Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Blame the Birds

May 23, 2015

If you live in Vancouver, your morning commute on the Skytrain (the city's light rail transit system if you don't) last Friday may have been interrupted by...the birds. Or to be more precise, a bird's nest. Apparently one was set alight by a spark and started a fire that burned out a major electrical cable, shutting down the trains for several hours.

Being an historian, my mind naturally wanders to precedents and believe it or not, there is one: the infamous "woodpecker election" of December 1922. There were three candidates in the running for Vancouver mayor: L.D. Taylor, the incumbent Charles Tisdall, and former alderman J.J. McRae. On the afternoon of election day, during a heavy snowfall, the city's electricity suddenly went out. Among other things, the street railway system came to a halt. Later, when results showed that Tisdall had won, Taylor claimed that he had lost the election because his working-class supporters had been unable to get public transit to the polls.

The street railway company blamed a bird which it said had flown into high-tension wires, shorting out the system. Sure enough, the next day's newspaper featured a front page photo of the blackened corpse. (Taylor said it was a woodpecker; the paper said it was a crane.) But Taylor, as he usually did, blamed a conspiracy. "My information," he pronounced darkly, "is that some opponent of mine threw a chain over the wires and caused the damage."

"That cost me the election," Taylor told a reporter.

We'll wait to see whether last week's fire has any similar impact on the transit referendum now going on in the city. Will voters blame the transit authority for incompetence, or will they simply blame the birds?