It was exciting to see good numbers of greenshank while flighting wigeon on Wednesday morning. These beautiful waders are much more often heard than seen, and finding several mixed in with a larger gang of redshank made me wonder how many times I have seen them without actually knowing it. In flight they were very distinctive – black wings over a white body, but subtle signs like a slightly up-curved bill are tricky to pick out in a group of standing waders. Perhaps they are longer and more elegant than the humble redshank, but a silhouette against a rising sun annihilates almost every other indicator. A party of greenshank wandered past me on the mud a few moments after sunrise, and I relished the chance to enjoy a close encounter with these extraordinarily dainty and beautiful little waders.
The encounter left me thinking what a shame it is that these birds should be named after their least conspicuous characteristic. Their shanks are certainly green, but the tone is washed out in a faded pastel which could be easily overlooked. Pondering the name while waiting for the wigeon, I began to wonder if they are called greenshanks simply by to set them apart from redshanks, which really are aptly named – those red stilts are the most notable characteristics of a charming but otherwise wholly nondescript bird, but leg colour is nothing like as important for the greenshank. I began to spitball ideas for new greenshank names just as one of the waders saw me and began to sound off his alarm call. This repetitive yell had all the maddening fury of a smoke alarm, and I finally reckoned that “shrieker” was as good a name as any.
I have a niggling discomfort with the idea of naming birds in relation to a single aspect of behaviour or anatomy; I can’t help thinking that the idea is somehow reductive. Sparrows occupy a complex and fascinating ecological niche – the idea of calling them “hawkfood” is absurd, and yet sparrowhawks are named on the basis of a single predator/prey relationship. I was thrilled to see Indian sparrowhawk (accipiter badius) while on safari in Rajasthan last year, and even more satisfied to hear its local name – shikra. I liked the word (even though it really is a version of the Hindi word “hunter”), and it’s never far from the back of my mind when I see a sparrowhawk in Scotland – it’s a much more evocative and appropriate name.
Some birds have lovely names which have evolved over Centuries to develop unique and fascinating back stories. As I type this on a wild, blustery morning, rooks pour noisily down over the house to probe the mud around the cattle feeders. Without our Old English roots, the phonetically perfect word “rook” might easily have been supplanted by “turd-pecker”.