Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Monday 18 October 2021


Vintage engraving depicting a lake of crocodiles (public domain)

What's in a name? Not a lot, sometimes. Or, to put it more poetically: the naming of books – and animals – is a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your holiday games, as T.S. Eliot almost said.

Take, for instance, a book written by English diplomat, Conservative MP, and Oriental scholar Edward Backhouse Eastwick (1814-1883), published in 1849, and entitled Dry Leaves From Young Egypt. With a title like that, one might well be forgiven for assuming it to be a volume devoted to the land of the pyramids and sphinx, but in reality its subject is the author's journey in 1839 through Sindh, the most southeasterly of Pakistan's four provinces. Similarly, a section within this same book entitled 'Magar Taláo – the Alligator Lake' is not about alligators at all, which are not native to Pakistan, but concerns crocodile instead, which are native here.

A 19th-Century painting (artist unknown to me) of Edward Backhouse Eastwick (public domain)

I first learned about Magar Taláo about 30 years ago, from a thoroughly fascinating, exquisitely illustrated compendium volume from 1885 entitled The World of Wonders: A Record of Things Wonderful in Nature, Science, and Art that I'd recently purchased at a book fair, and which was packed with the most intriguing, unusual, and sometimes truly bizarre subjects, often excerpted from earlier works that nowadays are all but forgotten. In the case of Magar Taláo, this compendium's coverage consisted of what turned out upon my later checking of it to be a direct quote of the entire relevant passage from Eastwick's afore-mentioned book.

Moreover, as it is such an interesting but nowadays rarely read passage, I have decided to do the same with it here on ShukerNature, because I feel sure that it will interest my blog's readers just as much as it did with me when I first read it all those years ago in The World of Wonders, and then subsequently re-read it in its original source. So here it is, quoted in full directly from Eastwick's Dry Leaves From Young Egypt (but please bear in mind that the so-called alligators referred to in it are actually crocodiles, and that it is set in Pakistan, not Egypt!):

One of my first expeditions after reaching Caráchi [Karachi] was a visit to the Magar Taláo, as it is called, or Lake of Alligators. This curious place is about eight miles from Caráchi. and is well worth inspecting to all who are fond of the monstrous and grotesque. A moderate ride through a sandy and sterile track varied with a few patches of jungle, brings one to a grove of tamarind trees, hid in the bosom of which lie the grisly brood of monsters. Little would one ignorant of the locale suspect that under that green wood in that tiny pool, which an active leaper could half spring across, such hideous denizens are concealed. "Here is the pool," I said to my guide rather contemptuously, "but where are the alligators?" At the same time I was stalking on very boldly with head erect, and rather inclined to flout the whole affair, naso adunco. A sudden hoarse roar or bark, however, under my very feet, made me execute a pirouette in the air with extraordinary adroitness, and perhaps with more animation than grace. I had almost stepped on a young crocodilian imp about three feet long, whose bite, small as he was, would have been the reverse of pleasant. Presently the genius of the place made his appearance in the shape of a wizard-looking old Fakir, who, on my presenting him with a couple of rupees, produced his wand in other words, a long pole, and then proceeded to "call up his spirits." On his shouting "Ao! Ao!" "Come! Come!" two or three times, the water suddenly became alive with monsters. At least three score huge alligators, some of them fifteen feet in length, made their appearance, and came thronging to the shore. The whole scene reminded me of fairy tales. The solitary wood, the pool with its strange inmates, the Fakir's lonely hut on the hill side, the Fakir himself, tall, swart, and gaunt, the robber-looking Bilúchi by my side, made up a fantastic picture. Strange, too, the control our showman displayed over his "Lions." On his motioning with the pole they stopped (indeed, they had already arrived at a disagreeable propinquity), and, on his calling out "Baitho," "Sit down," they lay flat on their stomachs, grin­ning horrible obedience with their open and expectant jaws. Some large pieces of flesh were thrown to them, to get which they struggled, writhed, and fought, and tore the flesh into shreds and gobbets. I was amused with the respect the smaller ones shewed to their overgrown seniors. One fellow, about ten feet long, was walking up to the feeding ground from the water, when he caught a glimpse of another much larger just behind him. It was odd to see the frightened look with which he sidled out of the way evidently expecting to lose half a yard of his tail before he could effect his retreat. At a short distance (perhaps half a mile) from the first pool, I was shewn another, in which the water was as warm as one could bear it for complete immersion, yet even here I saw some small alligators. The Fakirs told me these brutes were very numerous in the river about fifteen or twenty miles to the west. The monarch of the place, an enormous alligator, to which the Fakir had given the name of "Mor Saheb," "My Lord Mor," never obeyed the call to come out. As I walked round the pool I was shewn where he lay, with his head above water, immoveable as a log, and for which I should have mistaken him but for his small savage eyes, which glittered so that they seemed to emit sparks. He was, the Fakir said, very fierce and dangerous, and at least twenty feet in length.

What a fascinating if frightening vista the Lake of Alligators must have been to the previously imperious, unimpressed Eastwick, and, echoing his own viewpoint afterwards, how surreal a scene it must have seemed – the product of some fevered nightmare, no less – featuring a primeval phantasmagorical world bedeviled by the deadliest of dragons who remain lulled only by the spellbinding skills of the almost mystical, magical fakir in their midst, a veritable crocodile whisperer, in fact!

Finally, for everyone reading this blog article of mine who shares my passion for titillating trivia: the first recorded use in English of the Arabic word 'kismet', meaning destiny, fate, or simply luck, was by none other than a certain Edward Backhouse Eastwick (who spelled it 'kismat'), in – yes, you've guessed it – Dry Leaves From Young Egypt. There's a future quiz question lurking in there somewhere!

A congregation of pool-dwelling crocodiles (public domain)


Friday 15 October 2021


Vintage picture postcard depicting the famous Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue; it was originally part of a group, with Bellerophon and Pegasus fighting it (public domain)

How to lose a chimaera in one easy lesson? Simply see it, then promptly forget all about it, until far too much time has passed to make amends. See, I told you that it was easy! Confused? I was too, for a while – but let's begin at the beginning.

The year was 1980-ish, sometime in that decade anyway. It was during an afternoon in the Midlands town of Stratford-upon-Avon, famous not only in England but also internationally as the birthplace of a certain playwright, one William Shakespeare, to be precise. I was there with my family, as this was a favourite visiting locale for us on Sundays, because unlike in many other English towns back then, most shops in Stratford were open on the Sabbath due its huge popularity with overseas tourists.

Chimaera fountain at Arezzo, vintage postcard, 1952 (public domain)

And so it was on that fateful afternoon that I found myself in a large two-storey shopping complex in the centre of Stratford's shopping area, a complex that specialized in antiques. Its very spacious interior was divided up into numerous stalls, each stall rented out to a different antiques seller, so it collectively offered a vast range of objets d'art, curiosities, and exotica of every conceivable kind – in other words, a fascinating place in which to spend time browsing, at least for anyone like me with a decidedly eclectic range of interests.

In one corner of the downstairs storey was a stall whose lady vendor could usually be found whiling away the hours by knitting as potential purchasers eyed her wares. I can still vividly recall spotting on the floor amidst some other figurines a Jack Russell terrier-sized black sculpture in metal of what seemed to me to be a somewhat odd-looking lion, with a spiky mane, unusually slender haunches, and a long tail that curved up over its back instead of downwards. There also seemed to be something peculiar sticking up from its shoulders, but as I wasn't overly interested in this ostensibly misshaped, confusing creature, I never bothered to peer closer to see what that 'something peculiar' was. Instead, my gaze fell elsewhere, peering at other items in her stall before moving on to various stalls nearby – this complex contained a great many stalls, so in order to visit all or most of them, it paid not to linger or loiter too long at any single one.

An inordinately elaborate chimaera, by Jacopo Ligozzi, created between 1590 and 1610 AD (public domain)

I thought nothing more of that strange-looking leonine statue for a long time, some years in fact, until one day I was idly flicking through a Larousse-published encyclopaedia of art that I'd lately purchased, and there, to my great surprise, was a photograph of a statue that looked exactly like the odd, spiky-maned lion that I'd seen during that long-gone Sunday afternoon visit to Stratford – except that it wasn't a lion after all. Instead, it was a chimaera (=chimera), and no ordinary chimaera either, always assuming of course that any chimaera can ever be considered ordinary. But what exactly IS a chimaera?

If you're unversed in Greek mythology, you may not have encountered the stirring legend of Bellerophon, Pegasus, and the Chimaera, so here are its edited highlights. The hideous semi-human monster Echidna had given birth to a number of horrific beasts, including the three-headed hell hound Cerberus, the two-headed monster hound Orthos, the many-headed Lernaean hydra, and the chimaera, which was yet another multi-headed horror.

An animatronic large-scale model of the chimaera (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This terrifying beast took the form of a huge lion, but unlike any normal member of the leonine pride, the chimaera bore a second head, in the form of a horned goat's, sprouting forth from between its shoulders or its upper back (recollections may vary, as I believe someone once said recently…?), and a third head, in the form of a venomous snake's, at the end of its long, ever-thrashing tail. Moreover, as if all of that were not already more than sufficiently deadly for anyone to deal with, the chimaera also breathed fire, jetting forth great flames of destruction from the jaws of its primary, leonine head.

In other words, this was an exceptionslly formidable beast for anyone to contend with, but most especially for the poor benighted inhabitants of  Caria in northern Anatolia, Turkey – because this is where the chimaera had taken up residence and was terrorizing the helpless populace, who had no answer to the perilous threat posed by an enormous monstrosity with three different heads and infernal flame-throwing capabilities.

Two vintage engravings of the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue (top and bottom); and a vintage b/w photograph of it (middle) – note the dedicatory inscription to the god Tinia carved upon its right foreleg (all public domain)

In such a dire situation, the usual plan of action is for the terrified locals to send out for a hero to dispatch their hideous persecutor, but in this instance they did not have to do so, because just such a man had already been sent there, by his scheming uncle, King Iobates of Lycia in Anatolia, who fervently hoped that his heroic nephew would be killed by the chimaera, thereby foiling a prophecy claiming that his nephew would kill him instead.

The nephew in question was a mighty, fearless warrior-hero named Bellerophon, who arrived in Caria astride his equally mighty, fearless steed. Nor was this just any mighty, fearless steed either – in fact, it was none other than the magnificent winged horse Pegasus, previously untamed, but whom Bellerophon had successfully captured using the goddess Athena's enchanted golden bridle while it was drinking from a sacred spring on the citadel of Corinth in Greece, unaware of Bellerophon's stealthy approach.

Bellerophon on Pegasus slaying the chimaera – from Walter Crane's A Wonder Book For Girls and Boys (public domain)

Riding Pegasus, Bellerophon swiftly entered into battle with the chimaera, but even though his winged steed possessed the significant advantage of flight, it was a long and physically grueling onslaught before Bellerophon and Pegasus finally wore down this immensely powerful monster's vast reserves of strength. Doing so, however, finally enabled Bellerophon to slay it, by firing a spear tipped with a block of lead down its throat, whose fire melted the lead, thereby suffocating the chimaera, and freeing the people of Caria from its tyranny forever.

Encouraged by his great success, Bellerophon then decided to attempt an even more daring feat – to fly up through the sky upon Pegasus until he reached the very home of the gods themselves, who had hitherto remained forever concealed from human eyes in their lofty cloud-shielded domain at the very summit of Mount Olympus. This was something that no mortal had ever even attempted before, let alone achieved, but Bellerophon was intent upon doing so, and promptly set off, riding Pegasus ever upwards towards the divine dwelling place of the Greek deities.

An exquisite illustration from 1914 of Bellerophon riding Pegasus (public domain)

Zeus, however, was far from pleased about this. He had watched with pleasure as Bellerophon had dispatched the dreaded chimaera, but now his brow was creased with fury, his eyes thunderous with rage, as he witnessed Bellerophon's blasphemous ascent through the skies towards their rarefied Olympian home. Suddenly, Zeus had an idea – he sent forth a biting gadfly, down towards Bellerophon and his winged steed. When it reached them, the gadfly savagely bit Pegasus on his rump – which caused him to rear up in shock and pain, throwing an unsuspecting Bellerophon off his back, who plummeted headlong back down to Earth.

Miraculously, however, Bellerophon survived, by landing on a thorn bush that cushioned his fall, but its thorns blinded him, and he spent the rest of his days wandering the land piteously like a beggar, in abject misery – a sorry end indeed for a former hero and slayer of monsters.


Modern-day photographs depicting both sides of the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue (public domain / Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Back now to my afore-mentioned Larousse-published encyclopaedia of art, and the photograph that I had seen in it was of a bronze statue of the chimaera, which had been unearthed by construction workers on 15 November 1553 at Arezzo, an ancient Etruscan and Roman city in Tuscany, Italy, and which dated back to approximately 400 BC.

Nowadays known officially as the Chimaera of Arezzo, and widely deemed to be the finest example ever uncovered of ancient Etruscan artwork, this spectacular statue is believed to have been a votive offering to the sky god Tinia – the supreme deity in Etruscan mythology. It stands 78.5 cm (2.5 ft) high, measures 129 cm (4.25 ft) in total length, and after passing through several different owners and holding locations it has been on permanent display at Florence's National Archaeological Museum in Tuscany since 1870.

Apart from its bright red colour, this is an identical replica of the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue, and was cast by the Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry (© Piero Paoletti/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Modern outdoor chimaera statue in stone inspired by the Chimaera of Arezzo bronze statue (© Thomas Shahan/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)

I now realized that what I had seen in that antiques stall at Stratford was a modern-day replica of this historically highly significant statue, a faithful facsimile of the Chimaera of Arezzo no less. Unfortunately, however, I hadn't realized back then what it was, so I hadn't thought to ask its price. True, the price may have been more than I could have afforded, but I’ll never know, because I never asked.

All that I do know is that in the 30-40 years that have passed since that monumental miss on my part, I have never once seen another contemporary reproduction of the Chimaera of Arezzo statue for sale, anywhere. But I live in hope…

My mother Mary Shuker and I being scrutinized by an animatronic chimaera at an exhibition of monsters held in Birmingham's art gallery during August 2008 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Finally: The 2012 fantasy movie Wrath of the Titans, albeit playing fast and loose with classical Greek mythology as is Hollywod's wont,  contains an undeniably thrilling battle sequence between Perseus (as opposed to Bellerophon) and a winged chimaera - check out its sneaky serpentine tail in the following video clip:

Wednesday 13 October 2021


My newly-purchased modern-day Greek wall plate featuring some very mysterious creatures depicted upon it please click photograph to enlarge it for close-up viewing purposes (© Dr Karl Shuker)

On Tuesdays and Fridays, the (very) small outdoor market in my West Midlands, England, home town is largely devoted to bric-a-brac and collector's stalls, selling all manner of curiosities and exotica amidst the more traditional DVDs, stamps, books, medals, toys, records, ornaments, and suchlike – so naturally I'm a frequent visitor!

Yesterday, the very first stall that I walked up to included among its varied array of objects for sale the large and very ornately decorated terracotta Greek wall plate whose photograph opens this present ShukerNature article. Although only a modern-day creation, unsigned and unstamped, its sizeable 11-inch diameter coupled with its striking portrayal of several different animals in classical Greek style rendered this exquisite wall plate an extremely eyecatching item of artwork very worthy of being displayed, and its previous owner had evidently thought so too, because a wall-hanger frame was still attached to its reverse side.

What attracted me to this plate most of all, however, was the precise nature of the animals depicted upon it, because whereas some were readily identifiable, others were much more mysterious. Consequently, I decided to ask its price, although I strongly suspected that such a beautiful object, especially one that was in excellent condition too, would not be cheap.  When I asked the seller, a look of intense concentration immediately fixed itself upon his face, and he proceeded to stand there for several moments, in deep, rapt contemplation. How much would he decide to ask for it, I wondered - £5, £10, possibly even more? After what seemed like an eternity, the seller finally reached a decision and turned slowly towards me, as I awaited with quiet dread the size of the figure that he was about to quote me.

"20p," he said.

Never had a 20p coin ever exited anyone's pocket and found itself in someone else's hand as rapidly as did the 20p coin that I used to purchase this absolute bargain!

Picking up the surprisingly heavy but thoroughly wonderful wall plate that was now mine, all mine, I placed it gingerly inside a plastic carrier bag and then that inside another one, to ensure that nothing else that I may purchase there would knock against it and possibly chip its beautiful surface, and then I walked happily away, another item of potential cryptozoological interest to add to my collection.

When I arrived back home, I unwrapped the plate and spent some time perusing its portrayed beasts. First and foremost to attract my attention was the gorgeously-detailed fabulous beast depicted at its centre, which I readily recognized to be a Greek sphinx, combining a lion's body with a woman's head, and winged. Egyptian sphinxes, conversely, combine a lion's body with a man's head, and are not winged.

Close-up of the Greek sphinx depicted at the centre of my Greek wall plate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Turning now to the various beasts decorating the plate's perimeter, I could see straight away that two of them were a pair of maned lions, depicted near to bottom-left and bottom-right of the plate:

The two maned lions depicted on my Greek wall plate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

This left four other creatures still to identify, and this is where it became rather more difficult, at least initially. Three of these – positioned bottom-centre, near top-left and near top-right – were depictions of a very distinctive, unusual type of bird. It sported a long swan-like or goose-like neck, but its plumage's form and colouration did not match that of any swan or goose native to either Greece or its environs that I could think of. And yet it did seem strangely familiar somehow.

The three mystery birds depicted on my Greek wall plate (© Dr Karl Shuker)

After giving the matter some thought, I then gave thanks to the fact that I was not only a lover of classical mythology but also a stamp collector, because an image had suddenly popped into my mind – the image of one specific postage stamp featuring the classical Greek demi-god hero Heracles (aka Hercules) battling a flock of avian man-eaters known as the Stymphalian birds (click here to access my detailed investigation of these creatures elsewhere on ShukerNature).

In 1982, Monaco had commemorated the famous Greek legend of Heracles by issuing a series of postage stamps that each illustrated one of his twelve great labours. And among those labours was his slaying of the ferocious lake-dwelling Stymphalian birds, which reputedly possessed long necks and huge wings of brass. Moreover, the three birds depicted on that particular stamp definitely bore a marked resemblance to the tantalizing trio portrayed upon my Greek wall plate.

The Monaco postage stamp depicting Heracles fighting the Stymphalian birds (© Monaco Postal Service – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Consequently, although I cannot be absolutely certain, it seems reasonable to assume that my plate's mystery birds are indeed representations of these mythological feathered monsters. Indeed; the plate's modern-day Greek artist may even have been directly inspired by that particular Greek-themed Monaco stamp when designing his birds for it.

All that now awaited my attention and attempts to identify it was the very intriguing animal portrayed at top-centre on my plate. Looking closely at it, I felt that it most closely resembled some form of big cat. Unquestionably, its face, body shape, and paws were all decidedly feline, but if so, which cat could it be?

For whereas the creature's chest was very noticeably spotted, like that of a leopard, its tail was just as noticeably tufted, like that of a lion. Yet it did not possess a mane like the instantly recognisable pair of lions portrayed elsewhere on the plate both sported. Perhaps it was meant to be a lioness rather than a lion, but if so, why was its chest spotted? Equally, why only its chest, why not the remainder of its body as well, which is what you would expect if, tufted tail notwithstanding, it was intended to be a representation of a leopard? All very mystifying.

And a day later it remains very mystifying, because despite having given the matter much thought during the interim period between then and now, I am still unable to offer a plausible identity for this semi-mottled mystery beast. Perhaps it was simply an invention of the artist, a fictitious entity playfully added to the plate's panoply of authentic classical Greek fauna from reality and mythology (back in early times, lions did exist here). Alternatively, might it even be an attempt by him to portray a leopon, a hybrid of lion and leopard? Or could it be some fabled Greek beast unfamiliar to me? I shall continue to investigate this pictured puzzle, but if any ShukerNature reader can offer me any suggestions of their own, I'd greatly welcome receiving them.

The unidentified mystery beast depicted on my Greek wall plate, ostensibly combining morphological features of the lion and the leopard (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Finally: this particular example is one of several modern-day Greek wall plates decorated with exquisite depictions of mythological beasts and deities that I have purchased down through the years at various bric-a-brac markets and car boot sales.

I recently featured one of them, depicting a famous statue portraying the horrific death of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons at the jaws and coils of a pair of giant snakes sent forth from the sea by Poseidon, in a ShukerNature article of mine examining this famous Greek/Trojan legend (click here to access it). Here it is again:

Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting the famous statue 'Laocoön and His Sons' (© Dr Karl Shuker)

And below are some of the others:

Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting a pair of beautiful winged steeds pulling the sun chariot of Apollo across the sky (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting the slaying of the minotaur by Theseus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting Odysseus bound to the mast of his ship to prevent him from being lured to his death by the deadly singing of the three sirens surrounding the vessel (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting Hermes, Artemis, and Apollo, with one of Artemis's sacred deer beside her (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Modern-day Greek wall plate depicting Zeus, Hera, and Nike (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Lastly, just to be different, my resin statuette of the Greek sea god Poseidon (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Tuesday 5 October 2021


 An adult male specimen of the blue rock thrush Monticola solitarius (© AquilaGib/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Nowadays, as a result of long experience in such matters, I am rarely if ever surprised to discover creatures of cryptozoological interest in ostensibly unlikely sources, but even so I am never less than interested by them. Such was the case with the subject of this present ShukerNature blog article, which to my knowledge has never been brought to cryptozoological attention before.

The tantalizingly short but fascinating item – from the 1 September 1866 issue in Vol. 2 of a long-discontinued English periodical entitled Hardwicke's Science-Gossip – recently came to my attention:

BLUE BIRDS OF GALILEE. – In the translation of Renan's "Life of Jesus" (cheap edition), there is mention made at page 74 of "blue birds (at Galilee) so light that they rest on a blade of grass without bending it." Is there a blue bird in that region so small as to afford foundation for the statement, and if so, what is its scientific name? – H.G. [these being the initials of this query's author – their full name was not given]

Named after its publisher, Robert Hardwicke, based in London, Hardwicke's Science-Gossip was published on the first day of each month from 1865 (Vol. 1) to 1893 (Vol. 29), after which it was succeeded by Science-Gossip. Its editors were Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (ed. 1865-1871) and John Ellor Taylor (ed. 1872-1893). Throughout the brief interchange of correspondence concerning these birds that appeared in this periodical's pages, and which will be presented in full below, the editor was Cooke.

A photograph of Ernest Renan, snapped by Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon (public domain)

First of all, however, a word about the source from which H.B. had quoted the line regarding the blue birds. Published in 1863, the book in question was a very popular work entitled The Life of Jesus, written by French biblical scholar Ernest Renan (1823-1892) after having visited Galilee and Jerusalem during the early 1860s. Hence his account was based upon first-hand knowledge, not merely upon trawling through the writings of others. Whereas he appeared distinctly uninspired by Jerusalem's environs, Renan was greatly enamoured by what he considered to be the natural beauty of Galilee. Here is the full excerpt from his book regarding its wildlife that contained the line about the blue birds that had piqued H.B.'s curiosity:

The saddest country in the world is perhaps the region round about Jerusalem. Galilee, on the contrary, was a very green, shady, smiling district, the true home of the Song of Songs, and the songs of the well-beloved. During the two months of March and April the country forms a carpet of flowers of an incomparable variety of colors. The animals are small and extremely gentle — delicate and lively turtle-doves, blue-birds so light that they rest on a blade of grass without bending it, crested larks which venture almost under the feet of the traveller, little river tortoises with mild and lively eyes, storks with grave and modest mien, which, laying aside all timidity, allow man to come quite near them, and seem almost to invite his approach.

All of the other animal species mentioned in this excerpt are readily identifiable and familiar sights in Galilee, which makes the zoologically unrecognizable blue birds all the more perplexing.

Galilee (© Paulina Zet/Vered Hasharon/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

Back now, therefore, to H.G.'s plea for assistance in identifying Renan's feather-light blue mystery mini-birds of Galilee. It was initially answered, albeit exceedingly succinctly, in the 1 November 1866 issue of Hardwicke's Science-Gossip by a correspondent signing off with the initials T.G.P.:

BLUE BIRD OF GALILEE. – H.G. inquires as to this bird, mentioned by Renan. The bird that learned author probably refers to is Cinnaris [sic] osea, the Sun-bird or Honeysucker of Palestine.

This comment was challenged in the 1 December 1866 issue by the memorably-named Lester Lester, of Monkton Wyld (nowadays a small settlement within the civil parish of Wootton Fitzpaine, in the southwest English county of Dorset), who responded somewhat pompously as follows:

THE BLUE BIRD OF GALILEE. – Will T.G.P. allow one who has lately been reading Tristram's "Land of Israel" to suggest that the Blue Bird of Galilee is most probably the Blue Rock-thrush (Petrocincla cyanea), and not the Sun-bird (Cinnaris [sic] osea)? The habitat of this latter bird is the Ghor or deep valley of the Jordan and Dead Sea, most especially about Jericho, and not the rocky hills of Galilee.

T.G.P.'s communication was also responded to in the 1 January 1867 issue of Vol. 3, this time by none other than the Rev. Dr H.B. [Henry Baker] Tristram (1822-1906) himself – the English clergyman/scholar/ornithologist who was the author of the book Land of Israel that Lester had cited (or, to give it its full, correct title, The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine, Undertaken With Special Reference to Its Physical Character, published in 1865).

Rev. Dr H.B. Tristram, photographed in 1908 (public domain)

However, Rev. Dr Tristram was even more emphatic than Lester in his dismissal of T.G.P.'s sunbird suggestion:

THE BLUE BIRD OF GALILEE. – I see that a correspondent in a late number inquired what was "the blue bird of Galilee." I suppose that fancy may be allowed some scope in the question, but as a matter of fact there are but two birds to which it can be applied – the blue Thrush (Petrocincla cyanea) which is scattered about the Galilean hills and glens in small numbers all the year round, and the Roller (Coracias garrula) which is very common over the whole country in summer only. The Sun-bird (Nectarinia osea) is quite out of the question. It is not blue, and it barely exists in Galilee; one or two pairs merely straggling into the neighbourhood of the Lake of Galilee. It is a bird of the Lower Jordan valley and Dead-Sea basin strictly, and even there will only be seen by those who look closely for it.

Beneath this communication was a short square-bracketed addendum provided by the periodical's editor, who at that time was Cooke. As will be seen below, this addendum consists of a summary of a presumably longer response by T.G.P. to Tristram's missive (T.G.P.'s full response was not published, which is a great shame as it would have been most enlightening to discover what further support he offered for his preferred sunbird identity).  Here it is:

["T.G.P." writes to us again in support of his opinion that the bird alluded to by Renan, as "so small and light that it can rest on a blade of grass without bending it," must be some such small creature as Cinnyris osea.]

And those were the last words on the subject to appear in Hardwicke's Science-Gossip. For despite my checking methodically through every succeeding volume of its entire run (all but Vol. 1 of which can be found online here, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library), no further mention of these enigmatic birds was found. Nor have I been able to uncover any details regarding them elsewhere.

Moreover, perusing a comprehensive online checklist of the birds of the Israel/Palestine region provided me with no additional species worthy of consideration. Consequently, I am focusing my attention now upon the trio mentioned in the above-quoted correspondence between T.G.P., Lester, Tristram, and editor Cooke.

Juvenile (top), adult female (centre), and adult male (bottom) of the blue rock thrush Monticola solitarius (public domain)

Let’s begin with the blue rock thrush. Nowadays referred to scientifically as Monticola solitarius (Petrocincla cyanea as used by the writers quoted above is now obsolete), this species was traditionally classified as a thrush, but in more recent times it has been recategorised as a chat, and thus assigned to the flycatcher family Muscicapidae. Nevertheless, it retains its long-familiar turdine English name. Moreover, as both its English and its taxonomic names suggest, this is a montane species, and is certainly common in the hills and mountains of Galilee. However, despite the confident assertions by Lester and Tristram that it may well be the identity of Renan's blue mystery mini-birds encountered by him there, there are two major problems associated with this identification.

Firstly: only the adult male blue rock thrush is blue, adult females and juvenile individuals are brown. So unless all of the birds seen by Renan were males, or specimens of the brown females were also there but he either didn't notice them or (if he did) he didn't realize that they belonged to the same species as the blue ones, this weighs heavily against the blue rock thrush as an identity contender. Secondly, and on the subject of weighing heavily: the blue rock thrush is the size of a European starling Sturnus vulgaris and weighs up to 2 oz (60 g), with a total length of up to 9 in. Needless to say, therefore, this bird is far too big to be able to "rest on a blade of grass without bending it".

As noted by Tristram, the European roller Coracias garrulus is indeed common throughout the Galilee district in summer, and both sexes sport predominantly blue plumage. In terms of size, however, this stocky species is even bigger than the blue rock thrush, being the size of a European jay Garrulus glandarius, boasting a total length of up to 1 ft, sometimes slightly more, and a weight of up 5.3 oz (150 g). Consequently, it has even less chance than the blue rock thrush of being able to "rest on a blade of grass without bending it".

European roller (© Zeynel Cebeci/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

When I first read that memorable descriptive line from Renan's account of the Galilean mystery blue birds, I thought straight away that the only birds small enough and light enough in weight to correspond with it would be hummingbirds – but these of course are all exclusively New World in occurrence. However, as I then thought, they do have some similarly-sized Old World ecological counterparts – the nectariniids or sunbirds. Although taxonomically unrelated, by sharing the hummingbirds' lifestyle the sunbirds through convergent evolution have come to look and behave very much like them. Could it be, therefore, that the identity of Renan's feather-light mini-birds is a sunbird?

Only one species exists in the Israel/Palestine region of the Middle East – the Palestine sunbird Cinnyris osea (formerly Nectarinia osea). Contrary to Tristram's claim, this species can appear blue, or at least the breeding male can, which sports iridescent plumage that shimmers green or blue in sunlight, depending upon the angle at which it is observed. And it is certainly a much better fit for Renan's mini-birds than either the blue rock thrush or the roller in terms of its size, with even the male (larger than the female) not exceeding a total length of 4.75 in, and a weight of 0.3 oz (8 g). One could certainly imagine such a minuscule bird being able to rest upon a sturdy blade of grass without bending it, especially with a mountain breeze providing a counterbalance to the sunbird's weight (such that it is) upon the blade.

This is so obvious that it surprises me how readily both Lester and (especially) Tristram (given his ornithological expertise) rejected T.G.P.'s suggestion that the Palestine sunbird was the likeliest candidate for Renan's mystery mini-birds. (Having said that, Lester was basing his view upon what he had read in Tristram's book, as opposed to proffering an entirely independent one of his own.) True, their opposition was founded largely upon claims that this species simply wasn't common enough in the Galilean district to be a tenable identity, but they should have conceded that in terms of size alone, as well as colouring, it was a far more plausible one than either of their own favoured, but much heavier, candidates.

A breeding male Palestine sunbird in Israel (© Tom David PikiWiki Israel/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)

So how can this ornithological paradox be reconciled? Might it simply be that the Palestine sunbird is actually more common in Galilee than attested to by Tristram and Lester? Or perhaps, more specifically, it is more common there during the months of March and April to which Renan was alluding in his description of its wildlife? Worth noting, moreover, is that this species' males do sport their iridescent breeding plumage during those particular months (click here, for instance, to see a photograph of one such specimen exhibiting shimmering blue/green plumage that was snapped during March 2013 in Israel by Volker Hesse).

Of course, as with the blue rock thrush contender, if we are to take the Palestine sunbird's identity candidature seriously we would have to assume that because only its breeding males are blue (or green, depending upon viewing angle), these were the only individuals to catch Renan's eye, with the even smaller, dowdy, grey-and-white females overlooked by him or at least not deemed attractive enough to merit a mention in his description. To my mind, this is not an unreasonable prospect, as the breeding males are exceedingly eyecatching, resembling living jewels, and therefore certainly likely to eclipse the drab females when attracting an observer's attention.

A further possibility is that Renan's description was overly romantic – a criticism that has been directed at his writings by various scholars and critics in the past. Perhaps he saw sunbirds somewhere else in the Israel/Palestine region as opposed to in Galilee, but added them to his account of Galilee's wildlife as a descriptive flourish – i.e. poetic licence? Or might he have misremembered where he saw them, erroneously claiming that they occurred in Galilee when in reality he had seen them elsewhere in this region? Or could these feather-light fliers have been entirely fictitious, created by Renan to enhance still further the idyllic image of Galilee conjured forth by his lyrical narrative?

A hummingbird hawk moth with slaty-blue body, newly emerged from its chrysalis (© Jean-Pierre Hamon/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

One final, admittedly remote, but nonetheless intriguing identity for Renan's mystery mini-birds of Galilee comes to mind – is it possible that they were not birds at all but were instead a certain very famous avian impersonator from the insect world? The species that I have in mind is the hummingbird hawk moth Macroglossum stellatarium, which so closely resembles a hummingbird not only in size but also in behaviour that when seen in flight and hovering around flowers, imbibing nectar using its long slender proboscis, it is often mistaken by non-naturalists for such a bird.

Furthermore, not only does this species occur in the Israel/Palestine region and can produce 3-4 broods a year so that adults are seen all year round, but also its body in particular (and to a lesser extent its wings) can appear a powdery slaty-blue colour when viewed in sunlight. And as it is even smaller and lighter in weight than the Palestine sunbird, it assuredly could "rest on a blade of grass without bending it".

How ironic it would be if both Renan and the trio of correspondents debating his mystery mini-birds in the pages of Hardwicke's Science-Gossip more than 150 years ago had all been led entirely astray, that the true nature of those tiny blue blade-resters was not avian at all, but rather that of an incognito insect, a masquerading moth.

Hummingbird hawk moth hovering alongside a flower, convergent evolution having transformed this insect into an extraordinarily precise facsimile of a hummingbird (© Krizzz2020/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)