Today I have brought you an article from the category: Knowledge we don’t actually need in everyday life and that is precisely why we keep it in mind.
Those who know me well know that ornithology has long been close to my heart and that in this context I make a tiny contribution to improving the climate, at least in my garden. Recently, when I was looking for a gift for a friend with whom I share a passion for observing wild birds, I came across the German book “The Names of European Birds” by Viktor Wember. It is scientifically structured, with a lot of diverse information and an attempt to derive or explain both the German and scientific names of the birds.
For example, did you know that the name skua – a large seagull known in N. America as a “jaeger” (the German for “hunter”) – comes from the Faroe Islands? Well, now you do. The skua steals food from the beaks of other birds in flight or attacks gannets in the air until they give up their prey. Its Latin name Stercorarius means “belonging to dung”! The food disgorged by other birds when pursued by skuas was once thought to be excrement. “Stercorarius skua!” also sounds like a Harry Potter spell: “Flying shit, be gone!” accompanied by an elegant wave of the magic wand.
Not every bird’s name can be explained conclusively. Take the curlew, for example, which I observed last year in March on the Lüneburg Heath. Its name in German is “Brachvogel”, indicating perhaps that it is an inhabitant of fallow land. But it is not. It lives exclusively in wet meadows. The word “Bracher”, which comes from Middle High German, means braggart. The name in English comes from the Greek : “neos’ meaning new and “mene” for moon referring to its long bill, which is about a third as long as its body. No European bird has a longer one. Only in the Amazon rainforest does a hummingbird live whose beak is longer than its body because it slurps the nectar of a very specific plant that is found deep inside the funnel-shaped flower. Fantastic creatures!
But back to Europe.
The name lapwing is thought to derive from an Old English term meaning ‘leap with a flicker in it’. If you get too close to its nest and threaten its brood, it flies around you, sometimes fluttering to and fro behind your shoulder. I know how it feels when Vanellus vanellus attacks (I didn’t scare him on purpose, honest). A quick retreat on my part then calmed him down too, and I watched other attacks on runners, walkers or strollers from a safe distance. But it could also be that his sounds gave him his name. In German it is “Kiebitz”, in English it is also known as a peewit, imitating its call.
Another bird is named just like what it does: the bee-eater (Merops apiaster). “Admired by birdwatchers but feared by beekeepers: Both the older German name Immenwolf (“Imme meant “bee”) and the name Bienenfresser testify to beekeepers’ fear of this bird.” (Wember, p. 147)
Incidentally, the scientific name of an animal is often much older than the German or English name, since all scientific records were written in Greek or Latin by their authors, some of whom were famous (Wember also provides detailed lists of these). The recording of observations of nature began with the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle. Among the ancient Romans, it was Pliny who documented many observations. Incidentally, Latin was the language actually spoken and written at European universities until the 18th century. Scientists cannot be credited highly enough for developing an artificial language for flora and fauna that is still valid today. By naming genus and species, a two-word nomenclature was created that helps to document precise observations and to name new species. And it makes it possible to communicate and understand each other. When hardcore birdwatchers or “twitchers” meet, they often speak in scientific gibberish. Actually, just like in other disciplines.
“The duplication in the scientific name is explained by the rules of nomenclature, but nevertheless “Crex crex” renders the always two-syllable ‘creak’ of the corncrake.” (Wember, page 111). If you want to hear more crex crex, I recommend the page Xeno-canto ( https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Crex-crex ). Wember describes many different derivations for the scientific names.
Anyone who has heard the monotonous, annoying, endlessly repetitive song of the Common Chiffchaff, for example, knows why it is called that. However, its scientific name puzzles me: Phylloscopus collybita. The Latin word “collybista”, means money-changer, suggesting the sound it makes, which leaves me at my wit’s end and Mr Wember too. While we’re on the subject of songbirds: the blackcap has the loudest song in relation to its total body length in our bird paradise. Otherwise, it is a small grey bird with – surprisingly – a black cap (Sylvia atricapilla). In German its name (Mönchsgrasmücke) suggests a similarity with a monk’s tonsure.
The oriole, so-called for its golden colour in English, is called “Pirol” in German – “…like the cuckoo and hoopoe – is named in some languages after its striking voice.” (Wember, p. 182) And anyone who has heard an oriole singing in the forest ( https://www.deutsche-vogelstimmen.de/pirol/ ) will not forget it. By the way, despite its bright yellow plumage, it is difficult to spot: it flies only (!) in high treetops and never (!) at eye level or close to the ground.
The sparrow, on the other hand, likes to be close to humans, which is also reflected in its scientific name: Passer domesticus, the house sparrow.
And what does the house martin have to do with flour? The house martin – known in German as “die Mehlschwalbe” – “meal swallow” – is the only European bird whose underside is pure white from the throat to the root of the tail, including the feet (!). “Anyone who even has white feet must have been in flour.” (Wember, p. 154).
There is much more I could describe from this wonderful book. For example, at the end of the bird descriptions, Wember has added a “Small Vocabulary” with selected Latin and Greek words used in the scientific names. Anyone who enjoys language will get their money’s worth here.
Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO