Picorum (Magpie)

Dublin Core


Picorum (Magpie)


Illustrations of three bird species on the Arca Noë


The page consists of two columns of text interspersed with three woodcut etchings, each of a different bird species. At the top of the page, spanning both columns, is a large etching of a Picorum. Two lines from the bottom of the lefthand column, about half the size of the topmost etching, is a woodcut etching of a Galguli. Four lines from the top of the rightmost column is the third woodcut etching, this one of a Turdus, approximately the same size as that of the Galguli.

The Picorum and Turdus are very similar in appearance, with long, thin beaks, flat stomachs, and a long, flat tail as long as their torsos. The Galguli is a more rounded, finch-like bird, with a short beak, curvaceous head and stomach, and relatively short tail.

The most prominent engraving on this page of Kircher’s Arca Noë, spanning both columns at the top of the page, is a depiction of the Picorum bird (picaza or uraca in Spanish), known simply as a magpie today. Halfway down the righthand column is an engraving of a very similar bird, the Turdus, now referred to as a song thrush. Near the bottom of the lefthand column is an engraving of the Galgulë bird, a subset of the Oropendola genera. According to the description Kircher provides, each of these birds is part of the woodpecker family, and they “pull off the bark and suspend their nest in the branches of trees.” He notes that the “various genera are distinguished by color and dimensions”, and that the various species are similar in behavior and function and dissimilar only in color and appearance. Kircher cites the Greek name for this genus of birds, the “excavators of trees”, and describes them as “martial birds, given that they are wild, flying beasts—soldiers that go to war. Powerful, and robust…” In all likelihood, these facts were drawn from common or folk knowledge, or previous sources or encyclopedias, rather than firsthand observation of naturalism fieldwork. Despite that, Kircher’s description is largely accurate and in line with modern accounts of this genus.
Interestingly, Kircher describes the Galgulë as “completely yellow, impregnated with the yellow humor of bile, which is considered a medicine.” The concept of the four humors—sanguine, cholera, melancholy, and phlegm—had been around since its introduction by Hippocrates in the fourth century BCE, and Kircher extends its application to diagnoses of members of the animal kingdom. The concept of the four humors was alive and well in the minds of his contemporaries, but will likely strike modern readers of Kircher as an antiquated and archaic worldview. Thus, the description is an excellent microcosm of Kircher’s unique position in intellectual history: the Arca Noë’s publication in 1675 is right on the cusp the revolutions of thought and practice brought about by the Scientific Revolution. The work incorporates medieval modes of observation and description with more modern attempts at speciation based on physical characteristics. Indeed, Kircher’s detailed engravings are such attempts at speciation by distinguishable characteristics—he is trying to divine how many different bird species were necessarily on the Arc, an attempt at times abetted and at times undermined by strict medieval modes of thinking and classification.


Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)


Arca Noë

Page Number



J. Janssonium à Waesberge






Singe page with three woodcut etchings


Brian Collins

Items in the Picorum (Magpie) Collection

Magpie in the Bestiary of Ann Walsh
The above image is a medieval depiction of a magpie, from the Bestiary of Ann Walsh (England, 15th century). The stark contrasts between this rendition and that of Kircher illustrate the evolution in depiction of this animal over time, and highlight…