Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag


Spring has officially arrived: The cultural significance of the Golden Plover to Icelanders

By Staff

  • A beautiful bird The golden back, white band and black belly and face provide perfect camoflgue for Icelandic heaths, but also provide the bird with a beautiful coat Icelanders associate with summer. Photo/Björn Christian Törrissen, Creative Commons

One of the most important news of spring is always the spotting of the first golden plover. The first golden plovers of 2018 were spotted flying in South Iceland, south of the town of Selfoss yesterday morning, March 28. The spotting of the golden plover is a major news story, heralding the official beginning of spring, according to Icelandic tradition. The birds arrive a few days later this year than in recent years. Since 1998 the golden plovers have usually arrived on March 23. 

Biggest story of the week


Lóa Perfectly camoflagued for Icelandic heaths. Photo/GVA

The reason why the arrival of the European golden plover is a big deal is that according to Icelandic tradition their arrival is considered to be the harbinger of spring and summer: When the bird arrives winter must be on its way. In earlier times children would run out to hear the call of the golden plovers. 

No bird is loved as dearly by Icelanders as the golden plover.

If you are in Iceland in spring or summer you should listen for the plover's call, a melancholic, slightly descending "tuu", often sung in twos, "tuu-tuuuu", "tuu-tuuuuu". You can hear the plovers wherever they congregate or sit down in search of food. Even in Reykjavík, where they sit down on open grassy areas. Two spots where the plovers can often be seen are the lawn of Stjórnarráðið (The seat of government on Lækjargata street) and Arnarhóll hill. The sound of the golden plovers brings a smile to the face of Icelanders.

Sweet herald of spring

Stjórnarráðið, Stjórnarráðshúsið

Stjórnarráðið The lawn of the Icelandic White House is a favorite spot of golden plovers in downtown Reykjavík. Photo/Fréttablaðið

The bird has the beautiful nickname vorboðinn ljúfi, "The Swet Spring Herald" in Icelandic, and a common saying, which comes from a popular 19th century poem, states that the Plover arrives að kveða burt snjóinn, "to sing away the snow". The spotting of the first golden plovers is always a major news story, something people will talk about at the coffee machine at work, and children will discuss in class at school. 

The golden plover has a large role in Icelandic folklore as it was believed to be able to foretell the weather. Farmers would therefore pay close attention to the behavior of the plovers, observing their flight patterns and flocking patterns. 

The origin of the name Lóa is unknown. One theory is that it's a variation on the sounds that the bird makes. Lóa is a very beautiful, and if somewhat uncommon woman's name in Icelandic. 

A beautiful creation story

Golden plover nest

Golden plover nest According to Icelandic myth the chicken came before the egg in the case of the golden plover Photo/Borgþór Magnússon

According to Icelandic folklore the bird was not created by God on the fifth day (when the Bible tells us that God created the birds of the sky), but much later by Jesus himself. According to this legend Jesus was a young child making clay statues of birds with other children on the Sabbath. An older Sadducee walked past and castigated the children for not honoring the Sabbath.

The Sadducee then broke all the clay birds the children had made. When Jesus saw this he swept his hand over the birds, breathing life into them. The birds flew up from the ground to the sky. Thus the golden plover was created by a child Jesus.

The song of the golden plover is, according to this legend, a call of glory to their creator.

One of the first migratory birds to arrive each spring

Distribution of golden plover

Distribution of golden plover Yellow=Summer habitat, Blue=Winter habitat. 

The European golden plover is very similar to the American golden plover and the Pacific golden plover, although a bit larger. It is thick set with shorter legs, and has snow white axillary feathers.

The most recognizable features of the bird are the S shaped white band which runs from its head down along the flanks. The white frames the back face and belly of the bird. The plover's call is a beautiful descending "tuuu". This call is one of the key notes of the Icelandic summer, the symphony of birdcalls you can hear anywhere in Iceland during the summer. The many migratory birds who flock to spend the summer in Iceland, including the common snipe and the whimbrel.

The European golden plover winters in the British Isles and along the coasts of West Europe and North Africa. In the spring they migrate further north, to spend summer in arctic and sub-arctic tundra and heaths. The summer grounds of the birds extend from Iceland in the West to Central Siberia in the East. 

The fastest game bird
The golden plover is the fastest game bird in Europe, where it is hunted by sportsmen. Icelanders, on the other hand, view the killing of golden plovers and other migratory birds as a barbaric practice, bordering on sacrilegious. Certainly only a truly rotten kind of person would think of shooting at the sweet harbinger of spring. 

Although it is not considered endangered the golden plover is protected in Iceland and its hunting or kiling is illegal under any circumstances.The golden plover is not considered endangered. The total population is estimated to be between 300,000 and 500,000 pairs. 


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