Zoologists have often given our fauna scientific names which are interesting, strange, amusing or even downright rude.

This blog will , over time, systematically dissect the literal meanings behind some of our British animals' scientific names.
I'll start with birds and move onto insects and other animals.

This blog began life on November 16th 2012. I will add to it regularly.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Hen harrier

Hen Harrier
Circus cyaneus
Linnaeus, 1766

I've been away from "zoo-names" for a wee while (a new son to watch over) but thought I'd start posting again today with another bird of prey whose name is derived from classical Greek mythology.

Our beautiful but endangered "hen harrier" is like the other "harriers" in that the sexes display dimorphism - the males are grey but females are more brown, mottled and camouflaged - with a long barred tail.
Unlike other birds of prey however, hen harriers also are known to indulge in a spot of polygyny (one male mating with several females).

Americans call our "hen harrier" the "Northern harrier" but we've given it a name that nods to the fact that this beautiful raptor does like to prey on young fowl - often the odd grouse - which has probably meant its unfortunate downfall on our little set of islands in the North Atlantic.
Incidentally, the word "harrier" itself is derived from the Old English word hergian and Middle English word Harien - which meant "one that harries" or one that "harasses" or "repeatedly attacks".
I'll return to the verb "to harry" later in this blog post.

So that's the stem of its common English-speaking name, but what of its scientific name?
Once again, we must dive into Greek mythology to find an answer.

Firstly, the generic name, Circus.
All harriers belong to the Circus genus - and there are nine species in the world.
These days, we know a "Circus" to be a big-top, with a ring master, some scary clowns with buckets of tinsel, maybe a trapeze artist or two and if we're really lucky, no "tame" lions or giraffes.
The word circus is a Latin term meaning "ring" (my mention of "ring master" above is quite deliberate).
You've heard of the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome I expect - where chariots were raced under the din of the baying crowd. No? Awww..... watch the film "Ben Hur" then.
This Latin word stems from the ancient Greek word - Kirkos (or even Krikos) - meaning "ring" but some people might tell you that Kirkos also means "hawk or falcon" in ancient Greek. Does it?

Dig deeper into your classical texts (Homer's "The Odyssey" is a good start) and you'll discover that Kirkos does mean "hawk" - but more pertinently, a hawk that "circles" or a hawk that "is circled".
If you DO read Homer's "The Odyssey" (thoroughly recommended if you're into your scientific nomenclature) or any other ancient Greek text, you may well happen across a flame-red-haired, witch-like goddess called "Circe".
Circe was a bit of a girl to be honest. She lived on an island called Aeaea, (pronounced EE-EE-A) off the coast of Italy - and from her enchanted island she lured sailors off their ships, had her carnal way with them and when she was satiated, turned them into knackered (quite literally) animals - swine often.
Her island's name "Aeaea" was thought to be magical - spelled the same backwards as forwards - a magical trap - ensnaring all men who set foot on Circe's island.
The goddess Circe (pronounced "SUR-SEE") often took the form of a falcon or hawk and flew round her sailor suitors (soon to be swine) in rings or circles - bewitching them.

So if the ancient Latin word Circus means “ring” derived from the ancient Greek word Kirkos meaning “ring” or “circle” or “hawk” or “circling hawk” or “circled hawk” – what on earth does that have to do with our “hen harrier”?
Well.... harriers' faces are particularly owl-like - they have a noticeable facial disk like owls, which is very different to other raptors.
That could be a reason I guess - but I somehow doubt it.
Now... the female hen harrier does have a long, barred tail - and these days, birdwatchers often refer to the female hen harrier as a "ring tail".
So - is that the reason?
Maybe.... but many birds of prey have barred or ringed tails - so I doubt it. It is purely a coincidence that modern-day birdwatchers (or "birders" as they like to call themselves) call the female "circling hawk" the "ring-tail". Incidentally, the female hen harrier was often called the "ring tayle" as far back as the 18th century - it was even thought to be a separate species from the grey male.

No. Almost certainly the reason why this harrier was so-classified scientifically was because of its aerial behaviour - not its markings.
Firstly, hen harriers do quarter low over heathland, often in a loose circle - looking for small mammals and ground-nesting birds.
Secondly - our hen harriers do tend to fly in distinct aerobatic courtship rings when the breeding season commences. This rolling and twisting in the air is known as "sky dancing" - and one could assume that these acrobatic bending flights reminded early zoologists of the legend of "Circe" - who bewitched the her hapless sailors with her acrobatic bendy flights around them.
Very poetic. Very nice!

That's Circus covered. But what about cyaneus?

A little simpler this.
The adult male hen harrier is a beautiful grey colour, like the male Montagu's harrier but unlike the male marsh harrier.
Cyaneus is derived from the Greek kuanos - meaning (dark) blue as is our modern day "cyan". So whilst the male hen harrier might not these days to be considered "cyan", it is a bluey-grey colour and its specific name is there purely to separate it from something like the (once common) male marsh harrier which it manages to do pretty-well I guess.

I said I'd return to the verb "to harry" (where "harrier" comes from).

In our British uplands we manage to create (and indeed create to manage) a perfect habitat for hen harriers, which love to hunt for small mammals and birds over upland heaths and moors.
This has brought this wonderful bird into terrible conflict over our vast red grouse moors and with the estate owners - so much so that the hen harrier is now the most endangered breeding bird of prey in the UK - by some way.
They've all but stopped breeding in England now, although Scottish birds are tending to fare a little better.
The argument about grouse moor landowners allegedly (and clandestinely) instructing their keepers to kill (all) harriers is a hotly debated subject, plastered all over the web - it certainly does seem to go on, but proving it is fraught with difficulty.

The most (in)famous episode of harriers being shot (allegedly) happened on a Sandringham Estate in Norfolk a few years ago, when even Prince Harry was interviewed by police after two birds fell from the sky after a couple of muffled shotgun blasts, as the nearby reserve warden watched.
Now I'm certainly no royalist ('though I do think Harry is generally a good bloke) but even I can appreciate the fact that "to harry" means "to aggressively badger, harass or attack", and "Harry" himself was interviewed because two "Harriers" were killed when he and his friends were on the estate.
Harry and his pals pleaded ignorance and as the two harrier corpses were never located (for ballistic checks), no-one was charged. 
I'm not suggesting Harry harried the harriers, but someone did - and the birds both died.

What is for sure is that unless things change, the hen harrier will certainly not be breeding in England any more. (I rather think none did in England last year).

Before I go and coddle an egg or two for breakfast (I'll harry our hens for those eggs), I'd just like to briefly mention that in France the hen harrier is known as the "Buzzard of St.Martin" (or "Le Busard Saint Martin" haw hee haw hee haw) because traditionally migrating hen harriers would start to arrive (after breeding) in lowland France on St.Martins day (11th November).

Once again I seemed to have waffled on like a right one, but in a nutshell, the hen harrier has a scientific name which means:
"Blue-coloured circling hawk"

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