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Ford and Etal

Storm Cocks and Scribbly Jacks

Other posts by  |  Kevin OHara on Google+ |  March 3, 2014 | 0 Comments
Kevin O'Hara

Kevin O’Hara

No, I’m not referring to some abstract plumbing or design terminology, but to the quaint ‘olde’ country English names for some of our birds which are now, all too often, lost amidst our declining local dialects.

They have sprung to mind this week as the weather has warmed, just a little, and the first glimmers of spring are showing; the first snowdrops have poked their heads above ground and are in full flower, with crocuses and the early birds starting their pre-nuptials singing hard from the tree tops.

The storm cock, being one of the first and earliest nesters was out in full cry this week.  They nest annually in the tall trees opposite my front door, so leaving the drive on the way to work, I paused to listen the dulcet tones of the Mistle thrush, not quite as melodic as its cousin the song thrush, in fact, darn right out of tune/ but bird song, nonetheless, and a welcome change over the drone of traffic.

As a boy, Kevin O'Hara spent hours wandering through hedgerows looking for wildlife.

As a boy, Kevin O’Hara spent hours wandering through hedgerows looking for wildlife.

On the way to work I was mulling over the many names we had as kids for everything we saw and found. As a somewhat feral child, I spent many hours outside the parental home rummaging through the fields and hedgerows, usually up to some act that was just bordering on the lawful or nowadays would be totally illegal.

As we learnt by our mistakes and experience both first hand or as wisdom passed on by older peers, it was a life full of knowledge gained first hand and lessons quickly learnt. In a world before XBoxes and 24hr TV, our thirst for knowledge was endless, and to me, that was all things in the natural world beyond the garden gate. I just had to pick it up, sniff it, collect it, keep it and take it home, much to the frequent disgust and horror of my parents.

The yellowhammer's nickname is the scribbly jack

The yellowhammer’s nickname is the scribbly jack

Names we had like the storm cock were passed down in almost folklore and they often held a special reverence for particular feats. The storm cock was one such species; a favourite because he would not only sing, as his name implies in a storm, but because they were fiercely protective of their nests.  It was a brave school boy who scaled a tree in an attempt to find the Mistle thrushes’ nest in the fork of a tree.

And there were many more names passed down in folklore. The ‘scribbly jack’ was so named because of the exquisite markings on what is the yellowhammers’ egg. Dickie hedgie or hedge spuggie should be familiar with many but they were terms for the Dunnock or hedge sparrow – spuggie being quite a collective name for small brown birds. Wind hover was a kestrel, a skytie was a skylark, a stinker was a starling and a babbler was one of the tits, usually the great tit, and always one that brought a snigger to a small boys face … whitearse’ the wheatear.

Yellowhammer egg markings gave rise to the name scribbly jack

Yellowhammer egg markings gave rise to the name scribbly jack

Most of these names come from a distant age and are derivatives from either old or Middle English, Germanic origin like most of our dialects. It wasn’t just birds we had names for as we would say brock and Bill as a common name for the badger (one of my dogs is still called Brock) and fitch for someone’s ferret, hedgepig for a hedgehog or Charlie or tod for a fox.

One of my favourites, and one I still use today, is the whinny bush, the much maligned gorse bush, which in turn has so many other things associated with it; the whin sill being one obvious one as gorse is a common occurrence along this granite stone outcrop and then the whin chat whose name derives from its singing post in the whinny bushes.

Place names too we shared – whinny hill, the hill with gorse on and lappy island was obviously where lapwings were and fox dene, the small wooded valley where we saw a fox once. This is of course not a new thing people have been doing such things for years and are reflected in the many place names the region is rich with.

A few that spring to mind are obviously Otterburn, the stream where otters frequent, Todhill, fox hill and one of my favourites Foulmart knowe or roughly translated from a small hillock where polecats live, but my favourite of all and a little known one is Bewshaugh, incidentally near Kielder, translated as, low ground by the river where beaver built their dams.

What is fascinating is so many give us tantalising little clues as to our past fauna and flora and hope to us that wish we may see some reinstated that they were truly here in the past. I hope that we don’t lose these names, words and phrases they make our language so much more, well, interesting and colourful, less boring so keep out the clarts and divint get hacky durty filthy black whilst on ya way back yarrm. Dialect is a wonderful thing and should not be lost.

Anyway I have deliberately avoided mentioning flooding – that will keep for another day, but for now, whilst the daffs are poking their heeds above the grund what else should ya keep a gander for?

Around the end of the month, depending on the weather, the first hardy migrants return; along our rivers sand martins may be seen, the tell-tale call of the chiff chaff will be unmistakenly heard in the bushes and trees, and gradually the dawn chorus will gradually increase and birds particularly will be more obviously searching out and making nests. Some wildfowl will already be sitting on eggs by the end of the month, as will robins and other thrushes.

Last year, because of the longer and colder weather we experienced, many birds failed to breed as normal, so hopefully this year, it will all be well but whatever happens, make sure you get out and about and enjoy whatever the great British weather has install for us or pack up and go to the Algarve to catch the migrants en route.

Kevin O’Hara is a conservation Officer with Northumberland Wildlife Trust

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Category: Northumbria Wildlife

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