Monday, 19 September 2016

The migrant Greylag is no laggard

The Greylag (Anser anser) is a large grey goose, the Anser ancestor of most domestic geese and the bulkiest of the geese found in Europe. It can be distinguished from other grey geese by its large head, thick neck, dull pinkish legs and heavy pinkish-orange bill.

In the UK, truly wild Greylag occur only as winter visitors to Scotland and Northern Ireland, to which they migrate in autumn from their breeding grounds in Iceland. Elsewhere, particularly in eastern England, the Greylag has become established as a resident species after being released in suitable areas. These non-migratory birds tend to be semi-tame and can be found around gravel pits, lakes and reservoirs, just like the introduced Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese with which they often associate.

By now, the more prescient readers will have noticed that I call the species Greylag rather than Greylag Goose. That is because I have always understood that the “lag” part of the name is an old word meaning goose, so that referring to the bird as Greylag Goose is tautological. 

But recently, after coming across a couple of Greylag at my local birding patch, where they are not regularly found, I started wondering whether I was right about the origin of the name. So I checked a range of online dictionaries (via the wonderful OneLook metadictionary) and was surprised to find that only two sources seemed to agree with me. 

One of these, the mighty Oxford Dictionary, states that the name has its origin in the early 18th century and that lag is an old dialect word for goose, of unknown origin. The other, Wiktionary, says that lag is an old name for a goose “derived from the call used to move such animals along”. Oxford agrees that “lag” was formerly used in calling or driving domesticated geese but suggests, not unreasonably, that the call was derived from the name rather than the other way about.

But apart from those two sources, every online dictionary that ventures to offer an origin for the name states that “lag” is a reference to the bird’s supposed habit of remaining in Britain relatively later than other migratory wild geese before setting off for its breeding grounds. 

This claim seemed to me to be nothing but crass folk etymology, since I was not aware of any evidence for a delayed spring migration for this species. So I decided to check. And what did I find? I came across a study carried out for the British Trust for Ornithology suggesting that, rather than lagging behind other wild geese, Greylag actually tend to leave their winter quarters in Scotland significantly earlier than their grey goose relatives. 

Combining records for Scottish departures and Icelandic arrivals between 1950 and 1997, the study reported that the greatest Greylag movement was from April 11 to 15, compared with April 17 to 21 for White-fronted Goose, April 25 to 28 for Brent Goose, April 26 to 30 for Pink-footed Goose and April 27 to May 1 for Barnacle Goose. 

I rest my case. Far from being castigated as a slowpoke, the wild Greylag should be lauded as a migratory pacesetter. Labelling it a laggard is clearly wrong. The Oxford/Wiktionary etymology must surely be right and the other dictionaries are all mistaken. 

So I am justified in continuing to call the bird just a Greylag rather than a Greylag Goose.

No comments:

Post a Comment