology. She is the 2021 recipient of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies Early Career Award and a current fellow of the State Library of Victoria.

[1] Translated by Burton D. Fisher, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, (Miami: Opera Journeys Publishing, 2001), p. 44

[2] Tim Birkhead, The Red Canary (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 21–22.

[3] Polydore Vergil, Historia Anglica: General description of the island of Britain and its people; its early kings; the invasion of Julius Caesar (Basle: Third Edition, 1555). Author’s own translation.

[4] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Philadelphia: E. Claxton & Company, 1883), p. 310.

[5] Gervase Markham, Hungers Prevention: or The Whole Art of Fowling by Water and Land (London: Francis Grove, 1655), pp. 88–90.

[6] Fisher, The Magic Flute, p. 98.

[7] Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, i. 10–20.

[8] Bridget Ann Henisch, The Medieval Calendar Year (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), pp. 2–3 describes the labour cycle and records a fifteenth-century English rhyme where it is said that in April one can hear ‘the fowlis synge’, and in May, ‘I am as lyght as byrde in bowe.’ Page 156 examines how lovers symbolise spring. For images, see Roger S. Wieck, The Medieval Calendar: Locating Time in the Middle Ages (New York: The Morgan Library and Museum, 2017), pp. 14, 16–18, 27, 82.

[9] For the origins of Eros/Amor, see the following sourcebook: Marguerite Johnson and Terry Ryan, Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 27-8. The first chapter gathers sources on sexuality and the divine sphere and provides insightful commentary on the subject.

[10] Bion, Fragments, 13 Stobaeus, translated by Neil Hopkinson, Theocritus. Moschus. Bion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 535.

[11] References to Spenser are from: Edmund Spenser, The Shorter Poems, ed. by Richard A. McCabe (Penguin: 1999).

[12] John Lyly, Campaspe; Sappho and Phao, ed. by G. K. Hunter & D. M. Bevington (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). See also Much Ado About Nothing, i. 1. 36–39.

[13] From: William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, ed. by George Hibbard (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[14] All references to Much Ado are from: William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, ed. C. McEachern (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005).

[15] Constance Hieatt, ‘Stooping at a Simile: Some Literary Uses of Falconry.’ Papers On Language & Literature, 19.4, (1983), 339–360(p. 347).

[16] Markham, Hungers Prevention, p. 29. See also, The Sportsman’s Dictionary; or, The Gentleman’s Companion for Town and Country (London, 1778), under the entries ‘Bird’ and ‘Stale’.

[17] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. N. Taylor and A. Thompson. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007). Rhodri Lewis, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 52.

[18] Markham, Hungers Prevention, pp. 47–61.

[19] From: William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. by Elizabeth Story Donno (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ed. by John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[20] Markham, Hungers Prevention, pp. 1–2.

[21] From: Ben Jonson, Epicoene or The Silent Woman, ed. by Roger Victor Holdsworth (London: A & C Black, 2002).

[22] From: William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Burton Raffel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[23] Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Poems and Translations, ed. by Stephen Orgel (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[24] John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit; Euphues and his England, ed. by Leah Scragg (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2003), pp. 294–5.

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