The last weekend in January sees the return of the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, a project dubbed “the world’s largest wildlife survey”. Originally conceived as a collaboration with the BBC’s Blue Peter in 1979, the aim of the Big Garden Birdwatch is to encourage participants to set aside an hour over the course of a weekend to note what kinds of birds, and how many of them, they can spot in their chosen locations (be it their gardens, a local green space, or even just from their windows). This information helps the RSPB build a picture of the status and behaviour of resident and migratory bird species. The organisation now receives feedback from hundreds of thousands of participants every year.
To mark this ever-popular initiative, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the history behind the names of just a few favourite Birdwatch regulars, as well as considering some of the ways these birds have influenced language we use from day to day in British English.
Probably the most instantly recognisable of the corvids, the magpie’s name actually comes from merging a shortening of ‘Margaret/Maggie’ (once a term used colloquially to refer to a talkative person – a reference to the magpie’s chattering call) and ‘pie’ (from the Latin pica, possibly derived from pikus, ‘woodpecker’). The collective noun for these birds is a ‘tiding’ or a ‘mischief’ of magpies. Contrary to popular belief, studies have indicated that magpies aren’t usually attracted to shiny objects, and may actually be quite wary of them. This hasn’t affected in any way the use of the word ‘magpie’ to refer to someone who is a bit of a hoarder, though.
Another bird that has been christened with a ‘human’ name: prior to the Tudor era, the robin was actually widely referred to as ‘Robert Redbreast’. ‘Robin’ comes from the diminutive form of the same name, maybe indicative of our long-held affection for these colourful little birds. Although you can spot robins in the UK all year round, they are closely associated with Christmastime and, like many a Christmas tradition, this link seems to have been cemented back in the Victorian era, when red-uniformed postmen delivering Christmas letters and cards came to be known as ‘robins’ or ‘redbreasts’. Pleasingly, you can refer to a flock as a ‘carol’ of robins.
The most common pigeon species inthe UK, the wood pigeon’s soft, cooing call is commonly heard in gardens and wooded areas all around the country. Unfortunately, the pigeon family can often have rather a hard time of it when it comes to their public image (largely due to the presence of feral pigeons in urban areas). Interestingly, we tend to have rather different connotations with the word ‘dove’, given its associations with peace and gentleness, and it’s often assumed to be a different type of bird altogether. In fact, pigeons and doves both belong to the Colombidae family of birds, and even the very word ‘pigeon’ is derived from the French pijon, meaning ‘young dove’.
These sprightly, sometimes rather brash little birds are known for their iridescent feathers and their remarkable powers of mimicry – they are known to imitate other birds, mewling cats, even car alarms. But perhaps what comes to mind in the first instance when you think of this bird is watching a murmuration of starlings swoop through the air in spectacular, shape-shifting formations. Such flocks can be composed of thousands of birds, and the word ‘murmuration’ is a reference to the low sound created by their beating wings.
Their bright blue-and-yellow plumage and sociable behaviour – they can often be observed feeding in groups – means that bluetits are welcome visitors to any garden bird table. The first part of the name is self-explanatory; the second is less obvious. ‘Tit’ is a contraction of an earlier English name, ‘titmouse’ – still used for certain species from the same family of birds, particularly in North America. The ‘mouse’ in ‘titmouse’ has nothing to do with the rodent – it is derived from the Old Norse meisingr, meaning ‘kind of bird’, while titta is an old Norwegian word referring to something small.
As their name suggests, the house sparrow has long been associated with human settlements and human activity. They are hardy, adaptable birds, with breeding pairs recorded in a huge variety of habitats – from deep underground in English coalmines, to desert towns in north Africa. Their familiarity with humans has meant we’ve come to associate the word ‘sparrow’ with a cheeky, confident personality – think of the phrase ‘cockney sparrow’, for example. Worryingly, while the house sparrow has continued to top the table for most commonly spotted bird in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch over the years, rapidly falling numbers have been a real cause of concern for conservationists in the UK.
Another frequent visitor to the garden bird feeder, the handsome goldfinch is easily recognised with its bright-red face and the vivid yellow wing feathers that lend it its name. The goldfinch is also noted for its lively, cheerful song, which brings garden birdwatchers a great deal of pleasure, and makes them a popular choice of aviary bird. So it seems fitting that the root word for ‘finch’, the Indo-European affix (s)pingo-, was used to designate ‘chirping birds’. This singing prowess is also the reason we refer to a ‘charm’ of finches – the word is thought to have derived from ‘chirm’, an archaic dialect word used to refer to the chirruping of birds.
If you’re taking part in this weekend’s birding activities, why don’t you tweet us @CollinsDict with the names of some of your favourite feathered visitors? (No pun intended…)
Written by Gina Macleod, language content editor.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.