Lions, Pigeons, and Other Foolish April Tales

Don’t worry. Although this article is about April Fool’s Day, there are no pranks or hoaxes here. I can’t vouch for the rest of the internet or even the rest of the library, however, so be on guard.

Growing up, my family never made a big deal about April Fool’s Day. It was my grandmother’s birthday, and we didn’t want to distract from her special day. I can count on one hand the number of times we pranked each other. Once I convinced my mom that my grandmother’s cat had gotten outside, then immediately confessed it was a joke before anyone wasted time searching for Snowball. My dad once woke me up by urgently announcing we would have to leave early for school because it was snowing heavily outside. This was just plausible enough in Wisconsin to make me believe him for a split second. Needless to say, I’m impressed by anyone who can pull off an elaborate prank—assuming it’s not mean-spirited. Both the pranker and the prankee should be able to laugh afterward.

The tradition of pulling pranks on the first day of April goes back many centuries, and no one is quite certain how it began.  There are references to the phenomenon in France and the Netherlands in the 1500s, and in England and Poland in the 1600s. The gullible were invited to the annual lion washing ceremony at the Tower of London starting in 1698. There was a menagerie there at the time which included lions, but they were never taken outside for a bath! The joke was repeated through the following two centuries, although animal lovers will be happy to know the menagerie was discontinued in favor of more humane alternatives after 1834. There’s just something about animals that goes well with mischief, though. In 2022, St. Louis County, Minnesota, announced they were adding search and rescue chickens to their force, complete with a photo of a hen in a vest with a police insignia on it.

One of my favorite pranks is from April 1st, 1974, when the residents of Sitka, Alaska, woke up to see Mount Edgecumbe—a supposedly dormant volcano—​letting off a plume of dark smoke. When a Coast Guard helicopter went up to investigate, they found a huge pile of old tires aflame, and the words “APRIL FOOL” spray-painted in the snow. The epic prank was the work of Oliver “Porky” Bickar and his accomplices, who had thoughtfully given the local police a heads up in advance, but neglected to inform the Coast Guard. Luckily the locals were good sports once all was revealed.

Closer to home, many pranks in the Badger State draw from our love of dairy products and malt beverages. In 2019, Culver’s restaurants advertised a new frozen custard flavor:  Cheese Curd Crunch. The same year, Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery announced they would be serving cheese curds on tap. In 2022, Kwik Trip and Leinenkugel’s partnered for an April Fool’s prank in which they claimed to be introducing “beer in a bag.” Hey, if it works for milk… Just last year, the Stevens Point’s Point Brewery combined a prank and a pun when they unveiled a new variety aptly called “Maple Fools,” made of a combination of maple syrup and bacon. It’s probably a good thing for everyone’s diet that these were all April Fool’s jokes!

Modern April Fool’s pranks typically take place on social media, but in years past other forms of media got in on more of the fun. The Madison Capital-Times newspaper published a story on April 1st, 1933, claiming that the state capitol’s dome had toppled over and collapsed, complete with a convincingly edited photo over fifty years before Adobe released Photoshop into the world.

My dad was a morning radio host for much of the 1980s, and has regaled me with stories of April Fool’s pranks he and his co-hosts staged. One broadcast announced that a major motion picture about baseball was going to be filmed at Carson Park, and the studio had put out a casting call for local residents to play extras. Many people showed up with their baseball gloves, ready to be on camera, only to be met with one of the radio hosts explaining the joke.

The most memorable April 1st newscast he participated in came in the mid ’80s. It included stories about the Easter Bunny being wanted by law enforcement for distributing illegal eggs, and the Eau Claire Cavaliers baseball team trading one of their players for a major league MVP. The top story told how Eau Claire had declared war on Chippewa Falls, complete with sound bites from a city official who was in on the joke. The “war” began with Eau Claire filling city busses with flocks of pigeons that would undoubtedly cause messy chaos when released in Chippewa. This plot was explained in a segment with authentic bus and pigeon sound effects in the background. In response, it seemed Chippewa Falls had constructed a roadblock on Highway 53 to stop the avian import. The radio station received multiple phone calls from confused listeners. Dad says he was surprised anyone took it seriously, considering the broadcast concluded with a weather forecast calling for “twenty percent chance of locust plague. This moderate trend to be followed by end of world tomorrow.”

I can’t say this incident was Mo Willem’s inspiration for the famed children’s book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” but I can’t prove it wasn’t, either.

As I’m writing this before April Fool’s Day this year, I don’t know what shenanigans will take place in 2024. Whether they involve volcanoes, cheese curds, pigeons, or lions, I’m sure some gullible folks will fall for them. Hopefully at the end of the day we can all have a good laugh (and start plotting next year’s hijinks.)

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