Turdus ipse sibi malum cacat, an old latin proverb, relates directly to mistletoe, and to the capture of birds. It translates as ‘the thrush excretes its own trouble (or death)’ and is all about Birdlime, a sticky substance once used widely to capture small birds. One of the traditional, and perhaps fundamental, ingredients of Birdlime, was mistletoe, especially the sticky juice form the berries. The proverb is about mistle thrushes, eating mistletoe berries and creating long strings of sticky turds, formed of semi-digested mistletoe gunk, very similar to manufactured birdlime.
It seems an odd concept now, the idea of taking a load of mistletoe berries to make a gluey paste to then capture birds. Why and how would it be done? And how long ago did this start? The latin saying has origins over 2000 years ago, with early attributions including Plautus (254-184 BC) and slightly later ones to Athenaeus (2nd-3rd century AD). It was repeated in various forms over the centuries, notably by Erasmus (1466-1536) in his Adagia (c 1500). This antiquity does raise some questions over which thrush and which mistletoe is meant (Plautus was based in Italy, 2200 years ago) but, putting that aside, it does seem to make sense – if birdlime is indeed made from mistletoe berries.
As for why and how, the why is to capture birds for food or, sometimes, for caged birds. The how is simple – smearing the birdlime onto branches, sometimes with a a tethered captured bird to lure others in. It sounds old and barbaric – and it is. But it is also an ongoing phenomenon in some countries around the world, including, apparently, in Europe (see this story from 2007). The indiscriminate nature of this trapping method was and is a particularly nasty aspect. Spain continued (and possibly still does continue) the practice until recently – a 2004 EU review of the legality is outlined here and some more news on this from 2006 is outlined here.
But, getting back to the Birdlime itself, was this really made from mistletoe and if so was it really from the berries? That’s certainly what the proverb implies – but in reality many Birdlime recipes exist and mistletoe isn’t often a major ingredient. Interestingly (just to keep a seasonal theme!) Holly bark is a major ingredient in many European recipes, boiled up to create a sticky mess. Slippery Elm bark appears in US recipes. Mistletoe also features in these recipes, but some refer to Loranthus europeaus, the yellow berried (and disappointingly deciduous!) mistletoe of central southern Europe. Plautus might have known that mistletoe better than our white-berried Viscum album.
So whilst mistletoe was an ingredient it may never have been the primary one, and it may not even have been our mistletoe. But let’s not let that get in the way of a good story…
My favourite version from the historic accounts isn’t Plautus, but good old Aesop (620 – 564 BC) in his fables, where the story is referenced in the fable ‘The Owl and the Birds’. This isn’t, probably, an Aesop original but one of the many added in later editions, so it is not as old as his dates imply. You only find it in some of the longer compilations, and even then the mistletoe story is only mentioned as part of a general warning to the birds of other risks. Here’s the story from the Folio Society version:
There’s a lot more to say about Birdlime – I’ll post Birdlime #2 in a few days…
In the meantime, if you want to handle (and grow more) some of those sticky berries yourself, why not buy a Mistletoe Grow-Kit from the English Mistletoe Shop? Details here: https://englishmistletoeshop.co.uk/live/