Saturday, 20 July 2013

Bird - Winging Its Praises

Birds, Avian, Pretty, Garden
A Goldfinch
Photo by Nigel Winnu


[Old English brid, (late Northumbrian bird, of unknown origin and without cognates.]

1. A nestling, a fledgling; a chick. Long obsolete except northern. OE

2. A feathered, warm-blooded, amniote animal of the vertebrate class Aves, characterized by modification
of the the forelimbs as wings for flight, oviparous reproduction, and care for the young. ME

2b. SPORT. A game-bird, specifically a partridge; figuratively prey. LME

3. A maiden, a girl; a young woman. (Originally a variation of BURD, later taken as figurative use for sense 1 & 2). Now slang, frequently derogatory. ME

4. A person (frequently with specifying adjective). Colloquial. M19

5. A first-rate person, animal, or thing. US slang. M19

6. [Abbreviation of BIRDLIME noun] A prison sentence; prison. Slang. E20

7. An aeroplane; a missile, rocket, satellite, spacecraft, etc. Slang. M20

8. In badminton: a shuttlecock. L20

Firstly, I'd like to explain why I think bird is an interesting word. The English language is such a a mixed bag, rife with French and German and Latin and Greek and a myriad other languages, it's quite unusual to find a word that's English, just English, and nothing else, having no cognates in any other language. Being such a pretty little word representative of such pretty little creatures, I can't help but feel a flush of irrational pride when I think of bird: it's our word, all our own, and no one else can touch it.

Secondly, birds are jolly interesting creatures. There are approximately 10,000 species of bird spread across every continent on the planet, ranging in size from the Bee Hummingbird (2 - 2.5in in length) to the Ostrich (up to 9ft tall). They are generally sociable, engaging in cooperative breeding and hunting, as well as other cooperative behaviours such as flocking and the mobbing of predators.

Corvids, Intelligent, Rook, Black, Smart, Avian, Birds,
An Amercian Crow
Photo by Joe McKenna
It's also of note that birds are remarkably intelligent, with the parrot and crow families being rated as among the most intelligent of all animals. Certain birds have demonstrated self-awareness, for example, as well as the ability to fashion and use tools, to count and to employ observation and social learning. Birds have also demonstrated an understanding of object permanence, and it's possible some are able to understand another animal's perspective (such as predators). Such cognitive abilities were previously thought to solely be in the domain of humans, great apes and perhaps dolphins and elephants. However, the contemporary study of avian cognition challenges this, and certainly dispels the notion that birds are stupid, a myth enshrined in such language as bird-brained, meaning stupid, flighty. 

Lastly, birds have a special place in human culture. We've worshiped them, eaten them, kept them and trained them; we've sung about them, written about them, and allowed our language to be shaped by them. I shall leave you with a song by Eels that pretty much sums up everything I want to say about birds:

Can't view this? Fly away here to see it in YouTube.

Do you have any thoughts on birds?

Do please comment below.


  1. Thanks ed. I found this recently.

    Have a good weekend.


  2. A gold finch, but not a goldfinch...this language stuff never stops being fascinating, does it.

    I once wrote a story for the US and UK markets that only worked because species of black corvids in both countries are called crows.

    1. Hmm. I *think* this is a typo that I lifted directly from the photographer's notes (which I'm correcting now). It is goldfinch, isn't it. Does anyone from anywhere write it gold finch? I would be fascinated to know.

      And a story about crows! Do tell us more. Crows are underrated. They should get more appreciation for being so damn smart.

    2. I thought you were being clever! I think the bird is an American goldfinch,Carduelis tristis, which is indeed a largely a gold finch. Our European goldfinch isn't gold, mostly.

      The crow book is just a very small thing for very small people. It's called The Saturday Adventure.

    3. Oh no! Is it too late to retract what I just said and pretend that, yes, I was indeed being clever?? Yes, I think it - that ship has long since sailed : o )

      The pesky little goldfinch wasn't actually the first bird I had in mind when looking for a picture. Initially, I wanted a chaffinch, a bird I'm much more familiar with and one of the prettiest garden birds I know. The goldfinch seemed more visually striking for a lead picture, however, so I succumbed to its gaudy goldiness. And this is how it repays me! Grr : o )

  3. You know, I was reading your post this morning at around 6 (I wake up early) and while listening to the Eels song, the birds outside my window started doing their chirping thing... It was actually a really awesome way to start my day :)

    RYC: How long has it been since your friend said that? Because with the latest colour blocking craze, just about any colour combination has become a possibility... Besides, there's like, half a meter of leg between the blue and the green. Anything goes when they're at such a distance from eachother :P

    1. A Lexicolatry post, a bit of Eels, and birds singing to you ... there's definitely no better way to start your day!

  4. Birds are fascinating! We have a robin that returns yearly to build her nest on our front porch. Sadly, the last two years, she hasn't had any baby birds and the nest is left abandoned.

    On a happier note, I came across videos of starlings a year or so ago and found it astonishingly beautiful. I thought I'd share:

    1. Robins are the sweetest birds - it was a small book called The Robin that I had as a child that first sparked my interest in birds.

      And, yes, Otmoor! What a wonderful video, Kara - makes me feel a little bit homesick for Oxfordshire. I'm linking the video of the starlings on Otmoor here for anyone that wants to view it - it really is incredible.

      Thank you Kara.

    2. I went to Otmoor once.

      I couldn't find any moor anywhere.

      But it WAS jolly 'ot.

    3. How could you go to Otmoor and not be able to find the moor? I just don't think you could have been trying hard enough.