History Podcasts

Bird Shaped Pestle

Bird Shaped Pestle


Plague doctor

A plague doctor was a physician who treated victims of the bubonic plague [1] during epidemics. These physicians were hired by cities to treat infected patients regardless of income, especially the poor that could not afford to pay. [2] Plague doctors are often depicted in Halloween costumes and seen as a symbol of death and disease. [3]

Plague doctors had a mixed reputation, with some citizens seeing their presence as a warning to leave the area. [4] Some plague doctors were said to charge patients and their families additional fees for special treatments or false cures. [5] In many cases these "doctors" were not experienced physicians or surgeons instead, being volunteers, second-rate doctors, or young doctors just starting a career. [6] In one case, a plague doctor was a fruit salesman before his employment as a physician. Plague doctors rarely cured patients instead serving to record death tolls and the number of infected people for demographic purposes. [4]

In France and the Netherlands, plague doctors often lacked medical training and were referred to as "empirics." Plague doctors were known as municipal or "community plague doctors", whereas "general practitioners" were separate doctors and both might be in the same European city or town at the same time. [1] [7] [8] [9]


Why did doctors during the Black Death wear ‘beak masks’?

Plague doctors wore a mask with a bird-like beak to protect them from being infected by deadly diseases such as the Black Death, which they believed was airborne. In fact, they thought disease was spread by miasma, a noxious form of ‘bad air.’ To battle this imaginary threat, the long beak was packed with sweet smells, such as dried flowers, herbs and spices.

Paul Fürst, engraving, c. 1721, of a plague doctor of Marseilles

However, though the beak mask has become an iconic symbol of the Black Death, there is no evidence it was actually worn during the 14th Century epidemic. Medical historians have in fact attributed the invention of the ‘beak doctor’ costume to a French doctor named Charles de Lorme in 1619. He designed the bird mask to be worn with a large waxen coat as a form of head-to-toe protection, modelled on a soldier’s armour.

The costume was worn by plague doctors during the Plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.

Black Friday Special Offer! Save 50% on a subscription to All About History, visit MagazinesDirect.com


You might also like:

All About History is part of Future plc, an international media group and leading digital publisher. Visit our corporate site.

© Future Publishing Limited Quay House, The Ambury , Bath BA1 1UA . All rights reserved. England and Wales company registration number 2008885.


Ten Thousand Years of the Mortar and Pestle

The culinary tools still look more or less the same as they did in their earliest days: an Object Lesson .

If you own a mortar and pestle, pick it up off its shelf and take a look at it: the curved lip, the deep bowl. Feel the thick, oblong weight of the pestle in your palm. More often than not, these things are hefty, made of smooth marble, or wood that brings the hidden pattern of the tree’s grain to the surface. There are porcelain mortar-and-pestle sets, as fussily Victorian as rosebud-lipped dolls, and sets blown from clear or jewel-toned glass. There are rough basalt molacajetes made from the detritus of ancient volcanoes.

Throughout their long history, mortars and pestles have varied dramatically in size, style, and material depending on their purpose. Chemists and pharmacists, for example, have traditionally used small porcelain sets for trituration, the process of grinding chemical compounds. In parts of the Middle East, meat is pounded into kibbeh in mortars two or three feet wide. The Chalon and Mutsun people in California’s Salinas Valley ground up acorns and grains by carving shallow depressions into bedrock. In Papua New Guinea, pestles are often carved into elaborate birds’ heads the Taino, an indigenous tribe in the Caribbean, used small figures endowed with enormous phalli. Still, the essential elements of design remain the same: a bowl and a club, used to crush and grind.

And modern-day mortars and pestles, no matter the composition, connect their owners to this ancient culinary and material history. The design has changed very little over the past several millennia: When you use it to grind spices into powder or make food into paste, you’re using essentially the same tool as the Aztecs, the Celts, the Sioux, the ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Romans, to name just a few. Six-thousand-year-old molacajetes discovered in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley are nearly identical to what a waiter might use to mix guacamole in a contemporary Mexican restaurant. The mortar and pestle offer a rare example of a stable technology, surviving thousands of years without significant refinement.

But while the design has remained more or less static across time and space, the uses for the mortar and pestle have changed significantly. While today’s iterations are viewed as tools for serious cooks (or at least those aspiring to become serious), some ancient cultures treated them as indispensable, go-to tools for preparing grain. The books of Exodus and Numbers, for example, both describe how the wandering Israelites, after gathering manna from the desert, would prepare it in their mortars. (This purpose hasn’t disappeared entirely, though—some survivalists and off-the-grid purists still endorse the merits of grinding grain with a mortar and pestle, choosing to pound their morning oats into porridge as they await societal collapse.)

The medicinal uses of the mortar and pestle have similarly changed over time from ubiquitous items to specialty tools. The two items were once a key part of health care delivery: They’re mentioned in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (the oldest preserved medical text, dating to 1550 B.C.E.) in Satire VII, the Roman poet Juvenal describes their role in preparing medicinal ointments and tinctures. The mortar and pestle are painted onto apothecary shelves in Italian frescoes and illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries. They were so integral to the development of pharmacology that in 2005, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia hosted an exhibition of mortars and pestles, showcasing their multiple roles as practical tools, historical objects, and pieces of art. In many labs today, scientists still use mortars and pestles to grind chemicals into powder. But while some specialty pharmacies still use them to compound medicines, their role in the pharmaceutical industry is now more symbolic than practical: Some drugstores (including, at one point, Walgreens) use the image of a mortar and pestle in their signs.

For the vast majority of us, though, the mortar and pestle’s primary use is in cooking. In part, the mortar and pestle remain timeless because their design still works, but their appeal in the kitchen extends beyond usefulness and into ritual. Modern kitchens are stocked with gleaming machines, ready at the press of a button to shred fresh herbs or to systematically churn seeds into dust. But by applying muscle to transform ingredients into paste or powder, the mortar and pestle help the cook form a bond with his or her food. These two tools on the shelf, inseparable partners, promise work, intimacy, and an elegant testament to the staying power of simple things.


Why plague doctors wore those strange beaked masks

In the 17th century, people believed these outfits could purify poisonous air. They were wrong.

The plague was once the most feared disease in the world, capable of wiping out hundreds of millions of people in seemingly unstoppable global pandemics and afflicting its victims with painfully swollen lymph nodes, blackened skin, and other gruesome symptoms.

In 17th-century Europe, the physicians who tended to plague victims wore a costume that has since taken on sinister overtones: they covered themselves head to toe and wore a mask with a long bird-like beak. The reason behind the beaked plague masks was a misconception about the very nature of the dangerous disease.

During that period's outbreaks of the bubonic plague—a pandemic that recurred in Europe for centuries—towns gripped by the disease hired plague doctors who practiced what passed for medicine on rich and poor residents alike. These physicians prescribed what were believed to be protective concoctions and plague antidotes, witnessed wills, and performed autopsies—and some did so while wearing beaked masks.

The costume is usually credited to Charles de Lorme, a physician who catered to the medical needs of many European royals during the 17th century, including King Louis XIII and Gaston d'Orléans, son of Marie de Médici. He described an outfit that included a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, and a hat and gloves made of goat leather. Plague doctors also carried a rod that allowed them to poke (or fend off) victims.

Their head gear was particularly unusual: Plague doctors wore spectacles, de Lorme continued, and a mask with a nose “half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak.”

Though plague doctors across Europe wore these outfits, the look was so iconic in Italy that the "plague doctor" became a staple of Italian commedia dell’arte and carnival celebrations—and is still a popular costume today. (Memories of the plague resonate in Venice during the coronavirus pandemic.)

But the forbidding ensemble was not just a deathly fashion statement: It was intended to protect the doctor from miasma. In the times before the germ theory of disease, physicians believed that the plague spread through poisoned air that could create an imbalance in a person’s humors, or bodily fluids. Sweet and pungent perfumes were thought to be able to fumigate plague-stricken areas and protect the smeller nosegays, incense, and other perfumes were common in the era.

Plague doctors filled their masks with theriac, a compound of more than 55 herbs and other components like viper flesh powder, cinnamon, myrrh, and honey. De Lorme thought the beak shape of the mask would give the air sufficient time to be suffused by the protective herbs before it hit plague doctors’ nostrils and lungs.

In fact, plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, bacteria that can be transmitted from animals to humans and through flea bites, contact with contaminated fluid or tissue, and inhalation of infectious droplets from sneezing or coughing people with pneumonic plague.

Three horrific plague pandemics swept across the globe before its cause was ultimately uncovered—the Plague of Justinian, which killed up to 10,000 people a day circa A.D. 561 the Black Death, which wiped out up to a third of Europeans between 1334 and 1372 and continued with intermittent outbreaks as late as 1879 and the Third Pandemic, which ravaged much of Asia between 1894 and 1959. (What is a pandemic—and why does it matter?)

Ultimately, the plague doctors’ outfits—and methods—didn’t make much of a difference. “Unfortunately,” writes historian Frank M. Snowden, “the therapeutic strategies of early modern plague doctors did little to prolong life, relieve suffering, or effect a cure.”

Plague doctors may have been immediately recognizable, but until the rise of the germ theory of disease and modern antibiotics, their costumes didn’t provide real protection against the disease.


The Passenger Pigeon

The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a poignant example of what happens when the interests of man clash with the interests of nature. It is believed that this species once constituted 25 to 40 per cent of the total bird population of the United States. It is estimated that there were 3 billion to 5 billion passenger pigeons at the time Europeans discovered America.

Early explorers and settlers frequently mentioned passenger pigeons in their writings. Samuel de Champlain in 1605 reported "countless numbers," Gabriel Sagard-Theodat wrote of "infinite multitudes," and Cotton Mather described a flight as being about a mile in width and taking several hours to pass overhead. Yet by the early 1900s no wild passenger pigeons could be found.

One of the last authenticated records of the capture of a wild bird was at Sargents, Pike County. Ohio, on 24 March 1900. Only a few birds still survived in captivity at this time. Concerted searches were made and rewards offered for the capture of wild passenger pigeons. From 1909 to 1912, the American Ornithologists' Union offered $1,500 to anyone finding a nest or nesting colony of passenger pigeons, but these efforts were futile. Never again would man witness the magnificent spring and fall migratory flights of this swift and graceful bird.

Attempts to save the species by breeding the surviving captive birds were not successful. The passenger pigeon was a colonial and gregarious bird and needed large numbers for optimum breeding conditions. It was not possible to reestablish the species with a few captive birds. The small captive flocks weakened and died.

The last known individual of the passenger pigeon species was "Martha" (named after Martha Washington). She died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, and was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where her body was once mounted in a display case with this notation:

Last of her species, died at 1 p.m.,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.
EXTINCT

The passenger pigeons or wild pigeon belongs to the order Columbiformes. Its scientific name is Ectopistes migratorius. Ectopistes means "moving about or wandering," and migratorius means "migrating." The scientific name carries the connotation of a bird that not only migrates in the spring and fall, but one that also moves about from season to season to select the most favorable environment for nesting and feeding.

The physical appearance of the bird was commensurate with its flight characteristics of grace, speed, and maneuverability. The head and neck were small the tail long and wedge-shaped, and the wings, long and pointed, were powered by large breast muscles that gave the-capability for prolonged flight. The average length of the male was about 16½ inches. The female was about an inch shorter.

The head and upper parts of the male pigeon were a clear bluish gray with black streaks on the scapulars and wing coverts. Patches of pinkish iridescence at the sides of the throat changed in color to a shining metallic bronze, green, and purple at the back of the neck. The lower throat and breast were a soft rose, gradually shading to white on the lower abdomen. The irides were bright red the bill small, black and slender the feet and legs a clear lake red.

The colors of the female were duller and paler. Her head and back were a brownish gray, the iridescent patches of the throat and back of the neck were less bright, and the breast was a pale cinnamon-rose color.

The mourning dove, Zenaidura macroura, closest relative of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius resembles the passenger pigeon in shape and coloring. This has often led to mistaken identification and false reports of passenger pigeons long after they became extinct.

The mourning dove is smaller and less brightly colored than the passenger pigeon. The iris of the adult mourning dove is dark brown that of the adult male passenger pigeon was bright red, and the female’s was orange. The adult mourning dove has a small black spot on its throat below and behind its ear. The passenger pigeon lacked this spot. When rising in flight, the mourning dove makes a whistling sound with its wings, whereas the passenger pigeon did not.

The juveniles-of the mourning dove and passenger pigeon resembled each other more closely than did the adults. The young mourning dove does not have the black spot on its neck. The iris of the young passenger pigeon was a hazel color.

The range of the passenger pigeon in its migrations was from central Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia south to the uplands of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Only a few birds were ever reported as far west as the Dakotas.

The main nesting area was in the region of the Great Lakes and east to New York. The main wintering sites stretched from Arkansas to North Carolina south to the uplands of the Gulf Coast states.

The habitat of the passenger pigeon was mixed hardwood forests. The birds depended on the huge forests for their spring nesting sites, for winter "roosts," and for food. The mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests. Worms and insects supplemented the diet in spring and summer.

In the winter the birds established "roosting" sites in the forests of the southern states. Each "roost" often had such tremendous numbers of birds so crowded and massed together that they frequently broke the limbs of the trees by their weight. In the morning the birds flew out in large flocks scouring the countryside for food. At night they returned to the roosting area. Their scolding and chattering as they settled down for the night could be heard for miles. When the food supply became depleted or the weather conditions adverse, the birds would establish a new roosting area in a more favorable location.

The migratory flights of the passenger pigeon were spectacular. The birds flew at an estimated speed of about sixty miles an hour. Observers reported the sky was darkened by huge flocks that passed overhead. These flights often continued from morning until night and lasted for several days.

The time of the spring migration depended on weather conditions. Small flocks sometimes arrived in the northern nesting areas as early as February, but the main migration occurred in March and April. The nesting sites were established in forest areas that had a sufficient supply of food and water available within daily flying range.

Since no accurate data were recorded on the passenger pigeon, it is only possible to give estimates on the size and population of these nesting areas. A single site might cover many thousands of acres and the birds were so congested in these areas that hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree. A large nesting in Wisconsin was reported as covering 850 square miles, and the number of birds nesting there was estimated at 136,000,000.

The nests were loosely constructed of small sticks and twigs and were about a foot in diameter. A single, white, elongated egg was laid per nesting. The incubation period was from twelve to fourteen days. Both parents shared the duties of incubating the egg and feeding the young.

The young bird was naked and blind when born, but grew and developed rapidly. When feathered it was similar in color to that of the adult female, but its feathers were tipped with white, giving it a scaled appearance. It remained in the nest about fourteen days, being fed and cared for by the parent birds. By this time it had grown large and plump and usually weighed more than either of its parents. It had developed enough to take care of itself and soon fluttered to the ground to hunt for its food.

Authorities differ as to how many times the passenger pigeon nested in a season. The general opinion was that the birds normally nested twice in a season, but this can neither be proved nor disproved since no accurate records of nestings were made.

During the late summer the flocks of passenger pigeons frequently moved about at random in the northern forests in search of food, but as fall approached and temperature changes became sharp the flocks of passenger pigeons began their migration to the southern wintering areas.

Because the passenger pigeon congregated in such huge numbers, it needed large forests for its existence. When the early settlers cleared the eastern forests for farmland, the birds were forced to shift their nesting and roosting sites to the forests that still remained. As their forest food supply decreased, the birds began utilizing the grain fields of the farmers. The large flocks of passenger pigeons often caused serious damage to the crops, and the farmers retaliated by shooting the birds and using them as a source of meat. However, this did not seem to seriously diminish the total number of birds.

The notable decrease of passenger pigeons started when professional hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in the city markets. Although the birds always had been used as food to some extent, even by the Indians, the real slaughter began in the 1800s.

There were no laws restricting the number of pigeons killed or the way they were taken. Because the birds were communal in habit, they were easily netted by using baited traps and decoys. The birds were shot at the nesting sites, young squabs were knocked out of nests with long sticks, and pots of burning sulphur were placed under the roosting trees so the fumes would daze the birds and they would fall to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed for private consumption and for sale on the market, where they often sold for as little as fifty cents a dozen.

By 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force, and by 1860 it was noticed that the numbers of birds seemed to be decreasing, but still the slaughter continued.

One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in.1878. Here 50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young.

The concerned voices of conservationists had little effect in stopping the slaughter. Finally a bill was passed in the Michigan legislature making it illegal to net pigeons within two miles of a nesting area, but the law was weakly enforced and few arrests were made for violations.

By the early 1890s the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared. It was now too late to protect them by passing laws. In 1897 a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a ten-year closed season on passenger pigeons. This was a completely futile gesture as the birds still surviving, as lone individuals, were too few to reestablish the species.

The passenger pigeon's technique of survival had been based on mass tactics. There had been safety in its large flocks which often numbered hundreds of thousands of birds. When a flock of this size established itself in an area, the number of local animal predators (such as wolves, foxes, weasels, and hawks) was so small compared to the total number of birds that little damage could be inflicted on the flock as a whole.

This colonial way of life became very dangerous when man became a predator on the flocks. When the birds were massed together, especially at a nesting site, it was easy for man to slaughter them in such huge numbers that there were not enough birds left to successfully reproduce the species.

The interests of civilization, with its forest clearing and farming, were diametrically opposed to the interests of the birds which needed the huge forests to survive. The passenger pigeons could not adapt themselves to existing in small flocks. When their interests clashed with the interests of man, civilization prevailed. The wanton slaughter of the birds only sped up the process of extinction. The converting of forests to farmland would have eventually doomed the passenger pigeon.

The one valuable result of the extinction of the passenger pigeon was that it aroused public interest in the need for strong conservation laws. Because these laws were put into effect, we have saved many other species of our migratory birds and wildlife.

Prepared by the Department of Vertebrate Zoology,
National Museum of Natural History in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services, Smithsonian Institution
ev. 3/01


The adult is a beetle with an elongated oval body, 4.5-6 mm long, very dark brown to black with two white spots on the wing cases. The body surface is clothed with microscopic pale hairs, some of these forming two small white spots near the centre of the wing cases, which give the beetle its characteristic appearance. The base of thorax (the middle section of the beetle) is also covered with white hairs. The antennae are clubbed, with males having one very long last segment. Females are larger than males.

The adult two-spot carpet beetle is very dark brown to black in colour with two white spots on the wing cases. It also has white hairs at the base of its thorax (the beetle's mid-section). Image © David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The larva of the two-spot carpet beetle is up to 6.5 mm long when fully developed, torpedo-shaped, tapering from head to the end of abdomen, which continues with two long orange tufts of hair. It superficially resembles a very dark silverfish. The segments are very visible, which give the larva a banded appearance, with darker stripes wider than the lighter ones. Its colour is golden yellow to brown, with golden yellow hairiness and a scaly down of the same colour on thorax and abdomen segments. Larvae of other Attagenus species are very similar.

The larva of a two spot carpet beetle is torpedo-shaped, banded in appearance and with a long tail tuft.


The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World

Even if you don’t know it, you have probably been surrounded by house sparrows your entire life. Passer domesticus is one of the most common animals in the world. It is found throughout Northern Africa, Europe, the Americas and much of Asia and is almost certainly more abundant than humans. The birds follow us wherever we go. House sparrows have been seen feeding on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building. They have been spotted breeding nearly 2,000 feet underground in a mine in Yorkshire, England. If asked to describe a house sparrow, many bird biologists would describe it as a small, ubiquitous brown bird, originally native to Europe and then introduced to the Americas and elsewhere around the world, where it became a pest of humans, a kind of brown-winged rat. None of this is precisely wrong, but none of it is precisely right, either.

Part of the difficulty of telling the story of house sparrows is their commonness. We tend to regard common species poorly, if at all. Gold is precious, fool’s gold a curse. Being common is, if not quite a sin, a kind of vulgarity from which we would rather look away. Common species are, almost by definition, a bother, damaging and in their sheer numbers, ugly. Even scientists tend to ignore common species, choosing instead to study the far away and rare. More biologists study the species of the remote Galapagos Islands than the common species of, say, Manhattan. The other problem with sparrows is that the story of their marriage with humanity is ancient and so, like our own story, only partially known.

Many field guides call the house sparrow the European house sparrow or the English sparrow and describe it as being native to Europe, but it is not native to Europe, not really. For one thing, the house sparrow depends on humans to such an extent it might be more reasonable to say it is native to humanity rather than to some particular region. Our geography defines its fate more than any specific requirements of climate or habitat. For another, the first evidence of the house sparrow does not come from Europe.

The clan of the house sparrow, Passer, appears to have arisen in Africa. The first hint of the house sparrow itself is based on two jawbones found in a layer of sediment more than 100,000 years old in a cave in Israel. The bird to which the bones belonged was Passer predomesticus, or the predomestic sparrow, although it has been speculated that even this bird might have associated with early humans, whose remains have been found in the same cave. The fossil record is then quiet until 10,000 or 20,000 years ago, when birds very similar to the modern house sparrow begin to appear in the fossil record in Israel. These sparrows differed from the predomestic sparrow in subtle features of their mandible, having a crest of bone where there was just a groove before.

Once house sparrows began to live among humans, they spread to Europe with the spread of agriculture and, as they did, evolved differences in size, shape, color and behavior in different regions. As a result, all of the house sparrows around the world appear to have descended from a single, human-dependent lineage, one story that began thousands of years ago. From that single lineage, house sparrows have evolved as we have taken them to new, colder, hotter and otherwise challenging environments, so much so that scientists have begun to consider these birds different subspecies and, in one case, species. In parts of Italy, as house sparrows spread, they met the Spanish sparrow (P. hispaniolensis). They hybridized, resulting in a new species called the Italian sparrow (P. italiiae).

As for how the relationship between house sparrows and humans began, one can imagine many first meetings, many first moments of temptation to which some sparrows gave in. Perhaps the small sparrows ran—though “sparrowed” should be the verb for their delicate prance—quickly into our early dwellings to steal untended food. Perhaps they flew, like sea gulls, after children with baskets of grain. What is clear is that eventually sparrows became associated with human settlements and agriculture. Eventually, the house sparrow began to depend on our gardened food so much so that it no longer needed to migrate. The house sparrow, like humans, settled. They began to nest in our habitat, in buildings we built, and to eat what we produce (whether our food or our pests).

Meanwhile, although I said all house sparrows come from one human-loving lineage, there is one exception. A new study from the University of Oslo has revealed a lineage of house sparrows that is different than all the others. These birds migrate. They live in the wildest remaining grasslands of the Middle East, and do not depend on humans. They are genetically distinct from all the other house sparrows that do depend on humans. These are wild ones, hunter-gatherers that find everything they need in natural places. But theirs has proven to be a far less successful lifestyle than settling down.

Maybe we would be better without the sparrow, an animal that thrives by robbing from our antlike industriousness. If that is what you are feeling, you are not the first. In Europe, in the 1700s, local governments called for the extermination of house sparrows and other animals associated with agriculture, including, of all things, hamsters. In parts of Russia, your taxes would be lowered in proportion to the number of sparrow heads you turned in. Two hundred years later came Chairman Mao Zedong.

The house sparrow, like humans, settled. They began to nest in our habitat, in buildings we built, and to eat what we produce. (Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images) Passer domesticus is one of the most common animals in the world. It is found throughout Northern Africa, Europe, the Americas and much of Asia and is almost certainly more abundant than humans. (David Courtenay / Getty Images) Chairman Mao Zedong commanded people all over China to come out of their houses to bang pots and make the sparrows fly, which, in March of 1958, they did, pictured. The sparrows flew until exhausted, then they died, mid-air, and fell to the ground. (Courtesy of The Fat Finch)

Mao was a man in control of his world, but not, at least in the beginning, of the sparrows. He viewed sparrows as one of the four “great” pests of his regime (along with rats, mosquitoes and flies). The sparrows in China are tree sparrows, which, like house sparrows, began to associate with humans around the time that agriculture was invented. Although they are descendants of distinct lineages of sparrows, tree sparrows and house sparrows share a common story. At the moment at which Mao decided to kill the sparrows, there were hundreds of millions of them in China (some estimates run as high as several billion), but there were also hundreds of millions of people. Mao commanded people all over the country to come out of their houses to bang pots and make the sparrows fly, which, in March of 1958, they did. The sparrows flew until exhausted, then they died, mid-air, and fell to the ground, their bodies still warm with exertion. Sparrows were also caught in nets, poisoned and killed, adults and eggs alike, anyway they could be. By some estimates, a billion birds were killed. These were the dead birds of the great leap forward, the dead birds out of which prosperity would rise.

Of course moral stories are complex, and ecological stories are too. When the sparrows were killed, crop production increased, at least according to some reports, at least initially. But with time, something else happened. Pests of rice and other staple foods erupted in densities never seen before. The crops were mowed down and, partly as a consequence of starvation due to crop failure, 35 million Chinese people died. The great leap forward leapt backward, which is when a few scientists in China began to notice a paper published by a Chinese ornithologist before the sparrows were killed. The ornithologist had found that while adult tree sparrows mostly eat grains, their babies, like those of house sparrows, tend to be fed insects. In killing the sparrows, Mao and the Chinese had saved the crops from the sparrows, but appear to have left them to the insects. And so Mao, in 1960, ordered sparrows to be conserved (replacing them on the list of four pests with bedbugs). It is sometimes only when a species is removed that we see clearly its value. When sparrows are rare, we often see their benefits when they are common, we see their curse.

When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, there were Native American cities, but none of the species Europeans had come to expect in cities: no pigeons, no sparrows, not even any Norway rats. Even once European-style cities began to emerge, they seemed empty of birds and other large animals. In the late 1800s, a variety of young visionaries, chief among them Nicholas Pike, imagined that what was missing were the birds that live with humans and, he thought, eat our pests. Pike, about whom little is known, introduced about 16 birds into Brooklyn. They rose from his hands and took off and prospered. Every single house sparrow in North America may be descended from those birds. The house sparrows were looked upon favorably for a while until they became abundant and began to spread from California to the New York Islands, or vice versa anyway. In 1889, just 49 years after the introduction of the birds, a survey was sent to roughly 5,000 Americans to ask them what they thought of the house sparrows. Three thousand people responded and the sentiment was nearly universal: The birds were pests. This land became their land too, and that is when we began to hate them.

Because they are an introduced species, now regarded as invasive pests, house sparrows are among the few bird species in the United States that can be killed essentially anywhere, any time, for any reason. House sparrows are often blamed for declines in the abundance of native birds, such as bluebirds, though the data linking sparrow abundance to bluebird decline are sparse. The bigger issue is that we have replaced bluebird habitats with the urban habitats house sparrows favor. So go ahead and bang your pots, but remember, you were the one who, in building your house, constructed a house sparrow habitat, as we have been doing for tens of thousands of years.

As for what might happen if house sparrows became more rare, one scenario has emerged in Europe. House sparrows have become more rare there for the first time in thousands of years. In the United Kingdom, for example, numbers of house sparrows have declined by 60 percent in cities. As the birds became rare, people began to miss them again. In some countries the house sparrow is now considered a species of conservation concern. Newspapers ran series on the birds’ benefits. One newspaper offered a reward for anyone who could find out “what was killing our sparrows.” Was it pesticides, some asked? Global warming? Cellphones? Then just this year a plausible (though probably incomplete) answer seems to have emerged. The Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), a hawk that feeds almost exclusively on sparrows, has become common in cities across Europe and is eating the sparrows. Some people have begun to hate the hawk.

In the end, I can’t tell you whether sparrows are good or bad. I can tell you that when sparrows are rare, we tend to like them, and when they are common, we tend to hate them. Our fondness is fickle and predictable and says far more about us than them. They are just sparrows. They are neither lovely nor terrible, but instead just birds  searching for sustenance and finding it again and again where we live. Now, as I watch a sparrow at the feeder behind my own house, I try to forget for a moment whether I am supposed to like it or not. I just watch as it grabs onto a plastic perch with its thin feet. It hangs there and flutters a little to keep its balance as the feeder spins. Once full, it fumbles for a second and then flaps its small wings and flies. It could go anywhere from here, or at least anywhere it finds what it needs, which appears to be us.


People who are at high risk of bird-mite infestations include poultry farmers people living in close proximity to bird nests people who rear birds as a hobby (eg, pigeon racers, breeders, pet keepers, etc) vets, and zoo workers. Exposure to bird mites can also occur when using second-hand furniture, or when working/living in buildings that­ have been infested by bird mites.

A bird-mite infestation presents as itchy bites.

  • The bitten areas are intensely itchy, especially at night or in the early morning.
  • Symptoms are sometimes described as including a ‘crawling’ sensation that is caused by the mites injecting saliva when feeding.
  • There may be numerous small red papules and vesicles (the bite reactions).

17th-century Plague Doctors Were the Stuff of Nightmares

Some of the creepiest things out there are the ones that are supposed to be funny, and some of the funniest things are the ones we're supposed to take seriously. For instance, clowns are supposed to be hilarious, and yet, according to one 2016 Vox survey, more Americans report being more afraid of clowns than climate change. Similarly, during the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Italy in the 1650s, the doctors taking care of the sick — rich and poor alike — were purportedly mocked for their strange and somewhat frightening uniforms.

Although the plague that bedeviled southern Europe during this time wasn't nearly as destructive as the Black Death of the 14th century, it is estimated to have killed over a million people in Italy and surrounding areas over the course of the decade, but mostly between 1656 and 1658. No one was safe, and since the germ theory of disease wouldn't reinvent medicine for another 200 years, the Italians figured desperate times called for desperate measures, and so they sent their physicians out in the most bonkers costume imaginable.

The Plague Doctor Costume

For starters, these doctors wore masks — but not just any mask. It was the face of a white bird, wearing goggles and a top hat. They wore long, dark robes, heavy gloves, and carried batons they used to point to things — maybe because it was hard to hear them through their masks? Paul Fürst, a German visitor to Italy during this time, wrote about this outlandish Italian custom of physicians dressing like creepy bird people: "You believe it is a fable, what is written about Doctor Beak . Oh, believe and don't look away, for the Plague rules Rome," he remarked.

And though the 15th century Germans, like the rest of us, thought the outfit seemed a little much, there was a reason for it, even if the reasons don't have any scientific backing by today's standards.

"All the parts of the plague doctor's outfit, and especially the shape of the mask, were believed to provide protection for the doctor," says Winston Black, an independent historian of medicine and religion in the Middle Ages and author of "The Middle Ages: Facts and Fictions," in an email interview. "However, the protection wasn't from germs or bacteria on the patient, which would not be understood until the modern era. Instead, doctors believed that some disease, like plague, was generated by poisoned air called miasma."

Miasma Theory of Disease

Miasma — also called "bad air" or "night air" — was thought to emanate from rotting organic matter and infect people through their respiratory system or skin. Of course, contaminated water, poor hygiene and the lack of sanitation in settlements were the real culprits behind most of the epidemics that took place up until the 19th century, but how were they to know? Instead of remedying those problems, they spent their time tricking out their plague doctor costumes.

"According to one set of instructions for plague doctors, the cloak and hat should cover the entire body and be made of oiled Moroccan leather, to prevent miasma entering the pores," says Black. "The most important element was the long, beaked mask. It was to be filled with sweet or strong-smelling herbs which were believed to block or 'filter' out the miasma. One of the most popular herbs was wormwood, the main ingredient of absinthe, which has a very sharp odor. The mask could also simply hold a vinegar-soaked sponge, since the strong smell of vinegar was also thought to block miasma."

The Life of a Plague Doctor

Aside from the fact that they were made fun of by the Germans, not much is known about the plague doctors of the 17th century. Our best understanding is that they were municipal doctors, working in large cities for the urban government or the monarchy. They probably were most common in southern European cities like Rome, Milan, and some might even have been active in the south of France.

"Because they were public servants, they probably did not have 'clients,' per se," says Black. "Instead they went around the city during a plague outbreak, making decisions about which houses to lock up or condemn, which neighborhoods to quarantine, and so on."

Did Plague Doctors Actually Wear This Costume?

Although there were certainly doctors attending to victims of the plague during the outbreak in the 17th century in southern Europe, evidence that anyone actually wore these outfits in a real plague outbreak is thin on the ground. Most of what we have are satirical writings and images — like modern political cartoons.

"It's telling that the most popular image, Gerhart Altzenbach's engraving of 1656, is called 'Doctor Beak from Rome,' which suggests few people took them seriously, and most considered them Italian," says Black.

Our best evidence that the elaborate costume even existed comes from a description of the French royal physician Charles de Lorme. De Lorme is sometimes given credit for inventing the getup, but according to Black, that's probably unlikely:

"There are already descriptions from the later 16th century of doctors wearing protective masks. Perhaps de Lorme should be credited with creating an outfit that was supposed to protect the entire body of the doctor. Despite this French claim to the creation of the outfit, most other Europeans agreed it was Italian in origin."

But even if the outfit wasn't as widespread as we now imagine, the development of the plague doctor and his creepy, silly costume still suggests important changes were afoot in medicine and public health during this time:

"Doctors were developing stronger ideas about how contagious diseases like plague could be, and more doctors were working in public capacities, hired to care for the health of entire cities or neighborhoods, and not just for individual, wealthy patients," says Black.

The word "malaria" comes directly from the miasma theory of disease. It means "bad air" in Italian.


Watch the video: A History Of The world in 100 Objects Episode 6 Bird Shaped Pestle Audio Documentary (December 2021).