Laying salt on a pigeon’s tail

Matthew Chatfield
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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.

A pigeon (c) grendelkhan
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.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

13 thoughts on “Laying salt on a pigeon’s tail

  • 24th June, 2020 at 12:16 am
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    Salt on a bird’s tail is mentioned in the Three Stooges short “Disorder in the Court.”

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Takes me back to my Gran’s cafe on the Windmill Rd. now at the edge of the 2012 Olympic site. The “big” Cerebos Salt tin, asked Gran then but never allowed to chase the chickens at the home farm in New Galloway.
    Didn’t mention pigeons but thereagain weren’t many of those in the city after the war.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’ve been wondering ever since I was a kid about this picture on a can of salt. The only explanation that makes any kind of sense to me is this:-
    By shaking salt on a chicken’s or pidgeon’s tail would be to get it under the feathers thus causing severe irritation to the skin. Could give you enough time to catch it…??

    Never did try it, was born during WW2 in Scotland. times were hard then.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I learned this from a cartoon – I believe it was Warner Bros. Which cartoon and which characters were involved, I don’t recall…

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    An interesting thought. I looked up this subject because my daughter asked why there is a picture of a little boy pouring salt on the tail, on what looks like a chicken, on our container of salt. This led me through the list of articles and to the picture of the Cerebos advert. (Which is the same as the salt container bought locally)

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I remember as a child visiting my grandparents in San Francisco with my brother and once or twice grandad (Pennsylvania Dutch)would give us each an envelope containing a good amount of salt and we’d walk down to Union Square and chase the pigeons around trying to salt their tails. This would have been around 1960 or so.
    I’m here today to tell that it ain’t worth the salt tryin’. Never could even get close enough to those birds to lay an effective quantity salt on ’em so I guess I can’t say we proved grandad wrong…but I still have my doubts.
    Still…I say pass it on. Let the next generation try their luck.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I believe I shall start carrying a salt shaker to Zilker Park, easy to get pigeons there. I’ll let you know my field results.

    Now, … what might happen if I throw some salt over the pigeons’ left shoulders? I’ll get back to you on that too.

    Jannie

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I came across your blog when I googled “salt on a bird’s tail.” I was at the park with a friend and our daughters last weekend, and they caught a couple of pigeons by grabbing them while distracting them with pigeon food.

    I reminisced about how I had spent hours as a child in upstate NY trying to get close enough to a robin to sprinkle some salt on its tail so I could pick it up. My mother, of German/Irish ancestry, had told me the tale. My friend, a Canadian, had never heard of it.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    My granddaughter Marie, age 5, has just been trying to salt a pigeon’s tail because I told her that I had been told as a child that that was the way to catch a bird. She got very frustrated because the dogs kept scaring the pigeons away so she asked me to google salting pigeon tails to see if anyone had ever been able to make it work. We are both beginning to suspect that nobody ever was able to salt a bird’s tail so it is impossible to prove one way or another if it works.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    I’ve also found this entertaining – if a little self-righteous – Swedish fairy tale which features someone putting salt on a magpie’s tail.

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    This was common for my mother and her brothers and sisters. She now thinks the real plot was how many hours they would spend quietly sneaking around the yard waiting for an unsuspecting bird to tarry too long. Certainly kept them out of mischief.

    I tried with my kids, but had problems delivering the line without it being obvious I was fibbing 😉

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  • 12th May, 2012 at 6:12 pm
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    Your tail tale triggered a childhood memory of a blue salt container with a picture of a boy chasing a bird and pouring salt on its tail. It took me a while but once someone on a newsgroup at work said the company were Cerebos I tracked a picture down

    http://www.advertisingantiques.co.uk/Default.aspx?tabid=1139&ItemID=2413

    so I now know I wasn’t going mad!

    Their trade mark was intended to emphasise how free flowing it was due to the addition of Magnesium Carbonate and Calcium Phosphate an early advance in the manufacture of table salt
    A better version of the picture is available at
    http://www.andmas.co.uk/womansworld/food/recipes/tripe/tripeandonions.html
    I think it dates back to the late 1800’s, so the idea of catching a bird by putting salt on its tale probably predates that.

    Reply

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