7,000 English bird names have a changing relationship with nature: The Tribune India


Oxford (United Kingdom), June 22

I will never forget hearing my first nightingale. It was May 8, 1980, and as a recent graduate in environmental biology I had moved to Oxford.

While looking for a job, I volunteered my time to transcribe bird recordings for the Oxfordshire Biological Records Scheme based at the County Museum. Here, I discovered that the nightingale, a bird that had escaped me so far, was not uncommon locally. A friend from the museum advised me the best place to look for one.

And so, at ten o’clock, on a calm, calm moonlit night, I found myself four miles east of Oxford. Without circulation or artificial light to disturb the stillness, I heard an absolute silence pierced only by the unmistakably rich music that I had waited for so long.

My notebook indicates that I saw and heard five distinct nightingale voices that night: from Whitecross Green Wood a mile to the north, Waterperry Wood to the south, and Bernwood Forest to the southeast.

As an ornithologist, I knew that these birds had arrived in recent weeks from West Africa, risking their lives to cross the Sahara and join this choir. Here they directed their voices to any female nightingale that passed, announcing that they had found a suitable place to continue to create magic.

Ten years later, the M40 motorway was extended beyond Oxford, cutting off the landscape and drowning the nocturnal music of nature with the roar of traffic. One by one, these ancient woods fell silent.

Over the following years, I was delighted to discover other nightingales around Oxford at Brasenose Wood, Otmoor Spinney and even in a garden in Kidlington. I met five male singers at Wytham Woods in 1982, where I had found work as a research assistant, and where I discovered that the sweet song of the nightingale mingled at night with the heady scent of honeysuckle.

My experience with the nightingale was holistic. He brought all the things together – the weather, the place, the sights, the sounds, the scents, my lived experience – into a sharper perspective.

From ornithology to ethno-ornithology

My research on bird names suggests that such bird encounters have always been part of a deeper and largely unrecorded human history.

Echoes of these relationships reach us in the documented folk names of birds. In English alone, more than 7,000 names have been recorded for some 150 species of birds in the British Isles, with even more in Scottish Gàidhlig, Irish Gaeilge, Welsh Cymraeg and Cornish Kernewek.

Each different name recalls a context of a folk encounter with birds: sometimes these encounters are perceptible, sometimes they are obscured by the distance of time and culture. Names such as Sally Wren (for the willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus), Polly Dishwasher (the yellow wagtail Motacilla alba) and Tom-in-the-wall (the wren Troglodytes troglodytes) suggest a wealth of potential links to the birds experienced by our ancestors .

For example, the name “troglodyte” implies a small bird, as does the name “Tom” (as with the folk character Tom-thumb). But “Sally” is etymologically both a girl’s name, a reference to the bird’s frequent appearance in willows (the Latin name for willow is Salix) and its behavior (“hunting for”, or catching insects). Dishwasher refers to the appearance and movement of the Wagtail near water, while “-in-the-wall” indicates the wren’s nesting location.

The details of these names provide valuable information about the cultural context in which they were invented. The inclusion of an element in the bird’s name indicating familiarity or close friendship, such as a first name, is surprisingly common. In fact, it appears in one or more of the names of 62 of the 78 songbirds.

These elements suggest that the names were coined by people creating memories with and for their children rich in birds – experiences that included birds as beloved members of the family.

Evidence such as this also indicates that until fairly recently the people of the UK were not only deeply familiar and at ease with nature, but also possessed a sophisticated knowledge of the ecology and behavior of wild birds – regardless. of any scientific framework.

Recognize the kinship of life

My colleagues Karen Park, Felice Wyndham, John Fanshawe and I created the World Atlas of Ethno-Ornithology for people to document, record and share their names, folklore and bird encounters. We do this work in part because, like the nightingale, the world is losing its voices – many of which are indigenous peoples – to speak out against habitat destruction. But we also hope to inspire new encounters that benefit both birds and humans.

By 2000, nightingales had disappeared from all the sites where I had known them. One by one, they had fallen prey to human development, habitat modification or loss, or increased risks imposed on their migration.

Researchers and activists have long pointed to man’s growing disconnection from nature and the “extinction of experience” that this implies.

My own recent research suggests that over 40% of UK-born undergraduate biology students cannot name five species of British birds: give generic names such as ‘duck’ rather than ‘mallard’ or ‘seagull’ Rather than “laughing gull”. As we lose knowledge of the names of birds and other creatures, we also risk losing the ancient and cherished relationship with nature that lies behind those names.

For billions of years, the tapestry of life on Earth has been woven from the threads of countless lives, including our own. Our very survival depends on this tapestry. Conservation science documents the decline in populations of countless species, as well as the various causes and consequences of that decline. But when he asserts these concerns with purely economic arguments as to why they are important, we risk losing sight of a deeper and more vital issue – that humanity is part, and not just an observer, of the web of life. (The conversation)


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