We, and other cultures, have a language spattered with bird related words and sayings. These can be based on the appearance and behaviour of birds as well as language which related to our interactions with birds such as hunting, farming and domesticating them.
dead as a dodo, to parrot, a brood, a gaggle, silly goose, twitter on, crow over, proud as a peacock, a bit of a magpie, like a vulture, swan song, get in a flap, bird brained, birds eye view, hawk eyes, raven hair, nesting, headless chicken…
How birds got their names
“Mark was saying ‘the birds don’t know they have names’. Watching them I thought who cares what they care called? But do I have the courage not to care?”
– Thomas Merton
Bird names come from their appearance, their voice, their behaviour, their habitat etc and this means you can read backwards as it were and learn something about a bird based on it’s name. By the way, when I say name I mean common name, I’m not about to delve into latin here…
When it comes to appearance the blackbird feels like a good example. There is also the redshank (shank is an old word for leg), goldcrest, bluebird and so on. Hummingbirds have some amazingly poetic and descriptive names, and in terms of naming a bird based on appearance, surely the Blue-Throated Goldentail has to be up there with the best!
Some are less obvious. Robin used to be rudduc meaning little red one. Then it got called redbreast, and as a nickname Robert redbreast. Later Robert would get shortened to robin and here we are. It’s still up for debate but the penguin may have got it’s name from it’s appearance as well. Possibly having derived from welsh pen gwyn which means white head.
Naming birds after their vocal sounds gives us such onomatopoeic names as cuckoo, chiff chaff, whip-poor-will. And even birds who’s names don’t seem to be based on vocal sounds can be, eg the stone chat’s name derives from stone clink and stone chatterer as its call sounds like two stones being clinked together.
Behaviour wise we have the woodpecker, wagtail, kingfisher (as in king of the fishers). The nuthatch is also named after it’s behaviour, having a habit of wedging nuts in trees and hacking at them to open them. The name nuthack got turned into nuthatch.
For some birds we can tell a lot about their habitat based purely on their names: moorhen, Canada geese, sky lark, reed bunting, arctic tern and mangrove hummingbird are just a few examples.
And of course some birds are named after or by the people who first identified them, giving us Bewick’s Swan, Wilson’s Snipe, Bonaparte’s gull…
The following 12 minute talk takes a quick look at bird names and how these vary regionally:
Birds as symbols
We have individual species of birds as symbols but we also have the idea of birds more widely. As creatures of earth, air and water, they transcend boundaries and provide us with powerful metaphors. They can be considered to move between worlds and we’ll see a lot more of this when we look at folklore. They are like us, warm blooded with two legs and yet they are so unlike us when they take off.
We use birds as metaphors for ourselves, their passage through air as traversing time. We use them as metaphors for freedom and escape as well as for beauty, poetry and the music of the soul. They show us it is possibly to move beyond the mundane and into the spiritual, carving a path for spiritual awakening. Even their collective names are evocative of creativity; murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows…
Folklore, mythology and story telling have both created and utilised some of these symbolic meanings and I’ll be looking at themes for birds (more generally) within folklore in my next post. In terms of species specific symbolism, we have a vast array of choice. And because there are so many birds and they are found across so much of the world, many cultures have developed their own symbolic language when it comes to birds.
We have the nightingale, used as an icon of poets, a symbol of song and beauty. There are dodos who’s sad demise has led them to be used as a metaphor for extinction and obsolescence. The dove who is a signal of peace and the phoenix one of rebirth. There is the albatross, a psychological burden, the robin and Christmas and so on.
If you find this interesting and want to know more about specific birds you might want to have a look at:
- Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate which looks at 30 species of birds and the stories and beliefs associated with them.
- Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts by Venetia Newall offers a brief look at a wider range of birds as well as animals, primarily UK based creatures from what I recall.
- Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend by Marianne Taylor and Rachel Warren Chadd is a beautiful book that I borrowed from the library last year and very reluctantly returned it (on time of course).