The Vikings Used Birds To Find Land

January 20, 2009 By: erik Category: Family, Geeky 5,615 views

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While watching one of my favorite British television shows, QI, the other day, I learned an interesting fact that had been lost from my family for years. This is really brilliant.

The Vikings, when sailing around looking for new land to conquer, would use a bird to look for land. They would let this bird go, it would fly up to five thousand feet, look around, and if it saw land, it would fly in that direction. If it couldn’t see any land, it would come back down to the boat. This wouldn’t work with just any bird, of course. It had to be a non-migratory bird that was not accustomed to flying over and landing in water. It had to be big enough to see at that altitude, and have excellent eyesight. Because it despised water so much, the boat was a better option when no land could be seen.

As anyone with a distance to the horizon calculator can tell you, by going up 5,000 feet, the bird is able to see over 86 miles away! That’s quite an improvement over 20′ crows nest that only lets you see five miles away.

There’s at least one story that reports that a Norseman by the name of Flóki Vilgerðarson discovered Iceland this way.

Question: What kind of bird did they use?














Answer: The Raven.

This was a forehead slapper when I heard the answer, not because it perfectly fit all the clues given, but because I knew that ravens held a special symbolic significance for the Vikings. Also, my great-great-grandfather, Rasmus Rasmussen, sailed to the New World in a viking longboat called – you guessed it! – The Raven.

The Raven

I’m pretty certain that Rasmus would have known the answer to that question.

  • If an in-law ever accuses me of being ‘addicted’ to the internet again, I now have a valid excuse.
    This is why I am addicted to the internet.

    I could never have acquired this necessary information without it.
    I never even knew that my life was incomplete prior to reading this page.
    I would have otherwise died in ignorance.


    Now if I could just get them to stop getting pissed-off at me when I say that I would rather lose something because I was too nice than gain something by being too mean.
    (Being assertive has its good points and all, but if I was good at it, then I certainly wouldn’t be here in Spain, in the first place, so Catch-22.)

  • I saw that edition of QI too.
    I now fully expect you to walk around with a raven on your shoulder, just in case.

  • I tried that for a while when I was younger, Simon. Let’s just say I had to stop because of “fecal issues”.

    I’m still amazed by the aptness of the thumbnail for this post I was able to find on Flickr.

  • I don’t think they used ravens for “new lands to conquer”. The Norse were a clever people and would’ve used military-grade political intelligence before conquering new lands. However the raven was a clever tool in ordinary seafaring, which I think was the point being made.