The author of a new book on the history of birds’ names found tales of conquest, myth and human endeavour
Sun 29 Apr 2018 00.05 BST
It’s easy to assume, with bird names, that we know what they mean, and often that assumption is quite correct. Woodpeckers peck wood, bee-eaters feed on bees, and whitethroats are indeed white around the neck.
Other names seem almost wilfully obscure: what on Earth does the name puffin mean? Or hobby? Why are turtle doves named after reptiles? And don’t get me started on some of the more bizarre bird names found around the world – from oleaginous hemispingus to zitting cisticola, leaflove to hardhead, and bananaquit to bearded mountaineer.
Yet, as I discovered when I was researching my new book on the origins of bird names, if you dig deep enough, you unearth all sorts of fascinating stories about what the names mean, where they came from and, especially, the men and women who created them.
The origin of some names may, at first, seem obvious, yet are not quite as straightforward as they appear. Take the simplest of all English bird names: blackbird. It’s a bird, and it’s black. Isn’t that all we need to know?
But what about the crow, rook, raven and jackdaw? All of these would have been very familiar to our ancestors, and all appear – at least from a distance – to be black in colour. So why was just one species singled out as the “blackbird”