Life

Take on Nature: How Irish names can tell us more about a bird than English ones

A grey heron, known as corr eisc – the fish crane – or, particularly in Co Tyrone, corr mhóna – ‘bog crane’ – in Irish
Stephen Colton

SHAKESPEARE, in his play of doomed romance Romeo and Juliet, wrote the famous lines, 'What’s in a name? That which we call a rose /By Any Other name would smell as sweet’.

The phrase implies that the importance of something lies not what it is called but in the way it is and how it behaves. Birdwatchers often refer to the ‘jizz’ of a bird when describing some aspect of its behaviour or movement. The ‘jizz’ is specific to the bird and such knowledge can be a very useful aid to identification of a species which is some distance away or can only be seen in poor light.

It’s a ‘mannerism’ or habit unique to a bird group or individual, like the way a blackbird cocks its tail upwards after landing on a perch, or the synchronised movement of great crested grebes while performing their elegant courtship display in spring, facing each other in an upright position in the water before pressing their breasts together and shaking heads from side to side.

Cormorants, also birds of water, frequently stand on rocks with wings outstretched on a sunny day, a pose which readily identifies them, and which also puzzles ornithologists, unsure whether the bird is taking up a relaxed position to aid digestion or simply standing to dry its wings.

The familiar sight of blue-tits hanging upside down on branches as they flit through tree leaves searching for grubs is another example of a trademark behaviour, as is the gliding of a buzzard with its broad, rounded wings in a shallow ‘V’ soaring on the thermals of a summer’s day.?

Learning to recognise the ‘jizz’ of a bird takes time and patience but it is a very rewarding way of identifying birds. I have always been interested in the capacity of the Irish language to capture so well the ‘jizz’ of birds by the names given to different species. Frequently the Irish words not only name the bird but additionally capture its personality or core through a reference to some behavioural trait. Its association with a habitat may also feature.

There many examples, but a few are worth highlighting. The aforementioned cormorant has, as one of its Irish names, cailleach dhubh, the black hag or witch, prompting thoughts of its troubled existence in human history, with its voracious appetite for fish.

Preabaire na mbánta, one of many names given to the magpie, translates as ‘hopper of the fields or pastures’, a routine regularly performed by the bird as it hops on both legs through a field. Variations include pocaire na mbánta – ‘frolicker of the fields’ – and bocaire na mbánta – beggar of the fields – both of which hint at its mischievous and thieving nature.

Scréachóg reilige describes our ghostly barn owl as the ‘graveyard screecher’. The grey heron has the names corr eisc – the fish crane – or corr mhóna – ‘bog crane’ – often used in Co Tyrone, both referencing the bird’s liking for wetland habitats.

The secretive little grebe or dabchick found in lakes and ponds is given the name, tomaire beag – ‘little diver’ accurately describing its incessant diving habit. The kestrel, long admired for its mastery of flight, especially in windy conditions, has the Irish name pocaire gaoithe meaning wind frolicker, reflecting the bird’s uncanny ability to play with the wind and even use powerful gusts to hang motionless in the sky.

The Irish language eloquently captures the essence and character of our birds as it does much of our other native wildlife. Look upwards and take time to observe and enjoy the ‘jizz’ of some local birds.

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