Where did the English names for birds come from (and where are they going)? I discussed a few weeks ago some of the onomatopoeic bird names (cuckoo, for example), but many of the common bird names currently in use derived from other sources indicating some aspect of the bird’s appearance, place of discovery, or habits (real or imagined).
The earliest English bird names mainly came from their native German names in the first millennium CE. Old English was the oldest form of English spoken in England and the southern and eastern reaches of Scotland in the early Middle Ages (400-1000 CE) and many birds can be clearly identified in the texts and glossaries from that period. Some have fairly obvious modern-day equivalents:
- ganot: gannet—‘ganot’ meant “strong, or masculine” and came from the same Old German root as the word “gander”
- snĪte: snipe—from the Old English ‘snȳtan’ from the Proto-Germanic ‘snūtijaną’ which meant ‘to blow the nose’, presumably referring to the bird’s call
- mōrhenn: moorhen
- swealwe: swallow, and more specifically ‘hūs-swealwe’ for house-martin
- ceaffinc: chaffinch
But others are no longer in use (in some cases, thankfully, in my opinion):
- ðisteltwige = goldfinch; literally ‘thistle-tweaker’
- secgscara = corncrake; literally ‘sedge-scraper’
- stangella = kestrel; literally ‘stone-yeller’
- wōrhana or rēodmūða = pheasant, introduced to England and became established probably in the 11th century CE; literally ‘mountain hen’
- pāwa = peacock, also introduced and established on some English estates by the end of the 11th century CE; possibly onomatopoeic
In the 1990s, Peter Kitson (Univ Birmingham) wrote in rich detail about the identity and origins of bird names in the Old English texts. As he points out, those old names came mainly from Germanic names rather than from the Latin where most English plant names originated. He surmises that this might indicate that common folk were more likely to have names for different kinds of common birds than they did for plants. He also notes that in Old English “Words are given for most land birds from about cuckoo-size up, but not so many for water birds, and few distinctions are made among waders, sea birds, or what modern ornithologists call warblers and some despairing amateurs ‘little brown jobs’.” 
From those early Middle Ages on, the common names of birds changed—as did the English language—with the expanding population, regional dialects and greater awareness of the distinctions among different species. In the 1880s, Charles Swainson compiled the names of common birds from both folk-lore and regional dialects across England and Scotland, and several books have since been published on the sources of common names in use today.
While not as ancient as Old English, one enigmatic regional English bird name from the 1500s and 1600s is the ‘Spowe’. Alfred Newton’s superb Dictionary of Birds published in 1893-96 says:
But my colleagues Fred Cooke and Tim Birkhead question that interpretation in a recent paper in Archives of Natural History . Briefly, they argued that the evidence points, instead, to the ‘spowe’ being the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica). In the records  of the L’Estrange family estate in Norfolk from the early 17th century, they read that ‘spowe’ were delivered to the L’Estrange estate between September and February, suggesting that they were winter visitors and not passage migrants. At least today, the whimbrel does not winter in Britain.
All of this interest in the common names of birds is largely curiosity driven, but the question about extant bird names comes up time and again among ornithologists and can be quite contentious. I will review some of that tumultuous history in later posts, but today I want to highlight two current concerns about common names.
First, should we agree on standard common (English) names to be used worldwide? This makes sense to me as it provides some consistency across checklists, field guides and scientific publications. But now there are at least 3 world lists of birds (Clements, IOC and the Handbook of Birds of the World) where different common names are sometimes used for the same species. On the IOC World List website they now say “A step towards improved alignment with the Clements/eBird world list is one of the motivations for this change [in revisions]” which is a step in the right direction.
Individuals will often use regional names for birds, but it would be useful to have a universally accepted list of official common names, I feel. My British colleagues will no doubt forever call Uria aalge the Common Guillemot while I call it the Common Murre, no matter which name becomes the official moniker.
Second, how should ‘new’ species be named when they are discovered (increasingly by molecular analysis) to be hiding within already-named species? The North American Classification Committee (NACC)—the AOS committee that produces the AOS Checklist of North and Middle America Birds—apparently has a ‘rule’ that when a species is split, new names have to be found for both of the ‘new’ species. This makes no sense to me, and in fact has been inconsistently applied by the committee. I, for one, like many of the original common names because of their link to history, even when they are technically inappropriate (Cape May Warbler Setophaga tigrina—a species that was formerly, at least, rarely seen on Cape May) or obscure (Myrtle Warbler Setophaga coronata) rather than descriptive (Yellow-Rumped Warbler, as the Myrtle Warbler is now called).
I don’t think that history has much to tell us about the right answer to these two questions, except possibly that both issues will be contentious and may never be resolved.
- Cooke F, Birkhead TR (2017) The identity of the bird known locally in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Norfolk, United Kingdom, as the Spowe. Archives of Natural History 44:118–121.
- Kitson PR (1997) Old English bird‐names. English Studies 78:481–505
- Kitson PR (1998) Old English bird‐names (II). English Studies 79:2–22.
- Newton A (1893-96) A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
- Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.
- Thompson D’AW (1895) A glossary of Greek birds. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2:149–198.
- Quotation from Kitson 1997: 482
- Unfortunately this paper is behind the journal’s paywall so you cannot view any more than the Abstract if you (or your institution) does not have a subscription. If you really want to read it, though, send me an email and I will see if I can get you a copy.
- These records are in the ‘Household and Privy Purse Accounts’ of this aristocratic family. Cooke and Birkhead (2017) say these accounts “give a surprisingly complete picture of the daily lives of this family in much of the 16th century, including foods consumed, the activities of the farmlands they administered, and a few details of events in their lives. Of particular interest to ornithologists is the fact that wild-fowlers periodically brought birds shot or occasionally captured alive into the kitchens where they were sold, or given in exchange for rent. ”IMAGES: peacock and pheasant from British Library, in the public domain