Bird names may be a frequent part of our daily language, but we often give little thought as to what they mean or how they originated. That’s partly because, over the centuries, changes in the English language have obscured their original sense. It’s necessary to turn linguistic detective to learn more about our birds’ often puzzling names.
The majority of bird names fall into one of six categories: sound, appearance, habits, habitat, area of origin and eponyms – birds named after people. Many of our oldest bird names are onomatopoeic: derived from the sound the bird makes. Classic examples include the cuckoo, chiffchaff and kittiwake – the name is a rough approximation of the bird’s song or call. But there are many other species whose names fit in this category.
Take the crow family. The names ‘crow’, ‘rook’ and ‘raven’ all come from the birds’ harsh calls; as does ‘chough’ – though at some point in history the pronunciation switched from ‘chow’ (the sound made by this charismatic corvid) to ‘chuff’.
Carrion crow drinking from a small pool of water – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The reason so many early bird names relate to their sound is simply that it was the easiest way for our ancestors to identify any birds they came across.
Names based on a bird’s appearance were also created early on in our history. Most warblers are tricky to identify, but two are more distinctive: the blackcap and the whitethroat. Like those names based on sound, these would have been coined by ordinary people; they are essentially ‘folk names’, later adopted as the official name.
The third category – birds named after their habits and behaviour – are also ancient in origin and were made up by ordinary people. As well as woodpecker, these include treecreeper and nuthatch (‘hatch’ deriving from the bird’s habit of hacking at nuts with its powerful bill).
A major shift in the naming of birds occurred from the 18th century onwards, when the discipline of ornithology began. Men such as Thomas Pennant and George Montagu began to formalise bird names, in an effort to solve the problem of the same species having many different names (such as peewit, pyewipe and lapwing); or different species having the same name – blackcap, for example, was used for great and marsh tits as well as for the warbler that bears the name today.
These professionals began to coin names referring to a bird’s habitat, such as reed, sedge and marsh warblers, and also created many of the more complex, compound names we still use today: including black-tailed godwit, white-fronted goose and red-breasted merganser.
Black tailed godwit feeding at RSPB Frampton Marsh – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a major trend towards ‘eponyms’: naming birds after people. Sometimes the person honoured was the actual person to discover the species: George Montagu was the first to realise that his eponymous raptor, Montagu’s harrier, was different from the similar-looking hen harrier. But Thomas Bewick had nothing to do with the swan that bears his name; while Gilbert White would never even have seen White’s thrush, a rare UK visitor from Asia that was first recorded in the UK 40 years after his death.
Recently, especially in North America, birders have started to question some of these eponyms, and the people commemorated in them. “When a bird is named after a person it is burdened with the history and social context of that individual. Naming is an act of claiming, and such names celebrate the achievements of the individual, ignoring the natural beauty of the bird,” says Flock Together – a birding collective for people of colour, which has been drawing on the work of US ornithologists Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter in scrutinsing bird names – in a November 2020 Instagram takeover with the RSPB.
“Many of these names come from the time of slavery and empire. Even birds named after scientists and abolitionists from this era can throw up problematic links to colonialism, white cultural supremacy and an outdated relationship with the natural world.” Edward Blyth for example, who named Blyth’s reed warbler, captured and traded wild animals to make his living.
Redstart perched on a fence post – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Some very familiar bird names do not, at first sight, appear to fit any of these categories. Names such as wheatear, redstart and yellowhammer appear rather puzzling – we might struggle to find the connection between wheatears and arable crops, or wonder if redstarts are especially jumpy, or yellowhammers have a hammer-like song. In fact, these are what my old French teacher used to call ‘faux amis’: words that appear to mean one thing, but actually have a very different origin.
All these names go back well before the Norman Conquest, to Anglo-Saxon times, when the language – known as Old English – was very different from the one we speak today. Thus wheatear derives from a phrase meaning ‘white ***’, a reference to the bird’s prominent white rump; redstart means ‘red tail’; and yellowhammer comes from the word ‘ammer’, meaning bunting, still used in German today.
Over time, though, some unsuitable names have been changed. Look at an old bird book, and you might be puzzled by references to the ‘golden-crested wren’ or ‘willow wren’ – both now renamed, as goldcrest and willow warbler. In the 1950s Max Nicholson persuaded the powers-that-be to change ‘hedge sparrow’ to the older name of dunnock, to avoid confusion with unrelated house and tree sparrows. Today, new bird names are still being coined; not from new species being discovered (though a handful are each year), but because hundreds are ‘split’, as ornithologists realise that what they thought was a single species is, in fact, two or more.
Goldcrest perched in conifer tree – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Arguably the oddest aspect of bird names is that some of our commonest birds have names for which we often still don’t know the origin such as sparrow and wren. These names are so ancient that we have no idea how they came about. The paradox is that more obscure species, discovered more recently, have easier names to trace.
We do know the origin of the name of the UK’s favourite bird, the robin. During the Middle Ages, the original Old English word ruddock (meaning red bird) gradually fell into disuse, replaced by ‘redbreast’. Then, like Jenny wren and Tom tit, the species gained a nickname: ‘Robin redbreast’; the diminutive for Robert. Over time, this was shortened to ‘robin’ – still used today.
In this short video, Stephen Moss and Jamie Wyver discuss the origins of familiar bird names.
The article above originally appeared in the Summer/Autumn 2021 issue of Nature's Home, the magazine for RSPB members. It was suggested by Nature's Home reader Elizabeth Jeffery. Following publication of the article, another reader, Rebecca Gindin-Clarke got in touch with some more fascinating facts she'd found in The Oxford Book of British Bird Names. These include:
Thank you Rebecca for sending those in!
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Man, this is so interesting! I never about bird names that way. As an ornithology student at Greenwich University London, I should know this, lol. Although, I am currently working on a project of mine, which at first hand, I was wondering if someone help with my capstone project, but it all worked out, fortunately. I'm also going to add some pieces of information from this article as well!
Fascinating to hear these other names in the comments, thanks for sharing. I quite like 'spadgers'!
In SW Germany, Spätzle is the name for egg noodles, the local dish, as well as "little sparrows", as I learned on my German exchange in the 1970s.
Some people I know in the States who are several generations removed from their German immigrant ancestors (in the second half of the 19th century) call the House Sparrows released in the USA, English Sparrows, and colloquially as 'Sputzes' (plural), not that far from (the singular) Spatze.
Yes, same here, although I thought they said Spadge or Spadges. I do remember being taught there were 3 kinds of Sparrow, House, Hedge and Tree. Took me a long time to realise Dunnock was just a rebranding of Hedge!