The Black-winged Stilt is a relative of the Avocet, in the family Recurvirostridae. This family of waders includes a few other avocet species from around the world, as well as a few other stilts. The basic difference between avocets and stilts is that the former have fine, up-turned bills and shorter legs, with more pronounced webbing in the feet (making swimming easier); whereas stilts have fine, straight bills and very long legs.
The naming of the stilts, of course, comes from just how long these legs are, looking wildly out of proportion with the rest of the bird. This is particularly apparent when the bird is in flight and the long, red legs trail miles behind!
The Turnstone is one of those birds which is named after its typical feeding habits. They use their ‘chisel-shaped’ bills to flip over bits of weed, shell and indeed, stones to look for invertebrates such as sandhoppers, which are living underneath.
Though no-one is certain, the name of the Rook is almost certainly derived from its call, the soft cawing call which is so familiar from the breeding colonies and fly-over birds. The chess piece with the same name has an unrelated etymology; it is thought to be from Arabic or Persian words for ‘chariot’ or ‘war chariot’ which may have become confused with the Italian word ‘rocca’ meaning tower. The bird’s scientific name Corvus frugilegus means fruit-picking raven (or crow).
The Water Pipit used to be regarded as conspecific with the Rock Pipit when many of us were learning our birdwatching skills. They are in many ways similar, but have quite different habitat preferences. While Rock Pipits are birds of rocky coasts, Water Pipits breed in mountainous, alpine slopes and high plains. So why are they ‘Water’ Pipits? This is because, outside the breeding season, they head downslope, to lowland areas, marshes, water-cress beds, flooded meadows and so on. These are the habitats we in the UK usually encounter Water Pipits in, when you would never guess that they were mountain breeders.
They are scarce birds in the UK (mainly the south and east), with perhaps fewer than 200 wintering, but they are very shy and somewhat elusive, and can often be hard to see in their chosen habitat; so perhaps the population is an underestimate.
This lovely, big bunting gets its name for just the reason you may expect. In addition to largely being a winter visitor (and so hardy and able to cope with snow), they are, at least in this country, high altitude breeders, choosing the tops of mountains in, for example, the Cairngorms, which remain snowy well into the breeding season. Both males and females are whitish to look like the snowy environment, with breeding males being strikingly black and white (especially the wings). Unlike most perching birds (passerines or songbirds), Snow Buntings even have fluffy feathered lower legs (tarsi), like a mini grouse leg!
The name of the Mistle Thrush apparently comes from the bird's perceived liking for Mistletoe berries, though why it is not called the Mistletoe thrush is not entirely clear. Even the scientific name (Turdus viscivorus) given the bird by Linnaeus in 1758 reflects this. Viscivorus means mistletoe eater.
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.