The Folklore Of Birds And the Names That Inspire Them

The Folklore Of Birds And the Names That Inspire Them

Courtesy of Gordon Johnson, Pixabay.

Do you know your ripple-calmer from your butcher bird? Why did Roman soldiers shake with fear upon hearing an owl hoot? Let’s take a look at just a few of the many names and stories that birds have earned over the years.

What's in a name?

Local, or colloquial names of birds are still heard in many parts of the world, but some are sadly falling out of use. For centuries, scientists have classified the world’s birds using the Linnaean system. Latin names are useful when ensuring we’re all talking about the same bird for scientific purposes, but what about everyday folks like you and me?

We don’t ask each other if we saw Pandion haliaetus over the lake yesterday, or did we top up the feeder for the Troglodytidae. Instead, we use an officially published list of standard names such as osprey, or wren (although some will have different names based on the way they look: a hooded crow in England is known as a waistcoat crow in Hungary, for example).

The kingfisher earned its standard name through its outstanding hunting technique, but did you know the scientific family name Halcyon was chosen from the basis of a bird from Greek mythology? This ripple-calmer was said to have made a huge nest on stormy seas, bringing peace to the waters; the ability of a kingfisher to shoot straight through the surface, catch their prey and then emerge again leaving barely a sign is literally the stuff of legend.

The same bird can be known by a completely different name in another region of the same country.

Traditionally held beliefs and long usage of community-known bird names also means that the same bird can be known by a completely different name in another region of the same country, and below we look at just a handful of variants.

Goatsucking, butchering and thunder pumping

Courtesy of Charles J. Sharp, Wikimedia Commons

The nightjar is a strange-looking bird, and it is little wonder it has earned suitably strange names. If you’ve been lucky enough to see one, you’ll know that most of the day they sit amongst the thick leafy vegetation of heathland, earning them the names fern or bracken owl, and then at dusk they display a unique flying regime of leaping up into the air and madly rotating their wings, emitting a strange whirring sound, and people called them the dorr-hawk, and churr or churn owl.

However, this propensity to lay low was too suspicious, earning them the best name of all – the goatsucker. They simply must be up to no good and thus the somewhat bizarre theory that they sucked goats dry of their milk, making the goats go blind, was born.

A none-too-flattering name for some shrikes that is still used today is the butcher bird. Images of machete-wielding rampages instantly spring to mind, but it is the feeding strategy that evokes this mildly horrific name. Shrikes are carnivores and feed on large insects and small vertebrates, and once caught, they impale their food on sharp sticks or thorns.

Not only does this serve as an implement helping the bird tear and pull at the larger food source turning it into smaller manageable bites, it also brings about the deterioration of toxins present in some insects, like the grasshopper. After a couple of days, the shrike will return to eat it, risk free.

Americans also refer to the Northern shrike as “nine-killer”, believing that they will readily kill at least nine victims before even thinking about eating one.

Images of machete-wielding rampages instantly spring to mind.

The Canada Jay, or Gray Jay, which also inhabits the US, is known by many names including camp-robber, (for its unerring ability to know that nearby campsites will be full of food) venison heron, grease-bird, and meat-bird, but one of its more popular names is Whiskey Jack. This avuncular nickname is actually a phonetic corruption of “Wisakedjak”, the name of a mischievous god of the Algonquin tribes.

Canada Jay. Courtesy of Jeremy Hynes, Unsplash

If you’ve ever heard the booming, resonating call of the bittern, you won’t be too surprised to hear that this reed-dwelling species of heron is also known as the stake-driver, or thunder pumper.

Truly descriptive words aimed at helping a would-be observer find the location of this infamously elusive bird. Filling their gullets with large pockets of air and then releasing it as part of a mating ritual, this bird has managed to come back from the brink of extinction in the 19th century with the help of habitat management and laws forbidding the hunting of this once coveted roast dinner.

Life and death

With naming comes attributes, and with attributes comes personalities, and personalities make for a great story. Birds the world over are immortalised in tales of rebirth and disaster,bright omens, and dark warnings.

Symbolising eternal life, most of us know the story of the phoenix, a mythical bird that perishes in flames and then rises again from its own ashes, over and over again. Many ancient cultures also believe that the world began with a bird.

Egyptians believed that the Earth was created by a long-legged heron called Benu. Asian creation myths credit the land and sky being created from two ostrich eggs. But one of the most modern prevailing images of birth is the stork. It is thought that the image of a stork carrying a newborn baby in its beak comes from the size and whiteness of the bird, symbolising great purity, with its wide nest high above the ground providing a safe and protective environment for the young.

The image of the European robin is unavoidable at Christmas, emblazoned on cards, wrapping paper and all manner of decorations, despite being resident all year round. This link to the religious festival is not just about the red breast looking great against a backdrop of pristine snow, though.

The robin is considered one of the world’s holiest birds. In one tale, the robin burned its chest fanning the flames of a fire to keep the baby Jesus warm, and in another a robin helped to ease the crucified Jesus’ pain by plucking the thorns from the crown around his head, the blood permanently staining that little bird’s breast.

The robin is considered one of the world’s holiest birds.

Owls are associated with wisdom and intelligence, but in fact the size of an owl’s brain is actually quite small, and tests have shown that they are less trainable than crows, hawks, parrots and pigeons. In Ancient Greece, so impressed by the owl’s solemn appearance, the queen Athena declared the owl a symbol of protection, and if one flew over Greek warriors during battle, victory was certainly assured.

However, in Roman times, it didn’t matter whether they were IQ-busting polymaths or the village idiot – if a centurion was unlucky enough to hear an owl hoot on the wind, they believed this would surely lead to a grisly demise, and it is said that an owl hooted just before Julius Caesar, Augustus, Aurelius and Agrippa died.

The word “cuckold”, alas not used as much these days, means the husband of a woman who has taken a lover, and comes directly from the Old French cucu, which of course is that intruder of other bird’s nests, the cuckoo, known in folklore as a sign of infidelity. To hear it call on your wedding day surely spells disaster for the marriage.

Courtesy of Norppa, Wikimedia Commons

Due to the abundance of corvids in the world, their jet-black plumage and the fact that they are generalist feeders and will dine on pretty much anything, crows are usually associated with death.

Their collective noun is literally amurder of crows, and after battles, they could be seen picking the meat from the bones of the fallen, earning them the moniker “carrion” crow. Some in England believe the country will fall if the ravens that live there ever leave the Tower of London.

Crows are also believed to carry the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and they certainly don’t do themselves any favours by hanging around graveyards, ominously staring glassy-eyed across the tombstones.

Lost words?

They will bring you your truest love and then take it right back away from you. They will promise victory, and then silently circle over your defeat.

Labrador twister, skunkhead, bloodfool, Lady of the Twelve Flounces; so many names for so many birds. In one story they will bring you your truest love, and in another, take it right back away from you. They will promise victory, and then silently circle over your defeat.

Birds may well be blissfully unaware of the legends they have aroused in our world, but every single nation on this planet has, and will for years to come, sing songs and tell tales of their actions, both fanciful or real; and our language is all the richer for it.

It would be a great disservice to the imaginations of our ancestors to let these names and tales pass into history unspoken, so we hope that this post has inspired you to find out some of the names your neighbourhood birds may have, and some of the antics they could have gotten up to, a long time ago.

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