Ranger reader Dave Larkin has been hot on the virtual trail of the salted pigeon story. Following up the tale he found some remarkable images of products from yesteryear showing little children putting salt on birds’ tails… and now he’s gone a step further, discovering this intriguing French woodcut from 1557:
The caption reads:
Les femmes sallent leurs maris pour du doux les rendre gueris
The Ranger’s feeble French mangles this to:
Women salt their husbands to softly cure them
More accurate translations would be much welcomed! But frankly, the idea is pretty outlandish however you translate it. It looks as though the two chaps (yes, there are two of them in there) are putting up a bit of resistance, and possibly being locked into a kind of barrel, presumably in the salt-pork style to be kept over winter. The salt, in copious quantities, is being applied to the naked backside of the right-hand fellow, whilst his companion seems to have it poured onto his shoulder. What’s all that about?
Today the Ranger had an enjoyable family day out with various relatives. In the course of the day, the group was awaiting a bus and idly observing a host of pigeons. The Ranger mentioned a bit of mythology from his childhood – which he had dutifully passed on to junior Rangers Bill and Jack – that if you want to catch a bird, you need to put salt on its tail. The Ranger remembered nostalgically afternoons as a very young boy chasing pigeons and seagulls along the beach, cursing his bad luck for not having had the foresight to have brought some salt. Because, you see, that’s the thing. It’s one of those tricks that grown-ups play on children. You never have salt on your person when you feel like chasing birds. So the child never gets to put the assertion to the test, and is never sure whether or not it is true. This entertaining but spurious bit of nonsense lore persisted for about the same length of time it took for the Ranger to grow old enough to seek pleasures less simple than chasing pigeons. So it proved with the next generation when he passed the story on.
An unsalted pigeon
But where did it originate? The Ranger was amazed when his mother denied ever having mentioned such a thing to him or even having heard of it. His sister agreed – never had this story been a part of Ranger family folklore. The only support came from the Ranger’s own children – and, as they were swift to point out, this proved nothing as they had in fact learnt it from him. Had he dreamt it? He began to doubt his own memories. The best explanation that the family could come up with was that Grandad Ranger must have told it to him – and as that splendid old fellow died some 25 years ago it would be hard to use him to settle the debate. As is so often the case, Google provided some succour. On his return home, the Ranger sought evidence to back up his increasingly unlikely-sounding memories of childhood salt-inspired pigeon-chasing. To his relief, there were some crumbs of comfort, perhaps the most authoritative being:
E. Cobham Brewer 1810″1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. Salt on His Tail (Lay) Catch or apprehend him. The phrase is based on the direction given to small children to lay salt on a bird’s tail if they want to catch it. “His intelligence is so good, that were you to come near him with soldiers or constables, … I shall answer for it you will never lay salt on his tail.”— Sir W. Scott: Redgauntlet, 1824, chap. xi.
However the story certainly does not seem to be that common. Finding the reference above does not answer the personal question of who told the young Ranger about the salted birds, which answer is now probably lost in the past. But it would still be interesting to know how prevalent this tricky tale is. The Ranger would love to hear if anyone else has heard this story, and was taken in by it! UPDATE: there’s more to this story! See the great links found by Dave Larkin, below, and the remarkable follow-up he sent.