Not a tweet from Norwegian birds in winter

Image: Mary Jo Thorsheim / Norway Art
“Norwegian Woodcock and Hunting Dogs,” original oil painting by Eilert Mehl (1865-1941).

Mary Jo Thorsheim
Norway Art

It is said that Norwegian birds do not sing in winter, either at home or when they travel abroad. If they do make a noise, it has an altered volume and quality that is different from the bird songs of the other three seasons. (Is there a reader who can tell us more about this?)

While Norwegians are flocking south to the Canary Islands and other warm places in winter, most birds have already left Norway for similar destinations. There are exceptions, including birds of the sea. Among those living inland, it is interesting to know that one bird in particular does not migrate in winter and one other variety often stays over winter, too. These two types of birds, the woodcock and the bullfinch (dompap in Norwegian), are beautifully illustrated in two pieces of art at Norway Art in Minneapolis.

In our original oil painting of a fall hunting scene, Eilert Mehl focused attention on a woodcock in the sight line of two pointers. Mehl (1865-1941), from Nordfjordeid, was Norway’s preeminent artist for portraying animals and landscapes. His skill is highlighted in this work of art imported by Norway Art. It is signed and dated 1918.

The details of two types of dogs used for gamebird hunting, the habitat of the woodcock and the season are accurately portrayed. Thanks to Dr. Duane Engstrom of Northfield, Minn., for his help in identifying the bird and dogs. This is some of the information he provided:

The black and white dog looks like an English Setter. The black dog with brownish color on the underside looks like a Gordon Setter. The bird, I believe is a woodcock or timber doodle. The dogs are upland hunters, not water retrievers. The scenery is consistent for woodcock habitat. There, you have my humble hunter’s opinion.

The dogs look intelligent and well-trained. They have their eyes on the same object, ready to spring into action at any moment to retrieve the bird. Interesting! And this work of art shows Mehl’s talent as a landscape painter.

The many woodcocks that stay in Norway through the winter live in areas where food is still available in cold weather. Those that migrate south are from regions in the north, where the ground is snow-covered and frozen to the point where even the woodcock’s long bill can’t penetrate the surface to unearth its food. The long bill is one of the unique features of this frequently hunted game bird in Norway. Its eyes are set far back on its head, giving it 360° vision; its wings are suited for flying into woods and down to the swampy areas where it is found. Norwegian regulations allow hunting of woodcocks from Aug. 21 to Dec. 23.

The dompap, or bullfinch, is not hunted like the woodcock, but Norwegians hunt for its likeness on tableware, dishes, glassware, figurines of wood, plastic or porcelain, linens, and in art. For many, many years, this popular bird has been an important, strong, and traditional symbol of Norwegian nature and Christmas that people have sought to include in their home décor and collections.

Norway Art has imported quality reproductions of Theodor Kittlesen’s famous dompap painting, both in art paper and canvas formats. The painting depicts the striking red, gray, and black dompap perched on a branch in winter. The red feathers continue high up to its neck, almost as if the bird has pulled a collar up under its ears to ward off the cold!

Although the dompap is found from Europe to Asia, only the ones in Norway and Finland do not migrate in winter. It is said that the dompap stays in Norway mainly because of the julenek sheaves of wheat that are put up to afford food to them over winter. Another popular idea is that the birds that do migrate south do not sing while there, but only break into song on return to Norway, because they are so happy to be there! We will have to fact-check these sayings with an ornithologist. (Are you reading The Norwegian American, you ornithologists out there?)

Kittlesen (1857-1914) is perhaps best known for his illustrations of Norwegian folk tales, but his dompap painting must run a close second. He was, and remains, one of the most popular painters in Norway. Born in Kragerø in Telemark, he later studied in Germany and then lived in Kristiania (now Oslo). [Note: Anders Kongsrud, the Norwegian painter from Modum we featured in the December 2019 edition of The Norwegian American, was also recognized for his lovely paintings of the dompap.]

In summary, most birds in Norway migrate south over the winter, and many Norwegians do, too. In an email exchange with a client in Norway in September, I mentioned taking a short trip to Duluth, Minn., that would include a visit to Hawk Ridge. This is a high cliff, where thousands of birds fly over Lake Superior on their migration from far north Canada to warmer climes in the United States for the winter. I commented, “Smart birds!” My Norwegian contact replied that he would be leaving for his winter home in Spain in October. “Smart bird!” he said.

Winter in Norway and places like northern Minnesota can be beautiful, nevertheless, especially when deep snow blankets the landscape like whipped cream on bløtkake. Such scenes are usually only memories for “snowbirds” as we often refer to Northerners in the United States who winter in places such as Miami, Mesa, Ariz., Palm Springs,  Calif, or Padre Island, Texas. Although we watch their travels with a little bit of envy, there are many reasons to avoid cold temperatures and dark days. Health concerns must be recognized as a major consideration, so it seems that those in the north who hang tight over winter should not be smug or self-satisfied because of our sturdy Nordic constitutions. Those who “go south” don’t necessarily have the option to cope with northern weather conditions in Norway, the United States, or anywhere.

Wherever you are, enjoy the remainder of winter landscapes and activities, either north or south!

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.