The Giant Birds of Old



Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

When first large birds did walk abroad
On rocks but lately cleft
Proceedings on no beaten road
With toes turned right & left:
What wondrous footsteps left they then
Behind them as they stalked
Ere on this mundane earth or men,
Or cattle had yet walked.
Full eighteen feet they raised high
Their heads into the air
And Lizard ‘Possum Kangaroo
Did wag their heads and stare,
The little fishes were afraid
They should be caught for food
And out into a deeper tide
Did swim full many a rood.
Could but our modern eyes behold
Those birds of olden time
Yet marching on their tide washed way
With strides full six feet nine
What trembling joy the heart would fill
What gladsome tears the eyes.
Geologists would not sit still
They’d throw their caps on high.
Let then each one that looks upon
The tracks of such a bird
Impressed in sand now turned to stone
As cheese is made from curd
Reflect if fowls were larger then
Than fowls that now appear,
Much more their year must sure have been
Far longer than our year.
Chorus –
No birds like those great birds of Old
One half the story’s not yet told
About those giant Birds of Old.

1837. Anonymous tutor. Reproduced by Benjamin Silliman Jr. in 1842. Chorus by Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Beadwork of a theropod dinosaur. The dinosaur is covered in purple feathers, with spectacular long and round beads arranged to mimic the different body and flight feathers. It has a body of light purple with a lighter underbelly, and dark purple to blue black wings and tail feathers, and the head crest is dark as well. It is edged in white beads. It is sewn onto a small light yellow buckskin pouch, which itself is edged in purple beadwork that matches the body of the dinosaur. The pouch sits on a brown hardwood surface.
Guest art by Dr. Erin Bethell (Instagram: @ErinBethell).

This poem was written in a letter from Benjamin Silliman Jr. to Edward Hitchcock in 1842. According to the letter, it had been written five years earlier by an anonymous tutor at Yale College. In his paper in the Journal of Earth Sciences History, Jordan D. Marché II proposed it may have been written by James Dwight Dana, who had been a research assistant to Benjamin Silliman Jr. in 1836, and who had apparently written music to accompany the poem. This poem is about the same fossil trackways Edward Hitchcock described in his poem The Sandstone Bird, though Giant Birds of Old is a much lighter take on the topic. The chorus of Giant Birds of Old was spontaneously added later by Benjamin Silliman Jr.

The natural history of this poem

Though it may seem outdated and incorrect today, the scientific knowledge featured in Giant Birds of Old was cutting edge for the time that it was written. In the early 1800s, dinosaurs (the true track makers in this case) had not yet been scientifically described and so it made complete sense that scientists would assume these large, clawed, and three-toed tracks were made by a massive bird. The overall dimensions and lifestyle of the giant bird were then estimated from the sizes of the largest living birds: the ostrich and the extinct moa from New Zealand, which was described not long before this poem was written. Also, scientists noted that that the tracks were made in rocks deposited in a flat, muddy area on the water’s edge and suggested that it may have lived like modern herons, hunting small fish or amphibians. This highlights the evolving nature of science itself, that though something was well supported with evidence in the past can turn out to be something completely different once new things are observed and tested.

Another interesting part is the description of marsupial mammals, like possums and kangaroos, being witnessing the bird make the tracks in the Cretaceous (though the author would not have known the exact time period at this time). There are no known fossil marsupials from the Cretaceous Period, but there are quite a few fossils of their close relatives. These related mammals are other members of the group Metatheria, which includes marsupials and mammals more closely related to them than to other mammals. Other metatherian mammals were quite like marsupials, and many in the Cretaceous superficially resembled today’s possums. So, the poem is nearly correct in its assumption, as mammals very much like modern possums probably were scurrying about when the dinosaurs that made these tracks were alive.

James Dwight Dana

A black and white sketch of a Victorian white man. He vaguely resembles Bill Nye. He's looking stoically to the left. He has big curly hair that looks like it's being blown back. His bow tie is askew.
An image of James Dwight Dana, from Popular Science Monthly I.

Though the poem was written anonymously, it is likely that it was written by James Dwight Dana (proposed by Jordan D. Marché II, 2019). James was born in Utica, USA in 1813, and went on to become a well-known early American geologist. He had an affinity for the natural sciences and began studying it formally (in high school) when he was fourteen, and graduated from Yale college when he was twenty. As soon as he graduated, James was hired as a math instructor in the American Navy. On his 16 month tour he was given the opportunity to visit the coasts of France, Greece, and Italy, and apparently even had time to hike up Mount Vesuvius. In fact, he had enough time off from teaching that he essentially treated the trip as an extension of his education. He spent most of the time illustrating and learning about the geology he saw, and reading and studying mineralogy. When James returned to the US, he began his career as an assistant professor at Yale College, gradually working his way up to Professor while taking occasional research positions aboard naval vessels. His research is considered formative in the field of volcanology.