Tuesday, 25 April 2017

British Birds

I have been busy with various projects for Two Bad Mice, one has been to spend some time to learn how to use the "brushes" on Photoshop.  The virtual brushes are very sophisticated, allowing the user to mix paints and change the consistency and amount of paint on the brush tips.  To develop my new skills I made some digital paintings of British birds .  

Please help me expand this post by letting me know your local names and stories about these birds.

The Gregarious House Sparrows Passer domesticus

My Grandfather used to call them Spadgers. The male can be recognised by his black bib and more vivid markings. Local British names include sparrow, sparr, sparrer, spadger, spadgick , spug , spur or Sprig (Scotland)  Spatzie or Spotsie (N America)  from the German Spatz which has a common etymological root with speed 

House Sparrows, as their name implies, are rarely seen far from human habitation.  It is thought that they are descendent from weaver finches that cohabited with stone age people on the fringes of the Mediterranean.  A clever adaptation because ever since they have co-evolved with us and followed our species around the world, today they are the most widely distributed birds on the planet.  In recent years the British population has declined dramatically, this might be because we are better at recycling our waste and protecting our grain on our farmsteads.

Such strong associations generates rich traditions and myths; the ancient Greeks associated sparrows with Aphrodite, Goddess of Love.  Cattalus Lesbia, a famous Roman poem, used the sparrow as a symbol of true love and spiritual connection, but during the medieval age this idea had degenerated into seeing sparrows as lustful, as is echoed by later writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare.

In the bible Jesus says "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?"  These themes about their intrinsic value, pluckiness and speed are embedded in the etymology of their old name and are constantly resurrected, reinvented and transferred into new popular memes like those surrounding "The Cockney Sparrers", a punk band. 

The Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula

The Bull Finch’s voluptuous pink breast and white rump make it one of the easiest birds to identify, but for many birdwatchers its call, a low mew, is often the first signs of bullfinches being present. They feed voraciously  on the buds of fruit trees in orchards which why they are sometimes called Bud Finch, Plum Birds or Bud Pickers (Devon).  There is a theory that the name Bull Finch may be a shortening of Bullace Finch. (Bullace being the Tudor name for the wild plum trees that were cultivated in medieval orchards).

The more widely believed theory is that Bullfinch got its name from its large thick head and stocky form, as happened with bull dog and bull frog.  Some birdwatchers claim to have seen the birds head-butt other finches off the bird table.  Other folk names include Alpe, Nope, Pope and Monk.

The Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

"Charms" of Goldfinch will often be seen feeding in meadows on thistledown and teasel.  This love of prickly plants has led to the birds being associated with Christ’s Passion.  The story goes
that a goldfinch flew down to the cross and pulled a thorn from Christ’s brow leaving the bird’s faces splashed with the blood of Christ.  Goldfinch are often place  in medieval pictures of the Madonna and child, sometimes the goldfinches are in Christ’s hands forewarning us of the crucifixion, the birds are also placed next to John the Baptist and Saint Jerome.  Other common names are "Saviour bird”, Thistle Tweaker and Thistle Finch. (There must be many other names for these very distinctive birds)

In the 19th century Goldfinches were were caged like canaries and renowned for their beauty and pretty song.  

Long Tailed Titmice
  Aegithalos caudatus

Long Tailed Tit (mice) are amongst our smallest birds.  They use their tails as a counter-balance to flit–tumble from branch to branch.  In winter large family groups come to our gardens announcing their arrival with high-pitched, rolling calls of “si-si-si-si-si" and a distinctive trilled ‘tsirrup: Once you’ve learnt to recognise their call you will always know a flock of long-tailed tits are in the vicinity.

When Spring arrives they pair off to build nest coccoons of wool and moss bound and felted together with spiders webs, lined with feathers and camouflaged with lichen flakes.  Inside a single female will lay up to 15 eggs.  When broods fail, as often happens, the parents move on to help their brothers and sisters raise their extended families of nephews and nieces.
There was a time when every English village would have had its own name for these birds.  Some referred to their appearance:  Long Toms,  Long-tailed Muffins (Worcestershire), Hedge Mumruffins, Bush Tits,  Kitty Long-tails,  Fluffits and Juffits,  Feather Pokes, Long-tailed Magsor and Millithrums (Miller’s Thumbs) other names refer to their nests;  Oven Birds, Oven Builders (Lothian) and Bush Ovens (Norfolk), Barrel or Bottle Tits (Berkshire)  and Bum Barrels (Nottingham)

The Robin  Turdus migratorius

Robins are bold opportunists that follow us around to cash in on insects and worms we expose when walking through rotting patches of leaves or whilst gardening with our spades, they can become extremely tame and some will feed from the hand.  In medieval times it was popular to give birds human names as in Jack Daw and Jenny Wren.  Robin, was originally a diminutive of Robert, Chaucer called them "Tame Rudducks" which is perhaps an older name.  Other common names include Bob Robin, Bobbies, Ploughman's Bird, Robinet and Robin Ruck.

There are many stories about how the Robin got a red Breast, one is that it was scorched whilst fetching water for the souls of purgatory.  Another legend has it that the Robin’s breast became stained red with blood of Christ whilst it sang to ease his pain on the cross, but this is not the reason why the bird occurs on our Christmas cards.   The birds association with Christmas cards grew up in Victorian times when there was a tradition that the postman would deliver your Christmas cards on Christmas day, the postmen wore red jackets and were nicknamed Robins.   

The Blue Tit on Acer  Cyanistes caeruleus

Blue tits, well known for their love of collecting peanuts from the winter bird table, time their breeding cycle to coincide with the feast of green caterpillars found on young Oak leaves in May. During the summer months the parents can be seen hanging upside down inspecting the underside of leaves for small grubs, spiders and aphids on which they love to feed.  Later in the year they support themselves on berries and seeds and return to the bird tables.
The most common English name Blue Titmice is of 7th century Norse origin: ttr = small and Mase = bird which together translates as "small blue birds".  Other common names include  Blue Cap, Blue Bonnet, Blue Ox-eye, Blue Spick (N Devon), Nun, Tree Babbler (Cornwall), Pinchem (Bedfordshire), Tinnock, Yaup, Bee Bird (Hampshire), Willow Biter, Billy Biter (Midlands), Pickcheese (Norfolk), Tom Tit, Hickmall, Heckymal and Titmal (West Country).

Mute Swan Cynus olor

Mute swans, the commonest swan native to Europe, are easily identified by the black knob atop their orange beaks.  They mate for life and return to the same nest every year which they defend by hissing aggressively and chasing away intruders.  Otherwise they do not have much voice, just grunts and hoarse whistling, which is why they are called mute swans.  It is strange that these birds have a long mythology with how beautifully they sing if only they would try.  Even their name, swan, which has descended unchanged from the Old Saxon word swan or suan. Danish svane, Dutch zwaan, German schwan, Icelandic svanr and Swedish svan is derived from the Indo-European root *swen or *swon (to sound, to sing).   The very name mute Swan is an oxymoron!

Looking on Google it seems to me that there is compelling evidence to suggest that ancient cultures mentally matched the necks of swans with the shape of their bronze age trumpets called lures.  We know that Celts had similar instruments that they would take into battle.

Danish Bronze-Age Lur; 13th-5th Century B.C. (Wikipedia)

even their helmets looked like swans

An Gallic Iron Age helmet in the shape of a swan (wikipedia)

These instruments are even earlier, and appear on
Scandinavian rock carving from 100 BCE.  The ancient stories about swans are constructed as if the Bronze age people were frustrated that mute swans were hiding their natural abilities.

Norse rock carvings with swan necked lures  

Aesop, 6th century BCE, has two fables mentioning swans that only sang after they had been threatened with death, and under this duress they sang beautifully.  

500 years later Pliny seems quite angry about this myth of singing swans, in his Natural Historie he tells us  "some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals,and eat one another's flesh."

But Pliny's words fell on deaf ears, 500 years later Isidore of Serville is still telling stories that swans "singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck".  Another 500 years later Bartholomaeus Angelicus is again giving us the same reason to think swans can sing beautifully and adding news about a fabulous country where this happens; "it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily"

This theme connecting to swans, beauty and death together is adopted in one of classical ballets most popular dances “The Dying Swan”, and again in the final act of Swan Lake where a swan maiden dies to release herself from the curse of the evil Von Rothbart.
On a more optimistic note swans are symbols of flourishing beauty, most famously in the tale of the ugly duckling that unknowingly grows into a beautiful swan.  A particularly lovely idea can be found in Indian Mythology where swans are symbols of unworldly, untouchable beauty because when you put their feathers in water they do not absorb water or get wet.  


The Sparrow

Catullus Lesbea's Sparrow

All you Loves and Cupids cry
and all you men of feeling
my girl’s sparrow is dead,
my girl’s beloved sparrow.
She loved him more than herself.
He was sweeter than honey, and he
knew her, as she knows her mother.
He never flew out of her lap,
but, hopping about here and there,
just chirped to his lady, alone.
Now he is flying the dark
no one ever returns from.
Evil to you, evil Shades
of Orcus, destroyers of beauty.
You have stolen the beautiful sparrow from me.
Oh sad day! Oh poor little sparrow!
Because of you my sweet girl’s eyes
are red with weeping, and swollen.


The Goldfinch 

Madonna and Goldfinch by Raffael 1505-6 (Wikipedia)

The Swan

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] (Aesop: The Complete Fables (London, 1998) Temple 173): A man kept a swan for its voice and a goose for the table. Wanting to eat the goose, the man went out in the dark to get it, but caught the swan by mistake. The swan, thinking it was about to die, began to sing, and was recognized by its voice. (Temple 174): A man bought a swan because it was reputed to have a fine voice. One day, to provide entertainment at a feast, he urged the swan to sing, but it would not. Later, relizing it was about to die, the swan began to sing. His owner said "It was foolish of me to ask you to sing; I should have prepared to kill you, and then you would have sung!"
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 32): Some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this (says Pliny) is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals, and eat one another's flesh.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:18-19): There are two kinds of swan: one has all white feathers and is called olor the other is black and is called cygnus, though this one is not mentioned by the ancients. The cygnus is named from its singing (canendo) because it pours out song with modulated sounds. Its singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck and its voice, in struggling to get out through the winding way, necessarily emits various notes. Some say that many swans gather and join in with song when the cithra is played in the Hyperborean regions. Sailors say that the swan is a good omen.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The swan feigneth sweetness of sweet songs with accord of voice, and he singeth sweetly for he hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes. And it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily. Shipmen trow that it tokeneth good if they meet swans in peril of shipwreck. Always the swan is the most merriest bird in divinations. Shipmen desire this bird for he dippeth not down in the waves. When the swan is in love he seeketh the female, and pleaseth her with beclipping of the neck, and draweth her to him-ward; and he joineth his neck to the female's neck, as it were binding the necks together. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)  http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast237.htm