The winner of the poll for Britain's National Bird was announced this morning: it's the robin. On this morning's Today programme
the interviewer - was it John Humphrys? - was unimpressed: he'd been backing the blackbird, which came third. David Lindo, the ornithologist who came up with the scheme, explained that the blackbird had seemed set to come second, until they counted the votes of the schoolchildren who had voted on election day: a surge of support for the barn owl ("the Harry Potter effect") pushed the blackbird down into third place. But Lindo seemed pleased that 60% of voters were not associated with any wildlife organisation. It's a clever piece of PR for birds in general, though I see it more as further proof that if you solicit the opinions of people who are not really interested, you will end up with an uninteresting answer.
[ETA: Stephen Collins dishes the dirt on the lovable robin
Naturally, I voted for the puffin, with my usual instinct for the popular choice: it came tenth (that is, the least popular of the shortlisted birds; the full list is here
). I could make a case for the puffin as our national bird: it is found all round the coast of Britain, and we are a maritime nation. I didn't expect it to win, but I didn't expect it to come last, either. Clearly not Britain's most popular bird, then, but perhaps our most relentlessly marketed.
We didn't see any puffins when we were in the Hebrides (we probably saw more starlings than anything else): I'd have been more disappointed if I'd been less surprised. Puffins on postcards, on mugs, in artworks of all qualities and none, in calendars, yes, and I may have purchased one or two. But the actual puffins nest in specific places, and these are on the smaller islands. We could have taken a boat trip from Stornoway to the Shiant islands
, and if it hadn't been so wet and windy we might have, but as it was, the prospect wasn't inviting, and no right-thinking puffin would have hung around outside its burrow. Likewise, if we had made it to St Kilda, we'd probably have seen some puffins there.
This is what Martin Martin wrote about his visit to the island in 1695 or thereabouts:
The scraber, so called in St. Kilda; in the Farn Islands, puffinet; in Holland, the Greenland dove; its bill small, sharp pointed, a little crooked at the end, and prominent; it is as large as a pigeon, its whole body being black, except a white spot on each wing; its egg grey, sharp at one end, blunt at the other.
The bouger, by those in St. Kilda so called; coulter-neb by those in the Farn Islands; and in Cornwall, pope; it is of the size of a pidgeon, its bill is short, broad, and compressed sidewise, contrary to the bills of ducks, of a triangular figure, and ending in a sharp point, the upper mandible, or jaw, arcuate and crooked at the point; the nostrils are long holes produced by the aperture of the mouth; the bill is of two colours; near the head, of an ash colour, and red towards the point; the feet are yellow, the claws of a dark blue; all the back black, breast and belly white. They breed in holes under ground, and come with a south-west wind about the twenty-second of March, lay their egg the twenty-second of April, and produce the fowl the twenty-second of May, if their first egg be not taken away; it is sharp at one end, and blunt on the other.
I knew that puffinus puffinus
is not a puffin, and presumably Martin's scraber / puffinet is some kind of shearwater. The bouger, or coulter-neb is the puffin. A coulter is the blade of a ploughshare, so coulter-nose is a fine tribute to the puffin's impressive beak.
And one last piece of ornithological etymology, to which I was directed by one of WordSpy
's Monday round-ups. I know the Yiddish word to kibbitz, to spectate with audible and unwanted commentary (I associate it with the game of chess, but not in a good way). I hadn't known that it derives, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary
, from the Middle High German word for a lapwing which apparently has "a folk reputation as a meddler. ... Young lapwings are proverbially precocious and active, and were said to run around with half-shells still on their heads soon after hatching."
Which brings me back to my starting point, because my second favourite bird (one which didn't even make the top 10) is the lapwing.