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Britain's Got Birds! [Jun. 11th, 2015|08:54 pm]
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The winner of the poll for Britain's National Bird was announced this morning: it's the robin. On this morning's Today programme the interviewer - was it John Humphrys? - was unimpressed: he'd been backing the blackbird, which came third. David Lindo, the ornithologist who came up with the scheme, explained that the blackbird had seemed set to come second, until they counted the votes of the schoolchildren who had voted on election day: a surge of support for the barn owl ("the Harry Potter effect") pushed the blackbird down into third place. But Lindo seemed pleased that 60% of voters were not associated with any wildlife organisation. It's a clever piece of PR for birds in general, though I see it more as further proof that if you solicit the opinions of people who are not really interested, you will end up with an uninteresting answer.

[ETA: Stephen Collins dishes the dirt on the lovable robin.]

Naturally, I voted for the puffin, with my usual instinct for the popular choice: it came tenth (that is, the least popular of the shortlisted birds; the full list is here). I could make a case for the puffin as our national bird: it is found all round the coast of Britain, and we are a maritime nation. I didn't expect it to win, but I didn't expect it to come last, either. Clearly not Britain's most popular bird, then, but perhaps our most relentlessly marketed.

We didn't see any puffins when we were in the Hebrides (we probably saw more starlings than anything else): I'd have been more disappointed if I'd been less surprised. Puffins on postcards, on mugs, in artworks of all qualities and none, in calendars, yes, and I may have purchased one or two. But the actual puffins nest in specific places, and these are on the smaller islands. We could have taken a boat trip from Stornoway to the Shiant islands, and if it hadn't been so wet and windy we might have, but as it was, the prospect wasn't inviting, and no right-thinking puffin would have hung around outside its burrow. Likewise, if we had made it to St Kilda, we'd probably have seen some puffins there.

This is what Martin Martin wrote about his visit to the island in 1695 or thereabouts:
The scraber, so called in St. Kilda; in the Farn Islands, puffinet; in Holland, the Greenland dove; its bill small, sharp pointed, a little crooked at the end, and prominent; it is as large as a pigeon, its whole body being black, except a white spot on each wing; its egg grey, sharp at one end, blunt at the other.


The bouger, by those in St. Kilda so called; coulter-neb by those in the Farn Islands; and in Cornwall, pope; it is of the size of a pidgeon, its bill is short, broad, and compressed sidewise, contrary to the bills of ducks, of a triangular figure, and ending in a sharp point, the upper mandible, or jaw, arcuate and crooked at the point; the nostrils are long holes produced by the aperture of the mouth; the bill is of two colours; near the head, of an ash colour, and red towards the point; the feet are yellow, the claws of a dark blue; all the back black, breast and belly white. They breed in holes under ground, and come with a south-west wind about the twenty-second of March, lay their egg the twenty-second of April, and produce the fowl the twenty-second of May, if their first egg be not taken away; it is sharp at one end, and blunt on the other.
I knew that puffinus puffinus is not a puffin, and presumably Martin's scraber / puffinet is some kind of shearwater. The bouger, or coulter-neb is the puffin. A coulter is the blade of a ploughshare, so coulter-nose is a fine tribute to the puffin's impressive beak.

And one last piece of ornithological etymology, to which I was directed by one of WordSpy's Monday round-ups. I know the Yiddish word to kibbitz, to spectate with audible and unwanted commentary (I associate it with the game of chess, but not in a good way). I hadn't known that it derives, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from the Middle High German word for a lapwing which apparently has "a folk reputation as a meddler. ... Young lapwings are proverbially precocious and active, and were said to run around with half-shells still on their heads soon after hatching."

Which brings me back to my starting point, because my second favourite bird (one which didn't even make the top 10) is the lapwing.

From: cmcmck
2015-06-11 08:01 pm (UTC)
We saw ridiculous numbers of puffins on the Castle of Burrian on Westray which is the best place I know for seeing them, especially during the late evening when they come back in from fishing.

Tammy Norrie on Orkney, Tommy Noddy on Lundy.

Edited at 2015-06-11 08:01 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-12 10:49 am (UTC)
Good to know that the numbers are high! But how close can you get to Castle of Burrian? For sheer proximity, the best places I know for puffins are Inner Farne, and Sumburgh Head on Shetland.

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From: cmcmck
2015-06-12 11:00 am (UTC)
On the cliffs right opposite and they nest on the cliffs too.

Talking to a local expert, they seem to be doing well at Burrian but not elsewhere on Westray, which is odd.

Sand eels, availability of, seems to be the issue as usual
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2015-06-11 08:15 pm (UTC)
Pope! That is perfect. Now I am wondering if there is any correlation with the way the fleshy bit at the back of a chicken is called the 'pope's nose', or if both are just symptoms of the same derogatory impulse.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-12 01:48 pm (UTC)
I really do not know. I don't even know whether there would have been a derogatory impulse towards the pope in Cornwall at the end of the seventeenth century.

The German name is 'papageitaucher' or 'parrot-diver', which is also perfect, in its way. And I can imagine hearing the 'papa' bit of that, and deciding it had something to do with the pope. But I've no reason to think that that actually did happen (or that there's any connection between Cornwall and Germany that makes it even likely).
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2015-06-11 08:24 pm (UTC)
I don't think I've seen a puffin in the wild. I'd love to. I'm surprised the starling didn't do better, but I think of it as being demonstrably British thanks to Mary Poppins talking to one. The robin isn't interesting, but it is kind of a default.
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From: cmcmck
2015-06-11 08:27 pm (UTC)
I think people enjoy the robin's cheeky nature and the male's song.

If you're doing stuff in the garden, they invariably come along to keep you company and see what you might turn up that's edible and they show no fear at all. :o)

No sign of the sparrow either, which surprised me.
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[User Picture]From: steepholm
2015-06-11 08:47 pm (UTC)
Perhaps the sparrow vote was split between hedge and tree?
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-12 10:53 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: steepholm
2015-06-12 12:07 pm (UTC)
You win £25!

Seriously, though, I won't let sparrows in the house. No table manners...
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-12 10:53 am (UTC)
The sparrow is probably too plebeian for whoever made up the shortlist. But I think you're right about why the robin did so well. And as David Lindo said, it's the bird everybody can recognise...
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From: cmcmck
2015-06-12 11:02 am (UTC)
I'm also plebeian, which is probably why I have a soft spot for sparrows! :o)
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[User Picture]From: durham_rambler
2015-06-11 09:56 pm (UTC)
Come to England between May and July and we should be able to show you some puffins.

Oh, and American robins and British robins are different birds. Ours are smaller and don't fly away in the winter. Which is why you see them on Christmas cards.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-12 01:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, and American robins and British robins are different birds.

As, of course, are British puffins and California puffins...
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[User Picture]From: nineweaving
2015-06-12 01:35 am (UTC)
From the wonderful Folk-lore of Shakespeare by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer:

Lapwing.—Several interesting allusions are made by Shakespeare to this eccentric bird. It was a common notion that the young lapwings ran out of the shell with part of it sticking on their heads, in such haste were they to be hatched. Horatio ("Hamlet," v. 2) says of Osric—

"This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head."

p. 125

It was, therefore, regarded as the symbol of a forward fellow. Webster 1 in the "White Devil" (1859, p. 13)—

"Forward lapwing!
He flies with the shell on’s head."

The lapwing, like the partridge, is also said to draw pursuers from her nest by fluttering along the ground in an opposite direction or by crying in other places. Thus in the "Comedy of Errors" (iv. 2), Shakespeare says—

"Far from her nest the lapwing cries away."

Again in "Measure for Measure" (i. 4), Lucio exclaims—

"Though ’tis my familiar sin,
With maids to seem the lapwing, and to jest
Tongue far from heart."

Once more in "Much Ado about Nothing" (iii. 1) we read—

"For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs,
Close by the ground, to hear our conference."

Several, too, of our older poets refer to this peculiarity. In Ben Jonson's "Underwoods" (lviii.) we are told—

"Where he that knows will like a lapwing fly,
Farre from the nest, and so himself belie."

Through thus alluring intruders from its nest, the lapwing became a symbol of insincerity; and hence originated the proverb, "The lapwing cries tongue from heart;" or, "The lapwing cries most, farthest from her nest."

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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-12 11:06 am (UTC)
Excellent. Thank you!

I hadn't come across the lapwing drawing intruders away from its nest: I think of it taking wing and shouting from a height, rather than running along the ground making a noise.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-06-17 06:50 pm (UTC)
though I see it more as further proof that if you solicit the opinions of people who are not really interested, you will end up with an uninteresting answer.

Good point. Sometimes you have to explain to people why something is interesting... which is often too much effort.

I wish the Latin nomenclature for puffin were Puffinus puffinus; that would be wonderful.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2015-06-17 08:11 pm (UTC)
Puffinus puffinus is another bird altogether, a manx shearwater: I find that even more wonderful. And if the puffin were puffinus puffinus, it wouldn't be our little northern brother, which would be a pity.

So for once, all is for the best...
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