"Almost no birds today have vernacular names. Bird names have become standardized, homogenized, conscripted into what is considered proper by scientists for classification. A century ago a birder could have told what county, even what village, he was in by the folk name for a long-tailed tit. In his Treatise on the Birds of Gloucestershire, W. L. Mellersh collected no fewer than 10 local names for Aegithalos caudatus, the long-tailed tit, among them long Tom, oven-bird, poke-pudding, creak-mouse, barrel Tom, and in the south of the county, long farmer. For John Clare in Northamptonshire the long-tailed tit was, delightfully, the 'bumbarrel' (p. 97)."
Lewis-Stempel is referring, of course, to birds in an English context (his particular property is located in the west of Herefordshire bordering Wales). The relationship between farmers and the land in Britain stretches back millennia, from the first pre-Celtic and Celtic agriculturalists through the Anglo-Saxon period, the Norman invasion, and beyond. But the relationship between humans and the land in North America can be traced back equally as far. Even if we ignore for a minute (probably unwisely) aboriginal and non-English "common" names for birds, European colonization of North America has now entered its sixth century. It would therefore be appropriate to assume that vernacular bird names as diverse as those listed by Lewis-Stempel existed - or indeed continue in use. Can we, at least, look back a century to the names an English-speaking North American birder might have used in various locations?
Happily, this is possible - to a point. I asked a question about vernacular names on a Facebook birding group to which I belong. The group came up with several names (including "mud hen" for American Coot, "wild canaries" for Goldfinch and Yellow Warbler, "marsh hawk" for Northern Harrier, "blue bill" for Ruddy Duck, "butter butt" for Yellow-rumped Warbler, "Holstein/Saskatchewan pheasant" for Black-billed Magpie, and "chicken/sparrow/pigeon hawk" for Kestrel), but one poster (C. Prins) gave me the name of a book he picked up in Montana a while back called Birds Every Child Should Know by Neltje Blanchan, published in New York in 1907 (this book is made available in its entirety for free by Project Gutenberg here).
In addition to very poetic descriptions, Blanchan's book includes different vernacular names for about a third of the hundred or so birds that are included. These range from the sublime to the spectacular, from the perfectly descriptive (of morphology, song, or habitat) to the completely obscure. Here are a few of my favourites:
- ► Tufted Titmouse: peto bird, crested tomtit
- ► White-breasted Nuthatch: tree mouse, devil downhead
- ► Yellow Warbler: summer yellowbird, wild canary
- ► Ovenbird: the teacher, the accentor, golden-crowned thrush
- ► Cedar Waxwing: cedar bird, cherry-bird, bonnet bird, silk tail
- ► Chipping Sparrow: chippy. door-step sparrow, hair sparrow
- ► Kingbird: bee martin
- ► Least Flycatcher: chebec
- ► Nighthawk: bull-bat, night-jar, mosquito hawk
- ► Flicker: high-hole, clape, golden-winged woodpecker, yellow-hammer, yucker
- ► Yellow-billed Cuckoo: rain crow
- ► Belted Kingfisher: the halcyon
- ► Cooper's Hawk: big blue darter
- ► Barn Owl: monkey-faced owl
- ► Woodcock: blind, wall-eyed, mud, bigheaded, wood, and whistling snipe; bog-sucker, bogbird, timber doodle
- ►Little Green Heron: poke, chuckle-head
- ►Black-crowned Night Heron: quawk, qua-bird
Blanchan (her full name was Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday), a scientific historian and nature writer born in Chicago, was writing barely 20 years after the American Ornithologists Union first standardized North American bird names in the Checklist of North American Birds (1886 - earlier checklists had existed as far back as 1858 in different parts of the continent). The Checklist, and bird naming in general, is serious business; now in its seventh edition (with supplements published yearly), the hardback edition runs to some 829 pages! The subject is fascinating, and far too complex to get into in much depth here.
Regardless, Blanchan's book hints at the close relationship that undoubtedly developed between birds and English-speaking workers of the land in North America over the last half-millenium. She ends the introduction to her book with a happy paragraph:
"Interest in bird life exercises the sympathies. The child reflects something of the joy of the oriole whose ecstasy of song from the elm on the lawn tells the whereabouts of a dangling "cup of felt" with its deeply hidden treasures. He takes to heart the tragedy of a robin's mud-plastered nest in the apple tree that was washed apart by a storm, and experiences something akin to remorse when he takes a mother bird from the jaws of his pet cat. He listens for the return of the bluebirds to the starch-box home he made for them on top of the grape arbour and is strangely excited and happy that bleak day in March when they re-appear. It is nature sympathy, the growth of the heart, not nature study, the training of the brain, that does most for us."