The scene that unfolded on a February night back in the year 1900 on Hog Island, Va. was straight out of the Alfred Hitchcock horror classic “The Birds.” A flurry of unusual avian activity was in the air along the Atlantic Flyway in those weeks. A long and unseasonable stretch of warm weather had set a whole bunch of birds off on their northward spring migration far earlier than usual.
Geese got fooled in especially large numbers. Then and now, such migrating birds sometimes behave strangely around lighthouses. Coming upon blinking beacons in the dead of night seems to have a disorienting effect on them. As noted in the digital archive of articles titled The Countryside Transformed: The Railroad and the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1870-1935:
The birds insensibly head for the light, and as the lantern turns on a pivot and flashes every forty-five seconds the extreme glare blinds and bewilders them, and they strike with such force against the reflector that sometimes every bone in their body is smashed.
The two lighthouse keepers at Hog Island had presumably seen this type of bird behavior before, but by most accounts they had never seen anything like what happened on the night of Aug. 22 after a flock of geese landed near their beacon. From the book, The Lightkeepers’ Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses:
A frenzy, the cause of which was unknown, broke out. Birds began to fly at the lighthouse and slam the walls and lantern. They came with such force the keepers thought they were bent on destroying the lighthouse. Repeatedly, in waves, they bombed the lantern like kamikazes, shattering the glass windows and striking the expensive prism lens.
The keepers sprinted up to the top of the 190-foot-tall lighthouse and commenced shooing away the invaders, thinking this would be enough to do the trick. They were wrong.
All-out war erupted. Shouts and banged pans soon gave way to clubs and sticks. Then, shots were fired in the air. When this failed to repel the feathered raiders, the guns were turned on the birds.
The two keepers ran out of ammunition. They gave up the fight after that, taking cover in a protected alcove below the lantern. When they emerged at dawn, bird carcasses covered the catwalk around the lighthouse tower. Below that, on the ground, bird bodies “littered the earth like confetti.” Many of the poor things were still twitching in agony.
The keepers dug a trench and tossed the birds into a mass grave. They built a temporary wire cage around the lighthouse lens, which was still working. I have come across conflicting reports about whether the next assault came the very next night, or a couple of days later. The keepers sat back and did nothing this time around, and the birds retreated much more quickly than they had on the first invasion. But the damage done in that second attack put Hog Island Light out of service for a stretch.
The lantern was repaired, and no explanation was discovered for the birds’ peculiar behavior.
As far as I have been able to tell, no attacks of this intensity ever happened again at Hog Island Light.
–posted by Jim Duffy on Feb. 22, 2019. Copyright Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC, all rights reserved.
A FOOTNOTE ON THAT FRESNEL LENS
The Hog Island Light that was victimized in this attack was just eight years old at the time, having been built in 1892. The 190-foot-tall structure was a “pile design” affair, with nine iron legs splayed beneath it. It marked the entrance to the Great Machipongo Inlet that runs between Hog and Cobb islands, roughly across from the mainland town of Machipongo.
The light that shone from Hog Island in those days was a classic of lighthouse history—a massive First Order Fresnel Lens that stood 10 feet tall, weighed 2,500 pounds, and had 368 unique prisms. Today, its estimated worth is well over $1 million.
When the lighthouse was demolished in 1948, the lens was saved and eventually given to the Mariners Museum in nearby Newport News, Va. From there it went on loan to the city of Portsmouth, Va., where it landed in storage for many years before ending up on on display in that city’s historic district (as you can see in the photo above).
This article in Lighthouse Digest magazine recounts the meticulous efforts to repair and restore that lens for public display in a glass enclosure along the Portsmouth seawall. At the very end of the piece, the author makes mention of the bird attack on Aug. 22, 1900.
This tale [of the bird attack] might account for some of the damage now visible in the lens. But against all odds, this striking work of art and technology has survived and will shine for many years to come.
Here is a Portsmouth tourism listing for Fresnel lens attraction. (As of this writing, there is a note in the listing saying that the lens is not on display right now due to a seawall restoration project, but that it will be back in its place of honor when the project is finished. Alas, I don’t have a timetable on that.)