What’s in a name? Quite a bit you might say if you’ve just had your first child and you’re wondering what you’re going to call them for the rest of their life.
I have been photographing wildlife for around 12 years and watching wildlife for a bit longer. During most of this time, I found that common names for what I was watching, generally, served me well, Everyone in my small world knew what I meant when I said I’d seen a buzzard, a barn owl or a robin.
In 2013, I met two very keen birdwatchers from Scotland who, when I asked for their help in identifying a bird, always gave me the full description to avoid any doubt – common kingfisher, Eurasian hoopoe, Atlantic puffin etc etc. I learned a lot from my new found, very knowledgable, friends and try to continue their practice to make sure nobody is misled when looking at my website.
Which brings me to Troglodytes troglodytes. Sometimes I was confused when I was listening to Rab and Dougie. I couldn’t understand them even though such words as ‘common’ and ‘buzzard’ are pretty much ‘English’. Then I realised that it wasn’t the language but the accent that was causing the problem. The more I listened, however, the easier I understood. But mastering their accents (or mine for that matter) is of little use to someone from, say, China. Throughout the world, scientists needed to understand each other when describing nature so they took to using scientific names, usually derived from Latin, to properly communicate with each other. So, a barn owl became ‘Tyto alba’ – (owl white), and every animal, insect, plant etc was given a scientific name. (If you are sad enough, as I am, to still be able to decline ‘Bellum’ (war) or ‘Puella’ (girl) from your school-day Latin, you’ll know that the noun always comes first.)
Troglodytes troglodytes is my favourite. Whenever I see a wren, I think ‘Troglodytes troglodytes’. It has such a lovely ring to it. A troglodyte is a cave-dweller so it’s a bit of a misnomer because wrens don’t live in caves. They live at the bottom of your garden or in a hedgerow but they do have a habit of creeping into holes created in thicket. Everyone will recognise the wren from its small size, its upright tail and amazingly loud song. Its size is problematic when it comes to surviving the winter so they often form communal roosts, squeezing together into a nest space to keep warm. In 1969, 61 wrens were recorded in a single Norfolk nest box.
One or two scientific names give you a clue to their English name – Falco is a falcon, so Falco peregrinus is peregrine falcon. Cygnus is a swan, (cygnet – young swan) so Cygnus olor is a mute swan.
Another one I like is Garrulus glandarius, our Jay whose Latin name means ‘acorn eating chatterer’, a very pertinent name for this delightful, sometimes raucous and very intelligent bird. The most colourful of the crow family, its staple diet is acorns although they will eat peanuts, and small birds or mammals. Planning ahead for winter, a single jay can carry up to 9 acorns in its crop and beak, and hoards up to 5000 acorns across its territory. It is then able to find and retrieve them when it is hungry. Not surprising that they like the old oak woodland that we have in Long Tongue Scrog Lane.
This hoarding of acorns reminds me of Melanerpes formicivorus, the acorn woodpecker, common in the oak woodlands of California and one of my favourite woodpeckers. Often living in colonies, these birds collect acorns in the season and store them in larders created from tree trunks, telegraph posts and, sometimes, old car radiators, drilling different sized holes to accommodate different sized acorns. When times are hard, they simply pop along to the larder and collect dinner.
So you can see that Homo sapiens does not have a monopoly on intelligence – or even on fancy names.