Bewick’s Swan was named in 1830 by William Yarrell, in honour of Thomas Bewick, the great late 18th and early 19th Century engraver and natural history author. He wrote A History of British Birds which has been regarded as the forerunner of modern field guides. Incidentally, there is also a Bewick’s Wren in North America.
The harrier part of the Hen Harrier’s name, probably comes from the bird’s low-flying hunting technique, flying low over moorland, etc., to flush up potential prey, by harrying it. There is also an argument that the name derives from the harrier breed of dog, which was traditionally used as a fox- or hare-hunting hound. The Hen in the bird’s name comes from the bird’s predation of Red Grouse (aka ‘moor hens’).
There are two species of dowitcher on the British List, which are very similar North American waders with very long, straight, snipe-like bills. These are the Long-billed and the much rarer Short-billed Dowitcher (which also has a long bill!).
The origin of the odd name ‘dowitcher’ is slightly lost in obscurity, but is most likely from an Iroquoian word for snipe-like birds. There is an Oneida (one of the Iroquois tribes, from north-eastern USA) word for snipe: tawistawe or tawistawis, which is the presumed origin of the Anglicised dowitcher.
The scientific name for the dowitcher genus is Limnodromus, which translates as ‘marsh racer’.
Pic: Nigel Pye/Alamy
Here are two wading birds which have the word ‘curlew’ as part of their names. Neither are at all closely related to the Curlew itself and both have different reasons for adopting the name. Curlew Sandpipers (below) are called that because, of the ‘sandpipers’, they have long, downcurved bills, as well as a taller, more long-necked, long-legged, and so Curlew-like structure, like a miniature Curlew.
Stone-curlews don’t look like Curlews but have very Curlew like calls, which are often heard after dark. So, in a sense, they are named after the Curlew in the same way that the Curlew itself was named, after the ‘curleee’ call.
In a taxonomic world of splits and lumps (and particularly splits), the classification of the Scottish Crossbill still invites a good degree of scepticism. It was long recognised that many of the crossbills of the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland looked a bit different from other crossbills, particularly in the bill shape. The bill is ‘half way’ between a Crossbill’s and Parrot Crossbill’s in depth. In 1980, the BOU officially split the species, recognising Scottish Crossbill as a separate species, and the only full species of bird endemic to the UK.
More recent studies have suggested that the calls of Scottish Crossbills are also slightly different from other crossbills. So, for now, the species stands. Of course the name crossbill
comes from the birds’ unique crossed mandible tips, which help them extract seeds from conifer cones.
Most birdwatchers were brought up in an era when Panurus barmicus was known as the Bearded Tit. We were, of course, aware that it wasn’t really a true tit, and it didn’t have a beard as such, but we knew the bird’s name and the name suited the bird and that was all that mattered. Look in a field guide like the Collins Bird Guide and the bird is called Bearded Reedling. Some even call it the Bearded Parrotbill.
The reason it got the ‘tit’ name in the first place is because it resembles true tits in many ways, being small, acrobatic and with a short thin bill. It is also quite like the Long-tailed Tit which is in a family related to the true tits, but isn’t actually a proper tit, either! Giving a bird the ‘wrong’ epithet is something that upsets some bird namers. But it is prevalent in the naming of birds around the world. So, we see warblers, blackbirds, orioles and sparrows in the Americas which are not closely related to birds with the same name in the Old World. And very few people make any fuss.
The Nuthatch is, as most birdwatchers know, the only regularly occurring British bird which habitually moves headfirst down trunks and branches. It is part of a wider family which is widespread across the northern hemisphere and though it is one of a few species which occur in Europe, is more ‘correctly’ known as the Eurasian Nuthatch, which has a very wide distribution from western Europe to Japan and far-eastern Russia.
The word ‘Nuthatch’ dates back at least to the 14th Century and refers to the bird’s habit of wedging a nut in a crevice then repeatedly bashing it with its bill. It is thought that the ‘hatch’ part of the name is an obsolete form of ‘hack’.
The word snipe, as used for long-billed stripy sandpipers, derives at least from the 14th Century from the Old Norse snipa from myrisnipa (moor snipe). There are various north-western European alternatives, including the Old Saxon sneppa, Middle Dutch snippe, German Schnepfe, Swedish snäppe (meaning sandpiper) and the Old English snite.
The word has become uncomplimentary in the sense of guttersnipe, presumably derived from the snipes’ choice of gutter or ditch-like habitat. Snipe has also given us the term sniper, originally applied for a shooter accurate and skilful enough to take down one of these small, fast, jinking ‘targets’.
The jack part of Jack Snipe probably derives from Jack as used as a diminutive, as in terms like Jack Pike for a small Pike or the ‘jack’ in bowls. However, it may also derive from the Welsh word for a Snipe Giack (though that would be pronounced with a hard g, so it seems unlikely).
This lovely, subtle pigeon is widely distributed and common though often overlooked. It is not to be mistaken for the somewhat similar Feral Pigeon or its Rock Dove ancestor. Neither is its name (the Stock part) related to the keeping of the bird in captivity for food etc. These are wild, unaltered, undomesticated doves.
Stock in the sense of Stock Dove comes from the Old English word ‘stocc’ meaning a stump or post or a tree trunk. Stock Doves nest in hollows in trees, hence the name.
The small, drab, peach-faced, pink-rumped Twite is the upland, northern equivalent of the Linnet. It’s one of those birds which takes its name from its voice. Like the Cuckoo, Curlew and Hoopoe, the Twite is named onomatopoeically from its most common and distinctive call, a nasal, twanging ‘twite’. Listen for them in winter, as they spread down from their breeding areas to winter mainly in coastal marshes and also similar habitats.
An easy one – Tawny Owls are owls (the UK’s commonest owls) and they are tawny, which basically means orange-brown coloured. They are also called Brown Owls (or were in the olden days). The only complication to this simple naming system comes from the fact that Tawny Owls are a bit variable in tone, so most birds are red brown while others are much greyer. Indeed, the extremes may be considered ‘colour morphs’.
As we say every winter, surely we are due a Waxwing invasion this year! These lovely crested passerines, with the softest of plumage and the most bell-like of tinkling calls are what are known as irruptive in the their habits; they have a sort of boom and bust population.
In times of successful breeding seasons in northern Scandinavia and Russia, followed by shortage of berry food in a harsh winter, they ‘irrupt’, spreading much further afield and often coming to the UK in good numbers.
Their name comes simply from the little bright red feather shafts which bulge out of the wing of adults. These red feathers look like little drops of old-fashioned sealing wax, hence the term Waxwing.
The Dipper is like a big black-and-white Wren on steroids that spends its life on, in and around fast-flowing streams. It is highly unusual in that in addition to brief dips beneath the surface, this perching bird can swim underwater tilting against the current. Also, it can use its powerful feet and claws to cling to underwater rocks to stop it getting washed away.
An old name was Water Ouzel, ouzel being an old name for the Blackbird. With its superificial resemblance to the Ring Ouzel at least in pattern, you can see where it got its name.
The Dipper is also called the White-throated Dipper, to distinguish it from other dippers around the world. Our local subspecies has a chestnut band beneath the white breast, while nominate continental birds have a blacker belly and are known as ‘Black-bellied Dipper’, which are rare visitors to the UK.
When pioneering Europeans colonised North America, they naturally named the creatures they encountered. And equally naturally, they named them after familiar birds from the European homeland. The diverse, little streaky emberizine bunting-like birds looked a bit like ‘real’ sparrows and the name stuck. The common icterids were mid-sized and black, so became ‘blackbirds’ and their black and orange or yellow cousins looked somewhat like ‘orioles’. Similarly, the starling like (or Jackdaw-like), longer tailed icterids where somehat like the old-world mynahs of the genus Gracula, and so shared the name grackle.
The little colourful thin billed passerines were somewhat like Old World warblers, so became warblers.
And, of course, the large abundant red-breasted thrush, which appeared to occupy the niches of the European Blackbird was called Robin after our familiar little redbreast.
The next time a fellow birdwatcher makes a fuss about calling a bird Bearded Tit (not a ‘real’ tit), Honey Buzzard (not a ‘real’ buzzard) or Hedgesparrow (not a ‘real’ sparrow), gently point out that the inconsistencies and repeated use of the same names for unrelated birds are extremely common, especially in North America.
There are two types of ‘feral’ – or naturalised – geese found widely across the UK. The Greylag Goose is the ancestor of the farmyard goose, and has a genuinely wild, mainly-wintering population, found in Scotland. The Canada Goose is almost exclusively derived from introduced stock. These introductions of the larger race canadensis from the east side of North America, began as long ago as the later 17th Century, during the reign of Charles II. So, the birds have been around much longer than ‘accepted’ introduced species, such as the Little Owl.
Why Canada? The bulk of the original (natural) breeding population is in the northern half of North America, principally Canada. With naturalised populations in the UK, New Zealand and South America, there is a little slice of Canada all round the world.
One of the quirky facts that enthusiastic young birdwatchers discover as they devour bird books, is that Puffinus puffinus is the scientific name of the Manx Shearwater, not the Puffin. The latter, also known as the Atlantic Puffin (to distinguish it from the Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin of the Pacific) goes by the name of Fratercula arctica, which means little brother (or friar or monk) of the arctic.
Puffin derives from Middle English word ‘poffin’ or ‘pophyn’ which was used for nestling shearwaters cured for eating. The name later became associated with other burrow-nesting seabirds which were also harvested for eating, including the Puffin. But, the shearwater kept the name for its scientific name.
The Rough-legged Buzzard is a very widespread breeding bird, covering the arctic and subarctic of Eurasia as well as North America. It is a scarce winter visitor to the UK, occurring in variable numbers, with between 10 and 150 birds in most winters. The bird gets its ‘rough-legged’ name from the fact its lower leg is feathered. Its scientific name, Buteo lagopus, also derives from this feature, with the legs reminiscent of those of grouse (genus Lagopus), which in turn get their name from the resemblance of their legs and feet to the feet of hares.
The Lesser Redpoll is a small, brown, streaky finch with a black bib and a red patch on its forehead. It is, of course, this red patch which gives the bird its redpoll name (poll being an older name for head). They are the smallest ‘type’ of the redpoll complex, and are mainly found in the
UK and adjacent Western European areas.
Once upon a time, they were included with most others as the species Redpoll, within which they were regarded as a subspecies. But the species was ‘split’ relatively recently, so we now have Lesser Redpoll and Common Redpoll (this confusing name includes the Mealy Redpolls and Northwestern Redpolls). In addition, there are the Arctic Redpolls, which to add to the confusion, some regard as at least two taxa, Hornemann’s (Arctic) Redpoll and Coues’s (Arctic) Redpoll.
The Sparrowhawk hunts small birds such as sparrows, the Hen Harrier hunts game birds. So, it stands to reason that the Goshawk is also named after its potential prey item. Goshawks get their name from an Anglo Saxon word goshafoc, which means Goose Hawk. These huge, Buzzard-sized birds were historically flown in order to catch quarry the size of a goose. Indeed, they were traditionally kept as birds capable of providing food for the table.
In the UK, ‘wild’ Goshawks don’t tend to hunt large waterbirds much, as they are now primarily woodland birds. They are rare breeders in the UK with between about 300 and 450 pairs nationwide.
The Honey Buzzard is a rare breeding bird in the UK, with fewer than 70 breeding pairs (though more pass through on passage to and from Scandinavia). One of the reasons for the UK being on the extreme of the Honey Buzzards is that their diet largely consists of larvae of colonial wasps and bees, which are in relatively short supply in the UK.
This diet is also the source of the ‘Honey’ part of the bird’s name, though honey is not what these birds of prey are searching for when they rip open bees’ nests.
They have relatively weak bills and feet with long toes and claws adapted for digging and tearing at insects nests, often on the ground. Otherwise, in size, general shape and plumage, it is quite similar to the Buzzard (hence that part of the bird’s name), though is in fact more closely related to the kites.