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Sunday, January 23, 2011

DALE DRINNON: A novel solution to the mystery of the Welsh flying snakes?

From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings

[Welsh gwiber as illustrated on the cover of Karl Shuker's book, which alludes to the creature in its title]

Gwiber And Wyverns - The Flying Vipers

[Wyvern and Cockatrice from Church, Exeter]

Oll Lewis from the CFZ is a font of information on Welsh cryptozoology. He did an excellent blog post a
while back on one of the Welsh cryptids named the Gwiber, specifically a variety of flying snake or
dragonet of South Glamorgan. Gwibers are reported all over Wales in folklore but it was in Penllyn they
are reported more recently in Marie Trevelyn's Folklore and Folkstories of Wales from 1909:
'"The woods around Penllyne Castle, Glamorgan, had the reputation of being frequented by
winged serpents, and these were the terror of old and young alike. An aged inhabitant of Penllyne,
who died a few years ago, said that in his boyhood the winged serpents were described as
very beautiful. They were coiled when in repose, and "looked as though they were covered with
jewels of all sorts. Some of them had crests sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow."
When disturbed, they glided swiftly, "sparkling all over," to their hiding places. When angry, they
"flew over people's heads, with outspread wings bright and sometimes with eyes, too, like the feathers
in a peacock's tail." He said it was "no old story," invented to "frighten children," but a real fact.
His father and uncles had killed some of them, for they were "as bad as foxes for poultry."
This old man attributed the extinction of winged serpents to the fact that they were
"terrors in the farmyards and coverts."'

Oll goes into some depth on the mystery in his post and he did attempt some interviews. His conclusion:
the creatures as reported are unlikely to exist. Some facts do stand out from the traditions; one is that a
feathered skin from one of these flying serpents was kept by one family for many years. Whatever else
might be said, a feathered skin is a real object and feathers necessarily mean the creature was a bird.
Another feature is that these creatures could sometimes be seen seeming "Coiled up". Several long-necked
birds sleep with the head and neck curled back towards the tail and some long-tailed birds also throw the
tail around the front. Furthermore, these flying serpents are often said to have clawed feet and the claws
are also said to be poisonous.

[Flying Serpent from Deviant Art]
'Gwiber' means 'viper' and is the same as the French 'voivre', from which we derive the term 'wvre' or
wyvern. A wyvern is a smallish two-legged and winged dragon, and wyverns are traditional over many
parts of Western Europe. They may have their exact counterparts in Eastern Europe in the aitavaras and
other creatures that are simultaneously 'dragons' and like barnyard fowl, sometimes described as having tails
of fire, some 'firedrakes' and perhaps the Russian firebirds. If this is so, then we seem to have two distinctive
populations where the gaudy males are divided by their colouration, a Western branch which is primarily green
and an Eastern branch where the males are primarily red. And the Welsh folklore, when speaking of the flying
serpents describes their feathers as peacock-like. That does also determine what kind of creature they really
are - they are pheasants (peacocks and domestic fowl are also related to pheasants).
Since I had already seen where the anhinga was described as a flying snake because of its long neck,
I assumed that the gwiber or wyvern was a sort of a large pheasant with a very long neck and a very long tail.
It might also be the same as the cockatrice, which Wikipedia describes as a sort of a fowl with a long lizard-like (snakelike or dragon-like) tail. It is said to be particularly vicious and is said to have a venomous breath (or a venomous bite,
or venomous claws, or a lethal gaze); any of those descriptions could be probably taken as awful warnings
that people should keep well away from them, but they need not be true: people are always saying any number
of perfectly harmless animals are venomous, especially when they are snakes. Believing that the long-necked and
long-tailed pheasant was a viper would just about be typical: the flying serpent reports that turned out to be
anhingas also insisted on their potent venom.
The Welsh flying snakes are said to be quite aggressive and to kill poultry when given a chance. They will also
attack travellers and they are said to be roused to fury at the sight of a red cloth. Reports in this general category
of flying snakes commonly put the length down as from six to nine feet long.
[Pheasants to scale from Wikipedia]
The largest kind of pheasant is the Reeve's pheasant, native to China. It has a very long tail and can regularly
grow to over six feet long, up to eight feet long. The size is in the right range, and adding a long snake-like neck
to such a bird would make it even longer. It is a hardy bird able to stand extremes of cold and heat, and the males are are said to be hostile to humans, dogs, and especially to males of other pheasant types. If they are being raised together,
Reeve's cocks must be kept separate from the males of other kinds because of this agressive nature.
[Cock and Hen Reeve's Pheasants]
The hen Reeve's pheasant is as large as the male of the common (ring-necked) pheasant and already has a
fairly long tail of its own. This could lead to the tale that cockatrices arise from eggs laid by roosters: peasants
unfamiliar with the bird might well mistake the hen for the rooster of another species.
[Reeve's Pheasant, tail curling up Snakelike]
[Reeve's Pheasant Original Range]
['Flying Viper' Pheasant Hypothetical Original range, Biome similar to Reeve's Pheasant in China.
Showing Eradication in Central area in early Historical period and Persisting in the Fringelands]

I hypothesize that at the beginning of the post-glacial (recent) period, the ancestral long-necked pheasants
spread throughout Europe, starting in the southeast but then following the advance of the forests northward
until they were spread over most of the area. They were rarer after the establishment of farming and retreated
to the wilderness areas. By the time of the Roman empire, they had been extirpated around the mediterranean
and the common (ring-necked) pheasants began to be imported from Russia (Scythia) to replace them
[indicated by green on the map]. By the Dark Ages they had disappeared in Central Europe and whereas
before there were several different colour schemes for the males, in the later Middle Ages and on there were
commonly only the green phase in Western Europe and the Red phase in Eastern Europe. They would have
died out much sooner except that they became associated with a superstitious dread that made people keep
away from them. Reports became more spotty in recent years but they were seen sporadically in the 1800s
and possibly early 1900s in England and Wales on the one hand, and in the Baltic countries on the other.
I have a contemporary report of "Venomous Flying Snakes" from Novgorod in Russia at the Yahoo group
Frontiers-of-Zoology, and I now believe that report to belong in this category. Recent reports also seem to
come from the Basque territories in Southern France and Northern Spain.

["Flying Serpent" Longnecked Pheasant Mockup for Possible Appearance in Life]

["Flying Serpent" Pheasant to Scale to Human, Size as Commonly Reported]

[Russian Legend of the Firebird, From Wikipedia]


Retrieverman said...

Does the CFZ still have the pair of Reeves's pheasants?

Ego Ronanus said...

Unfortunately, bits of this interesting article have been cut out at the edges. Could a re-edited version be managed, as it certainly must rank as a diligent piece of research.

Dr Karl Shuker said...

Although intriguing, Dale's suggestion that the Welsh feathered snakes were cock pheasants is far from new. Way back in 1995, within my book 'Dragons: A Natural History', I noted: "It has been suggested that brightly colored serpents with feathered wings spied in the vale of Edeyrnion in 1812 may have been cock pheasants, which were unfamiliar there". However, I still find it difficult to believe that a pheasant could be mistaken for a flying snake - unless the latter term had a much wider meaning, such as 'flying dragon'.

Oll Lewis said...

The Gwibers possibly being phesents or similar birds rather than snakes has always been one of my prefered explanations, like with all widespread cryptozoological reports though there are likely to be a variaty of explanations, different in each case. For example Ned of Glamorgan forged a lot of folklore generally regarded as authentic by many even to this day among these were some tales of Gwibers.

We have a male Reeves pheasant still at the CFZ.

In the last picture Dale used it is interesting to note, how similar the firebird looks to the Chinese Fenghuang which is also based on a pheasant.

Anonymous said...

Thank you all for your comments. I was unaware that a pheasant-like bird had been suggested as a solution to this mystery but this is also an explanation I have had for quite some time and only just now elaborated upon. Indeed my oldest notes with this suggestion as regards Wyverns and Cockatrices go back to the 1970s.

In specific reply to Karl's remarks, the Anhinga is frequently spoken of as "A Flying snake" by inexperienced observers and that is mainly ONLY for the long neck. I had thought to make the neck longer on my reconstruction but on the balance with the depictions I had on hand, I made it somewhat shorter in my reconstruction than I would have liked. The "Serpent" part comes mainly from the very long tail and the flight profile which makes it look as if it were all one elongated mass with wings added. And the part about both the head and the tail "coiling up" is explained in the entry: one of the photos shows the pheaasant's tail "Coiling"

This is now my preferred explanation for the Western, European Flying dragons and I prefer it over Pterosaurs and the like. The fourlegged kinds are a much more recent addition and Water dragons are a separate category again.

Best Wishes, Dale D.

AnnF said...

Very clever idea, whether new or not!

Ring-necked pheasants, at least, can move explosively quickly, so much that it could seem like a snake striking. If other birds have the habit of lying low and then bursting out unexpectedly, this snake-like behavior would be more "evidence" that this thing is a snake.

Troodon Roar said...

In my opinion, these cryptids are the closest thing to a living maniraptoran dinosaur, such as a Velociraptor or a Troodon. They look a lot like troodontids; they have relatively large eyes and sharp foot claws, like the troodontids.