Monthly Musings: Do you know your bog bluiter from your bogsucker?

I suspect you wonder what I am talking about! These are common, colloquial names for the bittern and woodcock and in some respects are very evocative. Apparently a bluiter is a person or thing that makes a dull, heavy sound – a descriptive of the bittern’s boom I deduce – and bogsucker probably reflects that the woodcock feeds in soft ground using its long bill.

I came across the term bog blutter (an alternative spelling to bluiter) in a novel by John Buchan called the Huntingtower. It was set in the southwest of Scotland and the reference to a bog blutter on the moor is a suggestion of how widespread these birds once were. 

It is however amazing how many different regional names are recorded for the birds species found in the British Isles – more than 7000 names!  These often give us an idea of the behaviour or characteristics of the species in question. For example the Willow Warbler was called the Sally Wren reflecting its diminutive size and that it frequently appears in willow trees, the Latin name for the Willow being Salix - hence Sally Wren[1]. And who would have thought that the long-tailed tit was called the bumbarrel or the bottle-tomtit – both apparently a reference to its nest!

Other colloquial names can reflect a bird’s calls; the Curlew is called the Whaup in northern England reflecting the call uttered by the male and there are several Welsh names for the Curlew based on the Welsh for whistling.

So why write about these old-fashioned terms for our wildlife? For two reasons; firstly these colloquial names indicate that earlier populations were much more familiar with nature and the behaviour of the birds (or mammals or plants) that they observed[2]. Take the Red-backed Shrike for example. Effectively lost as a breeding species in the 1990s and so only a summer visitor now. But it was once were more abundant and nick-named the Butcherbird to reflect its carnivorous nature and propensity to kill insects through impaling them on thorns or other suitable spikes before tearing it up with their beak. If we lose this knowledge, we risk losing the cultural history behind their names. 

Secondly we are also losing the species themselves. They are becoming less abundant and so becoming more distant from our everyday lives. These colloquial terms as we have seen reflect the behaviour or the characteristics of the birds – they teach us about them and help us to connect with them. 

The growing sense of disconnection with nature is a concern for conservation and why many call for greater access (but this is not without risks for the species we are trying to conserve if it leads to disturbance).  We don’t value what is unfamiliar or that which we do not understand. So perhaps it’s time we brought them back and used our cultural history to reconnect with our precious wildlife?

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