In my youth, way back in the early seventies, my birdwatching exploits took place mainly within the parish boundaries of the little village of Flamstead, not too far from St. Albans. I was a lucky lad as the bird life around the village was prolific and it wasn’t difficult to see many different birds on a day’s walking, perhaps taking in five or six miles of strolling across the fields and through the woods which thankfully, are still present to this day.
I would delight at the abundance of some species and bemoan the absence of others… Sparrowhawks were very rare, Buzzard, Raven and Kite non-existent, whereas Tree Sparrows were abundant as were Yellowhammers and Skylarks with House Martins nesting under many old and newer eaves, not something seen there today sadly. Some of the older villagers used to refer to these birds by their familiar country names; so for instance, Tree Sparrows were Hill Sparrows (the scientific name of Passer Montanus gives a clue to this name), Skylarks were sometimes Laverocks whilst Fieldfare were Jack Birds or even Felties.
Wood Owls and White Owls were there; Wood, Brown or Tawny Owls nested regularly in the old chestnut trees bordering the churchyard as well as some of the tall beeches in one of the local woods whilst White or Barn Owls were in a very few of the old farmyard barns.
Most of the old villagers were former egg collectors so would tell me where they had collected clutches of Butcher Bird eggs (Red-backed Shrike) amongst the furze and hawthorns near to Trowley Bottom, the next village along, whilst several pairs of Cobweb Birds (Spotted Flycatchers) nested back then within the village itself. How to locate difficult-to-find nests of Nettle Creepers (Whitethroats) or Titlarks (Meadow Pipits) was explained to me, as well as locating the commoner birds’ nests of species such as Dishwashers (Pied Wagtails), Ray’s Wagtails (Yellow Wagtails), Scribblers or Scribbler Larks (Yellowhammers – from their egg markings) and Ebbs or Common Buntings (Corn Buntings) who nested only upon the ground in the corn fields there and required careful and prolonged watching to find their little nests.
These were very observant people and whilst we cannot see their egg-collecting obsession as being either justifiable or acceptable, they did provide an indication of just how much field observation and patience went into their understanding of these birds’ habits and habitats.
Bottle Tits or Oven Tits (Long-tailed Tits) were clearly named from their beautifully constructed nests but Least Willow Wrens (Chiffchaff or Willow Warblers) were more well-known through their size and habits. Nested in the same Beeches as the Tawny Owls, there was even a pair of Yaffles or Rain Birds (Green Woodpeckers) – named after their familiar yelping calls and perhaps the clarity of those calls prior to rain showers.
Older publications gave regional country names as well as many more and a copy of Reverend J.C. Atkinson’s British Birds and Nests, which an uncle gave to me when I was around eight years old, has a wonderful collection of these.
Some as mentioned, stem from descriptions of the nests or eggs whilst others refer to size comparisons, plumages, habits and songs; Night Warbler you will not be surprised to learn is the older term for both Reed and Sedge Warblers whilst the Dunnock or Hedge Sparrow, the latter a name not often used these days, was also known as the Shuffle-wing from the female’s habit of surreptitiously doing just this when advertising herself to a male who may not actually be the father of her current clutch of eggs!
Many of you will undoubtedly know of the Norfolk Plover or the Thick-knee – the Stone Curlew – as well as Johnny Frenchman – the Red-legged Partridge – from their origins and distribution in this country. But who would guess that the Holm Screech was a Mistle Thrush (in early literature spelled as Missel Thrush) or that the Mavis or Throstle was the Song Thrush! The Tinkershere was the Guillemot whist the Curlew was the Whaup, presumably from its brief alarm calls – what wonderfully evocative names!
Some of the older names are now making a resurgence too. The Northern Wheatear is a name once used in Victorian times (along with Fallow Smack, Clodhopper, Fallow Finch and Chackbird ) and is now the modern name for the same bird. The Northern Fulmar is another such name making a comeback as opposed to simply the Fulmar whilst the Victorians’ Barn Swallow is the currently accepted name for the Swallow.
But it is the Snake-Bird or Emmet-hunter – the Wryneck – or the Fern Owl, Jar Owl, Evechur or Goatsucker – the Nightjar – which stir the boyish imagination in me still of ornithological treasures now largely lost to us or rarer yet than they were. The origins of many names are steeped in the history of our countryside.
The Goatsucker name, incidentally, referred to the Nightjar’s believed habit of creeping up upon sleeping goats and using its extraordinarily wide gape, latching onto and then sucking the milk from their teats and of course, causing it to go sour in the process! They were often killed because of this!
Even modern names have historically interesting backgrounds; Barnacle Geese were so named because it was thought even until the mid-nineteenth century that they over-summered at the bottom of the sea and that the black, white and grey Goose Barnacles often found attached to washed up driftwood were in fact the geese hibernating in a larval form prior to hatching out into the adult birds. This was actually believed by several eminent naturalists including the great Gilbert White of Selborne fame no less who also recorded the fact that Swallows hibernated in winter at the bottom of ponds because they were seen skimming across the water surface prior to disappearing in late Autumn.
The origins and explanations behind these old names give a fascinating insight into the thinking of our ancestors and their beliefs about the habits of species which they couldn’t possibly have known about other than through their own observations. In many ways it is a credit to their detailed observations which gave us these older names and, although we think now that we have the definitive names, family orders and species nomenclature readily available in the myriad publications available to us, who can possibly say what these same birds will be known as in another century?
We should remember too that similar such names exist for many insects, plants, mammals and fishes and that a whole history of observation and recording from as far back as the fifteenth century awaits examination, much of which is as relevant today as it was when it originated from the naturalists of old.
I like to think that by referring to many of the older records and publications still available, understanding what they are referring to with regards to habitat, habits and perceived abundance, then applying just a few of the older and wiser methodologies to maintaining our countryside, it may be possible to bring some of these species’ declines back to more acceptable levels and assist too in the preservation of habitat and especially breeding success.
It is not only our modern more scientific approaches to species management which can assist in these recoveries; look at the success birds such as Nightingale and Turtle Dove are experiencing at re-wilding projects like as those at Knepp in Sussex and Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk, sensitive habitat management from far back re-establishing a naturally controllable balance between managed farmland and nature.
Muir Fowl (Red Grouse) are now managed so intensely on shooting estates to the almost total exclusion of other moorland species that their habitat is now often described as ‘moorland desert’! If these fragile moorland ecosystems are kept in such parlous states, it is entirely possible that the very grouse they are designed to cater for may well die out due to the lack of the bio-diversity so essential for maintaining a balanced environment…no variety, no heather! This wasn’t the case even only fifty years ago when the moors were more sympathetically maintained.
It was in a publication from the nineteenth century where I first understood how Turtle Doves nested in small, loose colonies and that their breeding success depended upon such relationships. I can recall clearly finding groups of up to ten pairs nesting within a few yards of one another but never singly in the woods around Flamstead during the seventies, but failed to connect this behaviour to breeding success as our early naturalists with their quaint beliefs in hibernating Barnacle Geese and Swallows had done.
The RSPB were unaware of this when I contacted them about their own Turtle Dove management schemes some years back. They drew comparisons to the Passenger Pigeons of North America who eventually fell to extinction, with the last lonely bird being Martha who was kept in Cincinnati Zoo until she died in 1914 after the last known males had died in 1910. They had ceased breeding several years before because of their inability to nest alone; there being a finite number of pairs required for successful reproduction in the tiny and sparsely separated colonies, they were forced to try and breed in – with extinction being the inevitable result!
I leave you with the thought that whilst Cushats (Wood Pigeons), Harry Redcaps (Goldfinches), Aberdervines (Siskins) and Cobblers-Awl Ducks (Avocets) are still in a relatively stable position with some species such as Buff-backed Herons (Cattle Egrets) and Mire Drums (Bitterns) actually increasing in numbers, it is a sobering fact that the majority of familiar British bird species are now in decline, some on what would appear to be a straight line leading to extinction here! The Wrekin Dove (Turtle Dove) and Solan Goose (Gannet) as well as the poor old Bonxie (Great Skua) are having a very hard time here now through both habitat loss and change, shooting pressures and latterly, Avian Influenza … all conditions brought about by modern, intensive land-management practices in one way or another.
We know so much about our birds that it is a travesty that we are seeing such huge declines now. Perhaps we can find more clues to assisting their recovery based upon older references in historical natural history literature where our forbears gave names to species reflecting their close observations and association with the countryside. May the Yeorling, Black Bonnet, Sheep-Stare and Lint-White continue to thrive and prosper as they did over a hundred and fifty years ago and indeed, only thirty years back too!