‘Oh look!’ I remarked, ‘There’s a great tit on the fat balls!’ My Canadian visitor sounded taken aback: ‘That’s not the sort of thing you hear every day!’ On the contrary, you hear it quite a lot in my house – but then the penny dropped: of course, they don’t have tits in Canada: or if they do, they don’t call them that. What explorers and settlers have been doing for ages, however, is to give familiar names to unfamiliar fish, flesh and fowl, perhaps in an effort to tame their surroundings by way of homely words?
The American robin looks more like a thrush – possibly because it is in fact a thrush, Turdus migratorius. Google helpfully reminds me that it was presumably this bird that the special effects people had in mind when Mary Poppins does a duet with a very strange avian in the supposed heart of London? And the American sparrows are more closely related to European buntings (Emberizidae) as they are to the Euro-Asiatic Passeridae.
The American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) is in the same family as the European dipper (Cinclus cinclus), but it looks more like a large, big-footed wren than its white-throated counterpart, and it must have been the familiar darting through water that gave it its name before the binomial system pinned it down. (Incidentally, there is also an Asian dipper, Cinclus pallasii, named for Peter Simon Pallas, the naturalist and explorer of Siberia.)
Equally interesting are the numerous local or dialect names used inside England for the same bird. Here are just a few from the invaluable Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (with illustrations courtesy of the equally invaluable Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds).
The bluetit can be: elicompanie, wagstert, betty-tit, heckemal, pinchem, jenny-tit, archangel, and (still surviving) tomtit.
The long-tailed tit does even better: huggen-muffin, bottle-jug, bottle-tit, billy-featherpoke, mum-ruffin, canbottle, bom-barell, bag (and, of course the amorous titmouse, though Wright does not cite him/her).
The pigeon (a lot of onomatopoeia going on here): coushot, cooscot, zoo-zoo, blue-rock, woodculver, queest.
The woodpecker (as with the owls below, it’s not clear which variety is meant, though the variations on ‘yaffle’ suggest the call of the green woodpecker): eat-bee, hefful, yaffle, haiho (or heyhoe), dirt-bird, woodhack, hickle, yuckel, pickatree, hecco, greenpeak, nicker-pecker, gally-bird, yelpingale, wodake.
The chaffinch is: roberd, apple-bird, sheely, yellow-homber, pinkety, pink, spink, twink, white-wing, scoby, ribinet, piefinch.
The yellow wagtail is clearly associated with water (like the dipper): dishwasher, wash-disk, barley-seed-bird penny-wagtail, water-swallow, moll-washer.
As for the owl: gill-hooter, billy-wix, povey, hullard, horncoot, margery-houlet, pudge, hill-hooter, houting, jenny-hooker, ullet, jack-baker, will-a-wix, wullard, madge-howlet, huhole.
Finally, the heron: hern (and female molhern), yron, yerne, harnsey, crane, frank. (The last, from Suffolk, is a complete oddity.)
All of which raises again the question I briefly pondered some years ago in another place: why didn’t the gentlemen naturalists attempting to bring order to the ‘non-descript’ world about them ask the fellows who cut the hay? But perhaps that would have led to even greater confusion …