Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mavis, Susie and Billy Wise

The names by which we know birds in English have not always been set in stone, having changed and evolved with many regional variations. This is still happening with the official names of species in field guides trying to reach international consistency to avoid confusion. Sometimes this replaces a taxonomically inaccurate but descriptive name with something altogether less poetic. A good example of this is the renaming of the Fan-tailed Warbler as the Zitting Cisticola, a name that doesn’t exactly fire the imagination. Other names have been changed because they reflect the appearance of the species at the time of the year it is most often seen in Britain. The Grey Phalarope (a good descriptive name for the winter plumaged birds we see here) is now known as the Red Phalarope which is a more accurate description of the species in its northern breeding grounds.

One of the British Birds oils by Charles Collins (1736)
Before the standardising of scientific nomenclature and greater understanding of the genetic groupings of species classification was largely based on physical appearance, behaviour and habitat. As an example, reed buntings and sedge warblers, both small, brown and streaked passerines were referred to as reed sparrows. These, and a selection of some other obsolete but intriguing names were found on the backs of a series of oil paintings hanging in the Panelled Lobby at the National Trust's Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. Painted by Charles Collins (1680 – 1744) in 1736 these oils are a valuable early source of English names, some of which are found in other sources and some that may have been regional to Collins's native Ireland or even falling out of use at the time.
Below is a selection of some interesting examples of old, local and obscure avian nomenclature including the most unusual from the Collins oils (denoted with CC 1736).
Weasel Coot
Of unknown origin, this is a rather bizarre East Anglian name for redhead Smew.
(female Mallard) This is a term used mostly by wildfowlers.
East Anglian for Heron. This is a regional variant of a name that was probably fairly widespread across England. It features in one odd form in Shakespeare's Hamlet in the line “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” I still come across some old Norfolk boys and gels who use this name.
Wind Hover
(Kestrel) This is a fine example of a behavioural name.
Lapwing at Cley (Phil Farndon)
Hornpie, Green Plover, Peewit
The Lapwing is a bird has an impressive collection of names, and it is easy to understand why this distinctive and beautiful plover has caught the imagination of people over the centuries. Hornpie is the Norfolk dialect name.
(Oystercatcher) Derived from the same root as the Hornpie, with the 'pie' referring to the black and white appearance of the bird.
Drain Swallow, Whistling Snipe, Tree Sandpiper
(Green Sandpiper) All three of these now obscure names are far more descriptive of the bird than the now standard name.
Barn Owl at Wiveton (Phil Farndon)
Billy Wise
(Barn Owl) A rather charming example of proper Norfolk.
Bank Martin (CC 1736)
(Sand martin)

Ox-eyed Titmouse (CC 1736)
(Great Tit) The family of birds we now know as tits were until relatively recently called titmice.

Colemouse (CC 1736)

Bum Barrel
(Long-tailed Tit) Another Norfolk name.
Mavis (CC 1736)
(Song Thrush) Another once common name.
Storm Cock
(Mistle Thrush) Anyone who has heard a mistle thrush in full song at the very top of a tall tree in rough winds before a storm will understand just how apt this name is.
Titlark (CC 1736)
(Meadow pipit) A fine example of describing a bird in terms of two more familiar species.
Stonechat at Cley (Phil Farndon)
Stone Cutter (CC 1736)
Beam Bird (CC 1736)
(Spotted Flycatcher) There is no obvious derivation for this. My own theory is that this species may have been in the habit of using the beams of animal shed and barns as a perch when catching insects.
Small Reed Sparrow (CC 1736)
(Sedge Warbler)
Grasshopper Lark (CC 1736)
(Grasshopper Warbler)
Golden Crowned Wren (CC 1736)
Butcher Bird (CC 1736)
(Great Grey Shrike) This name is derived from the habit shrikes have of impaling there prey on thorns, as a butcher would hang meat.
Aberdevine (CC 1736)
(Siskin) Of unknown origin, but used for this species mostly when kept as a cage bird.
Pink or Spink
(Chaffinch) Variations on this onomatopoeic name are found across the country. Spink is the East Anglian variant and Pink is used in the Midlands.
Bramble Finch (CC 1736)
Reed Sparrow (CC 1736)
(Reed Bunting)

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