Some of our most well-known birds have human names. None more familiar than the robin – many people’s favourite bird in the UK. Its earliest title was the Anglo-Saxon rudduc which means something like ‘little red one’, but by the medieval period it was also called the redbreast. It was such a welcome bird with a splash of colour, a friendly nature and a cheerful song, that our ancestors gave it the nickname of ‘Robert redbreast’. By the Tudor era this had become ‘Robin’, a fashionable diminutive of Robert. Robin ruddock or Robin redbreast were widely used. Eventually the affectionate ‘robin’ supplanted the earlier names completely.
For many people, magpies are at the opposite end of the popularity stakes to the robin, because they eat the chicks of songbirds. But even those who are not fond of the magpie often admit that it has a certain villainish charm, with its bright black and white plumage, long iridescent tail, raucous call, and it’s traditional admiration for shiny objects.
In medieval times, our forebears clearly saw something that they liked. The magpie was originally known simply as the pie, probably based on the Roman term for the bird, pica. It’s modern name arose when it acquired the pet name of Mag or Maggot, being contemporary titles for women christened Margaret. Margaret Pie soon became Magpie.
Similarly, the jackdaw, was formerly known only as the daw. This was probably an Anglo-Saxon word, perhaps imitative of the bird’s call. But this cheeky, vocal bird that hung around human settlements was easily tamed and began to be known affectionately as ‘Jack’ daw, and the name stuck.
There are other birds that have been give human nicknames: we still talk about Jenny wren, for instance, and Tom tit goes back centuries. Philip sparrow was once widely used too, but fell out of fashion in the 19th century. Polly parrot is another example. Indeed the word parrot itself may even be derived from the French name ‘Pierre’ in the form of Pierrot or ‘little Pete’.
In North America, the charismatic and sociable gray jay is known as whiskey Jack; in Australia, an endearing species of fantail is known as Willie wagtail; in South Africa, a bird called the fiscal strike hangs its dead prey on thorns and is called Jacky hangman. My favourite name of this sort comes from Trinidad and Tobago. Here, there is a little bird called the blue-black grassquit which continually leaps into the air performing somersaults, and so the locals call him Johnny jump-up. What a great name!
A remarkably large number of birds across the globe are named after real individuals – frequently the person who first identified the species or someone that the discoverer admired. There are not many British examples, but Bewick’s swan is perhaps the most well-known, dubbed after illustrator and natural historian Thomas Bewick. Other instances from this country include Montagu’s harrier and Richard’s pipit, both named after naturalists.
However, around the world there are over 4,000 examples of birds that have, or have had, eponymous names. A personal favourite is the bird first brought to the attention of Europe by French explorer and naval officer Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville. It was named not after himself, his patron, or even his ship, but after his wife – the Adélie penguin of Antarctica. Rather romantic, I think.
I’m Owen Featherstone, your bird-watching buddy and enthusiast of all things feathered! Armed with binoculars and a notebook, I’m on a never-ending quest to uncover the mysteries of our avian friends. Whether it’s deciphering melodies in a dawn chorus or finding out if hummingbirds ever take coffee breaks, I’m here to share the delightful world of birds with you. So grab your virtual wings, and let’s explore the skies together!