It is difficult these days to imagine this country being so connected to nature that each county could have its own folk-names for the wild animals that lived alongside us humans. We people are now so removed (in our heads) from wildlife that most British people would be hard-pressed to describe what a Nightingale looks like, or a Cuckoo. Yet there was a time when ordinary, hard-working folk had names for each and every plant and animal around them – names which were different county-to-county and even between villages. There are, I think, two main reasons the majority of these names have been forgotten – because our society as a whole has lost its once close relationship with nature and also because our society has become international and communication is everything.
These days it makes sense to have just one English name per species for the sake of communicating with people across the country and around the world, so that we all know what we are talking about. But back in the day people rarely traveled outside of their own county (or even village) and sending any sort of long-distance communication could take weeks. So, as long as everyone in the village knew what a Woofell was (a blackbird) it didn’t matter if the people in the next county hadn’t a clue what they were on about.
I love all of these different country names for wildlife, especially bird names, and although I realise it isn’t practical to keep using them today I still feel that they oughtn’t to be forgotten. Although some of these names may sound ridiculous, most of them had simple meanings – they were usually either descriptive of the birds’ appearance or behaviour, or they were onomatopoeic; based on the birds’ call or song.
So here is a list of my favourite lost country bird names:
- An Eagle (either species) was called an ‘Erne’ – some mountain peaks or hilltops in England bear this name, revealing their old distribution.
- Owls had good names because of their unusual appearance and harsh calls; ‘Billy Wix’ and ‘Pudge Owl’ referred to the Barn Owl, ‘Horn Coot’ or ‘Hornie Hoolet’ referred to the Long-eared Owl, and ‘Ferny Hoolet’ to the Tawny owl.
- Possibly the coolest bird name ever is for the falcon now known as the Hobby – ‘Riphook’.
- Kestrels were called ‘Hoverhawks’ or ‘Wind-fanner’, for obvious reasons.
- No idea why but the Merlin was once ‘Tweedler’.
- Song Thrush – also ‘Mavis’.
- A Bullfinch was called a ‘Nope’ or ‘Alp’ – maybe onomatopoeic?
- ‘Shufflewing’ is now the Dunnock – a good bit of behavioural observation.
- The Wren – ‘Stumpy Toddy’. I defy you to read that name without grinning.
- The Goldcrest was once called ‘Woodcock Pilot’ as it was once assumed they hitched lifts on the back of woodcocks to cross the North sea on migration, as no-one believed such a small bird could make the journey by itself.
- An apt description of the Jay’s call – ‘Devil Scritch’!
- ‘Sheep-stare’ is now called a Starling, retaining the latter part of the name.
- Chaffinch is a common bird so it has a lot of old names, my faves are ‘Flackie’ and ‘Boldie’.
- Great Tits were known as ‘Pridden Prals’ for reasons I cannot fathom, also ‘Bee-biter’ which risks confusion with the bee-eater.
- I love this one for the Blue Tit – ‘Pickcheese’.
- ‘Black Hatto’ for the Black-headed Gull is a bit obvious.
- We know Magpie is a corruption of ‘Meg-pie’ but ‘Pianet’ is quite a poetic name for this oft-maligned bird.
- ‘Aberdevine’ is a brilliant if confusing name for the Siskin.
- The Whitethroat had a name that describes its song-flight: ‘Singing Skyrocket’.
- ‘Bighead’ for Greenfinch is just insulting!
- Goldfinches are so pretty they were showered with lovely names including; ‘Sweet-William’ and ‘King Harry’.
- ‘Little Woodpie’ is a very cute name for the Lesser-spotted woodpecker.
- There is a touch of Roald Dahl to the name ‘Clodhopper’, or as we know it, the Wheatear.
- Redstarts are always trembling their tails when perched, which gave rise to their alternate name of ‘Flirt-tail’.
- Nightjars have many alternate names, almost all referring to their weird ‘song’, if it can be called that, but the best might be ‘Scissors-grinder’.
- Saving the best ’till last, the ever-lovable Long-tailed Tit has hundreds of folk names among which some of the best and funniest are: ‘Bumbarrel’, ‘Jack-in-a-bottle’ and my absolute favourite – ‘Hedge Mumruffin’!