Sunday, 16 November 2014

A murmuration about birding words

The fanciful word “murmuration” means the act of murmuring, complaining or grumbling. Ultimately derived from Latin, it is first known in English from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which The Parson’s Tale (c.1390) includes a sentence beginning,“After bakbitynge [backbiting] cometh grucchynge [grouching] or murmuracioun . . .”.

For more than 500 years, the word has also been used as a collective noun for the Starling. It first appeared with this meaning in The Book of St Albans of 1486, an assortment of essays on hunting, hawking, fishing and heraldry. An appendix to the hunting section, written by St Albans prioress Dame Juliana Barnes, gives a gallimaufry of group names, including murmuration of starlings, gaggle of geese, parliament of rooks and exaltation of larks.

Few of these collective terms have remained in common use. Most are either long-forgotten or employed only pretentiously or jokily. But murmuration is different from the rest in that it has now acquired a precise, practical application. Instead of being found only as a jocular tetrasyllabic alternative to “flock”, murmuration has been used in recent years specifically to describe the spectacular aerobatic displays that large flocks of starlings treat us to on autumnal evenings before they settle down to roost at dusk.

By back-formation from this new usage, we now also have the verb “to murmurate”, meaning to engage in murmuration or to gather together for murmuration. You will not yet find the verb in any dictionary but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before it is accepted.

I do not mind “murmuration” being used in this new and more functional way, but I do tend to engage in disgrunted murmuration about the way wildlife commentators are now abusing another birding word — fledge. If you believe the BBC’s Springwatch team you will think that a young bird fledges by taking its first flight away from the nest. No, it doesn’t. That definition is not in any dictionary. 

For hundreds of years, the verb fledge has related not to the action of leaving the nest but to the acquisition of the strong wing feathers that will sooner or later allow the young bird to take its first flight. There is always an interval between fledging and flying, since the fledgling (as it can now be called, rather than a nestling) needs to spend time exercising its wings and building up muscle strength before it can finally fly the nest. This may take many days in the case of some larger species.

By misapplying the word fledge to the bird’s first flight, Springwatch has devalued its centuries-old original meaning. The word first appeared in Middle English, when it simply meant feathered, and is derived ultimately from the Old English root word flycge, meaning “having feathers, or fit to fly” — fit to fly, but not necessarily flying.

By the way, and getting back to murmurations, no one knows why Starlings gather in huge flocks to perform their aerial ballets. It may be to attract other Starlings to join them and increase the size of the flock, either because large numbers confuse potential predators or because roosting in dense flocks helps Starlings to keep warm overnight. If you have seen a recent murmuration and want to help with murmuration research, you may wish to complete a Society of Biology survey here.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Doomed Sibes

Every autumn UK twitchers begin to twitch with excitement at the prospect of catching up with rare vagrant songbirds that turn up in small numbers in western Europe after leaving their breeding grounds in the temperate regions of eastern Europe and Asia. Many of these small passerines are known among birders as “Sibes” because their main summer haunt is in Siberia. 

These drifters are almost always juveniles on their first migration — birds that have somehow got their navigational knickers in a twist. Many should have migrated south-east to spend the winter in tropical regions of Asia, but they reach north-west Europe because they have a misaligned internal compass and have set off in the opposite direction. 

These vagrants may appear anywhere in the British Isles, but they are most commonly found on islands at the edge of the Atlantic, such as Fair Isle and the many islands of Shetland and Orkney, where they stop to build up their reserves before attempting to continue their misguided journey over the vast expanse of the North Atlantic. 

Many of these birds are identified after being trapped at bird observatories, such as the famous establishment on Fair Isle, or by bird ringing groups on other islands (or, indeed, anywhere on the British mainland). 

The main purpose of these ringing schemes is to check the movements of individual birds and to discover how long they live. But the chance of learning anything from UK-ringed Sibes is remote because, after their brief break for R&R, most of them will continue doggedly in the wrong direction, setting off across the Atlantic until exhaustion causes them to flop into the waves and either drown or succumb to a pelagic predator. 

We know this is their fate because researchers on the Faroe Island have attached tiny radio transmitters to vagrants such as Yellow-browed Warblers and Barred Warblers and tracked their direction of departure once they have refuelled (see here).

Here’s a recent example of a doomed Sibe. A first-winter female Siberian Thrush — an extremely rare vagrant to western Europe — was trapped and ringed at Husøy in Norway on 24 September 2014. Three weeks later it was recaptured at Scousburgh on Shetland Mainland, 600 miles to the south-west. Perhaps it had followed the Norwegian coast and then turned west when the coastline veered off in a more easterly direction. After its Scousburgh recapture at dusk on 15 October 2014 the thrush was released but was not seen again. Presumably, like other disorientated Sibes, it carried on over the Atlantic until exhaustion led to its watery denouement somewhere in the vastness of the ocean. 

Knowing all this, I cannot get too excited by the annual appearance of Sibes in western Europe. Instead, as a birder rather than a twitcher, I find it dispiriting that these disorientated young birds are almost certainly heading for an early death.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Loony bird names

I recently completed a crossword puzzle in a British daily newspaper in which one of the clues was “Migratory seabird”. The answer turned out to be Arctic Loon. I found this annoying because no one on the eastern side of the Atlantic refers to Gavia arctica as an Arctic Loon. In the Old World its long-established English name is Black-throated Diver.

But even more annoying than this crossword puzzle’s Americanism is the attempt by the International Ornithological Committee to make everyone use the contrived compromise name Black-throated Loon. 

Why should we be forced to call the bird a loon when the name diver is a far better description? Dictionaries define a loon as someone who is clumsy, stupid or crazy (or, in archaic usage, a rogue or a person of low rank). In what way do birds of the Gavia genus fit this description? In contrast, the word diver describes them beautifully, since all five Gavia  species are excellent underwater swimmers. Changing the bird's name is loony. 

I have written previously about attempts to persuade birders to use artificially concocted new names for birds that can supposedly be confused with other species. A prime example of stupid new names is the ludicrous Zitting Cisticola, which the taxonomy wonks now expect us to use for the Fan-tailed Warbler (Cisticola juncidis). This bird has a wide range in the Old World, being found across southern Europe, Africa and southern Asia and down as far as northern Australia. Its English name is accurate: it’s a warbler and it fans its tail. 

So why does the International Ornithological Committee insist on changing the bird's name? Because some upstart American species (Basileuterus lachrymosus), normally confined only to the Pacific slopes of Mexico and Central America, has also been dubbed a Fan-tailed Warbler. 

Why can’t we just label the New World species as an American Fan-tailed Warbler and leave our Old World warbler alone? After all, the bird-name despots are happy for us to use the names European robin and American robin for two other species on either side of the Atlantic that have a vaguely similar appearance but are not closely related. 

In any case, where is the proof that confusion ever arises? If there is ever a risk of bewilderment, we can always fall back on the birds’ unique Latinised binomials. That is precisely why these specific names were devised.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Is that a pebbly shripp I hear?

Last year (1 July 2013), I wrote about popular transcriptions of bird songs, such as the Yellowhammer’s “A little bit of bread and no cheese”. A more accurate rendition would be something like “tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tseeee”, but the memorable bread-and-cheese version certainly helps any non-birder to identify a singing yellowhammer. 

Unfortunately, apart from a handful of species that have simple songs and onomatopoeic names  — such as Chiffchaff, Cuckoo and Hoopoe — few birds have a consistently rendered song that can be represented verbally. One of those few is Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced CHET-ti), whose strident song can be transcribed appropriately as “Hey! You! Cetti-Cetti-Cetti! That’s me!”
Even more difficult to describe are birds’ flight calls and contact calls. To return to the Yellowhammer, when I checked a random selection of bird guides on my bookshelves, I found the following descriptions of its call: 

  • a discordant “stüff”
  • a rather grating “twink” and “twit”
  • a metallic “chip” and “twitic”
  • a rasping “dzüh”
  • a “chick”
  • a distinctive “chinz”
  • a loud “tchick”
  • a ringing “tink”
  • a “twink” or “tweak
  • a “tsrik” or “trs”
  • a pebbly “shripp”

A pebbly shripp? Would any of those renditions actually help you identify a Yellowhammer? 

The best way by far to learn bird sounds is to get out into the field, preferably accompanied by an expert, and listen to the various calls until they are ingrained on your memory. Soon you should, for example, be able to distinguish the Chiffchaff’s soft and plaintive “hu-EET” call from the similarly plumaged Willow Warbler’s slightly slower and more forceful “HU-eet”.  
Nowadays, the next best thing to direct experience in the field is browsing the wonderful Xeno-canto website (, through which birders around the world share their recordings of bird sounds. 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Historic year for Scotland’s ospreys

In the late 1950s, when I was in my early teens, my scout group camped for a fortnight on the Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore. Our campsite was by the side of Loch an Eilein, which translates from the Gaelic as “Lake of the Island”. 

As a fledgling birder, I was intrigued by the island, because I had read that its ruined 13th century castle was the last British nesting site of the Osprey before the species was driven to extinction at the start of the 20th century.

What I did not know at the time — because it was then a closely guarded secret — was that Ospreys had returned to breed in Scotland. Since 1954 a pair had nested annually at Loch Garten, just a few miles from our campsite. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had taken on the responsibility of safeguarding the eyrie, mounting a 24-hour guard to defend it against illegal assault by egg-collectors. 

But then the RSPB had a brainwave. Instead of shielding the existence of the Loch Garten eyrie it could instead protect it through the glare of publicity, which would act as a deterrent to anyone with sinister intentions. The society built an observation site at a safe distance from the eyrie and welcomed the public to view the nest and its occupants through powerful binoculars (and more recently via live webcam images). The Loch Garten Osprey Centre became so famous that millions of visitors have now seen the magnificent birds at their nest.

But 2014 is a momentous year for Loch Garten not only because it marks the 60th anniversary of the Osprey’s return to Scotland but also because one of this year’s chicks will be the 100th to fledge at the site. 

The current occupants of the Loch Garten eyrie, Odin and E.J., have produced three young, which should soon gain their flight feathers and take to the air. They are all believed to be female and have been given the names Millicent, Seasca and Druie. The “cent” element of “Millicent” recognises her potential status as the 100th Loch Garten fledgling. “Seasca” has been chosen because it is the Gaelic word for sixty. And “Druie" comes from the name of the river that flows through the Rothiemurchus fish farm and probably provides most of the food for the osprey nestlings.

Over the past 60 years, Ospreys have gradually spread beyond Loch Garten to many other nesting sites, and they can now be found raising young not only at other Scottish sites but also in England and Wales. And I am pleased to see that one of the Scottish sites the birds have recolonised is a 13th century ruined castle on an island in Loch an Eilein.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Those innovatory nightingales

Ninety years ago, in 1924, the Nightingale contributed to two major technological innovations. 

The first development was the brainchild of a British cellist, Beatrice Harrison, who enjoyed practising outdoors during balmy evenings. In spring 1923, after moving to a house in woodland in Surrey, she was astonished to hear a bird join in with her alfresco performance. Her gardener was able to identify her accompanist as a Nightingale. 

The next year, after her debut broadcast for the BBC, Beatrice hatched the idea of broadcasting a duet with the bird. Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, took some persuading, but at 10.45pm on 19 May 1924 the world’s first live outside broadcast was made from Beatrice’s garden. 

The audience for this BBC breakthrough was estimated at more than a million, and the broadcast attracted 50,000 letters. 

However, it now seems that the broadcast actually featured a well-known bird impressionist called Maude Gould. She had secretly been booked as a back-up in case the BBC equipment and crew scared off the real bird, which they clearly did. But analysis of later broadcasts, which continued for some years, shows that they did feature genuine Nightingales. 

In 1927 a gramophone record made from BBC recordings was another innovation — the world’s first commercial recording of any animal in the wild. 

In 1942 the BBC planned a new broadcast on the 18th anniversary of the first. But at the last minute the sound engineer heard a group of nearly 200 RAF bombers setting off for a raid on Mannheim, Germany. Realising that a live broadcast might help the enemy, he stopped the broadcast but asked for a recording. This was later issued as a gramophone record sold in aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund.  

(The incident also inspired a 1975 album, Nightingales & Bombers, by Manfred Mann's Earth Band.)

Sadly, the BBC has been reluctant to commit to a 90th anniversary broadcast of live Nightingales. But the RSPB, inspired by the hundreds who signed a petition aimed at the BBC, is setting up a live broadcast of Nightingales from 8pm on Sunday 18 May from Northward Hill in north Kent (a site threatened by a nearby housing development that could  drive away these timid birds). You should find the broadcast here: 

And what about the other 1924 nightingale innovation? The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was inspired to include a recording of a singing Nightingale in the score of his patriotic suite “The pines of Rome”. Its premiere on 14 December 1924 was the first use of an electronic recording as part of a live performance of a musical work. Since then, of course, recorded sound has increasingly been used to complement and enhance music written for otherwise live ensembles.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Sheer wacky

I live in north-west London, not far from Brent Reservoir (popularly known as the Welsh Harp after a long-gone waterside pub that laid claim to the lake more than a century ago). Next to the reservoir’s northern branch is a new housing development called Hendon Waterside, where some of the homes are reached via a newly constructed cul-de-sac that has been given the name Shearwater Close.

Presumably this name was intended to reflect the site’s waterside location, but the choice of "shearwater" is sheer wacky because shearwaters are birds of the vast oceans. They spend their lives far out at sea except when breeding, and they certainly don’t breed anywhere near Brent Reservoir. They make their nests in burrows on remote rocky islands, which they approach only under the cover of darkness.

Very few shearwaters have ever been recorded in the London area, And those that have somehow made it into the metropolis have only ever been seen on or close to the Thames rather than in suburbia.

Almost all London's shearwater records relate to the Manx Shearwater, which occasionally in autumn will penetrate the Thames estuary as far as Thamesmead. Extremely rarely, one may even reach a Thames Valley reservoir upstream of London.

But these inland birds often appear exhausted or disorientated. In 2008, a frazzled bird was found in a communal bin-shed in Paddington. In 2009 one was dozy enough to be caught and eaten by a Great Black-backed Gull near the M25 Dartford Crossing. And in 2012, another pooped bird was picked up in Kensington Gardens.

Only two other species of shearwater have ever been recorded in the London area — a Macaronesian Shearwater found dead in south-east London in 1912, and a befuddled Balearic Shearwater seen at a Thames Valley reservoir in 1984.

Although Brent Reservoir has birding records going back to its construction in the 1830s, no shearwater has ever been reported there. But the reservoir happens to offer a wide range of birds that could have provided an appropriate name for the housing estate’s dead-end road. Since the chance of spotting a shearwater near Shearwater Close is virtually nil, how about changing the road's name to an alliterative Coot Close or Cormorant Close? 

Or perhaps Cuckoo Close would more closely reflect the daffiness of the site's developers.

STOP PRESS: Since I wrote this piece, another species of shearwater has been recorded in London: on the morning of 15 September 2016, a Cory's Shearwater was seen and photographed flying south-west over The Regent's Park.  

Friday, 7 February 2014

What is a seahawk?

I have no interest in American football, but I happened to read recently that on 2 February the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl Championship, thrashing the Denver Broncos 43–8. Now I know what a bronco is, but what on earth is a seahawk? It is not a name used by ornithologists.

Before every home game, the Seattle Seahawks release a trained hawk to fly out of the tunnel ahead of the players. Their tame bird is an Augur Hawk (Buteo augur) named Taima (meaning “thunder”), but this African buzzard is not a seafaring bird and therefore cannot properly be called a seahawk. Its diet consists mainly of rodents, snakes, lizards, small birds, insects and road-kill — but not seafood.

Apparently the club wanted to use a trained Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), but because this is a native American species (although also found on almost every other continent), the US Fish and Wildlife Service would not allow its use for commercial purposes. So the team chose the Augur Hawk because it has vaguely similar markings. 

The name seahawk has occasionally been applied to the Osprey, but that description is inaccurate. Although its diet is mainly fish, the Osprey catches its prey in freshwater lakes, or sometimes brackish estuaries and sea lochs, rather than in the open sea. 

It has also been suggested that the term seahawk might refer to skuas rather than Ospreys. The skuas are a group of seven species of seabird that look more like gulls than hawks. Many skuas are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from other birds. A skua will wait until a gull, tern or auk has caught a fish and then attack it, forcing it to drop its catch so that the skua can snatch it.

Skuas will successfully plunder the catches of birds several times their own size. In winter they obtain most of their food through such theft, but at other times of year they eat the eggs and young of other seabirds. The larger skua species also kill and eat adult seabirds.

If I played American football, I am not sure I would want to be compared to such a predatory creature.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Avoiding snarge

Have you ever come across the word “snarge”? If you have not and you have a delicate stomach, then STOP READING RIGHT NOW. 
Snarge is the remains of birds that have collided with aircraft — the bits of flesh and feather, blood and beak that are left smeared across a plane after a bird-strike. No one is sure where the term originated, but it is certainly an evocative expression.
The study of snarge is important in ensuring air safety, since collisions with birds can lead to planes crashing. A well-known incident occurred in January 2009 when a plane taking off from New York’s La Guardia airport hit a flock of Canada Geese at an altitude of about 3,000ft. The pilots saw their windscreen turn dark brown and heard several loud thuds. Then the engines died and the cockpit was filled with the aroma of barbecued wildfowl. The plane ditched in the Hudson River — luckily without loss of human life. However,  worldwide more than 150 people have died as a result of bird strikes over the past 20 years or so.
When a bird strike occurs, air accident investigators need to determine the species involved so that they can work out ways of keeping the birds and the planes apart, in the interest of both air safety and the survival of the species involved. They therefore sample the snarge so that the birds can be identified. The standard collection technique involves spraying the besnarged area with water and wiping it with a clean rag or paper towel, which is then sent away for analysis. 
In the US, some 4,000 snarge samples a year are sent to the Feather Identification Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. When whole feathers can be retrieved, they are matched against the specimens in the museum's collections. When feather remains are too severely damaged for naked-eye identification, microscopes are brought out and the snarge is compared with thousands of slides of feather barbs. And if there is not enough feather even for microscopic comparison, DNA is extracted from the snarge and matched to a database of DNA records from tens of thousands of species.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A quackpot myth

On 7 February 2014, a new television comedy panel game show begins (or began, depending on when you are reading this) on Sky1, presented by Lee Mack, one of my favourite comedians. In each of the eight episodes, three celebrities aided by in-house boffins present weird “facts” and attempt to prove whether they are true.

The title of the show is Duck Quacks Don’t Echo. This is a reference to a popular belief that, er, duck quacks don’t echo.

The idea that the quacking of a duck does not reverberate, and that nobody knows why, has been widely repeated by such authoritative sources as Twitter feeds, online blogs, email trivia lists and even fruit drink bottle caps. The concept is, of course, completely quackers. Why on earth would the call of a duck be exempt from the acoustic laws that apply to all other sounds? 

But the myth is not so crackers that it has been ignored by academic researchers. I learnt recently that a few years ago acoustics scientists at the University of Salford investigated this fantasy with the co-operation of a duck called Daisy (species not disclosed, but presumably a farmyard-type Mallard), which they had recruited from a Cheshire farm. (I have no idea who was stupid enough to fund the research.) 

When Daisy was recorded quacking in an anechoic chamber and also in a reverberation chamber, it turned out that there was no echo in the former (which is, of course, why it is called anechoic) but a reverberant echo in the latter. Surprise, surprise!

If you wish, you can listen to samples of Daisy Duck’s various echoic and anechoic quacks at

Sadly, shortly after the university relieved Daisy of her scientific duties and returned her to her farm, she became dinner for a local fox and has therefore quacked no more. 

But how did the quackpot duck-quacks-don’t-echo myth arise? 

One theory is that although quacks may echo, ducks rarely loiter near suitable reflective surfaces. An echo is only generated if there is a nearby smooth surface, such as a cliff face, positioned at an appropriate angle to bounce the sound back to the listener. 

A second theory is that because quacking ducks — such as female Mallard and Gadwall — tend to quack fairly quietly, their echoes are too quiet to hear.