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 17 February 2013



Accipiter nisus

Matthurin Jacques Brisson 1760


Back to ancient Greece, for our ongoing investigation into the etymology behind the classical scientific names of our British fauna - and in this case, a slight misnomer perhaps?

The sparrowhawk is now one of our most familiar of raptors - regularly dashing through gardens all over the UK in ambush pursuit of the songbirds* we so like to feed.
It hasn't always been this way however - this hawk, like so many other birds of prey was (and still is, sometimes) shot to protect estate game birds.

The sparrowhawk is an incredibly beautiful bird of prey and is sexually dimorphic (the female is large and brown with fierce yellow eyes - the male is much smaller, with a gun metal blue-grey back, bright orange eyes and a wonderful orange barred breast).

Because of the difference in sizes between the male and female - they tend to take different types of prey - the males taking smaller passerines (tit to blackbird size) whereas the far more powerful hen can take birds up to the size of pigeons, doves, corvids... even the odd pheasant poult if pressed).

Both sexes kill with stealth, surprise and suddenly.....AMBUSH. Generally if they hit their target, the avian victim is knocked dead by the force of the impact, but if not, the hawk will attempt to pluck its prey whilst still alive.

*The sparrowhawk is oft-blamed for the "decline in songbirds" (that phrase is often vomited up by persons with a hidden agenda generally), often by the bizarre organisation name of "Songbird survival" (members of the shooting fraternity that tend to ignore science, reason, logic, common sense and avoid any sort of intelligent reasoning it seems to me - in their pursuit to raise (and then kill) their millions of pheasants and also shoot anything else that could potentially get in the way).
"Saving songbirds with science" is their mantra - though their "science" is not any type of science I recognise.
I'll not give "Songbird survival" any more time on this particular blog, but I will say that in general, "songbirds" are not declining at all - quite the reverse in fact - let alone declining at the feet of hawks or cats or anything else. But that's a whole different story.

The sparrowhawk's vernacular name stems from the old English spearhafoc and Middle English sperhauk - both meaning hawk which takes sparrows - apt enough - at least for the male bird.

But what does its scientific name Accipiter nisus mean?

Linnaeus, in 1758 originally classified the sparrowhawk as Falco nisus, but it took Brisson to classify it not as a falcon but a true Accipiter, two years later.

The generic (and family) name of Accipiter stems from the Latin accipere (verb) and Late Latin verb capere: "to receive" or "take hold (of)", "grasp" or even "accept" if you like.

The sparrowhawk's specific name of nisus is where waters start to get murky....
What does nisus mean or who was Nisus?

This is where we delve into our Ancient Greek myths again - I'll try and explain who Nisus was and endeavour to keep this as brief as I can.... not easy in this case.

King Nisos was a mythical King of Ancient Megara, Greece - one of the four sons of Pandion II (I'll deal with Pandion when I get 'round to discussing the scientific name for the Osprey).
Nisos' kingdom of Megara was besieged by King Minos of Crete (of Minotaur and maze fame).
Minos couldn't break Nisos and his kingdom though - not whilst Nisos had his magic lock of purple or golden hair in place (which granted him immortality and invincibility).

During the siege, Nisos' daughter, Scylla, fell in love with the handsome foreigner King Minos - and one night, snuck into her father's bedchamber to cut off his purple or golden lock of invincibility.
Scylla presented her father's hair to Minos (expecting to be congratulated and loved back) but King Minos was not impressed  - he wanted to claim Megara by fair means and not by treachery.

It mattered not to Nisos - he was suddenly mortal and his kingdom fell to Minos.
Nisos was slain.
Upon his death, he allegedly turned into a sea eagle or osprey.

Nisos' traitor daughter was rejected by King Minos again, as his fleet set sail after defeating Nisos and his kingdom - but she clung onto the stern of Minos' boat in the vain hope he would forgive her and take her with him.
Minos rejected that notion and told his sailors to leave her there in the wake, and if she was still there when they reached Crete, he would feed her to the dogs.

Meanwhile....Nisos, in the form of an osprey or sea eagle was chasing Minos' ship - to take furious revenge on his deceitful daughter, Scylla.
Scylla soon drowned in the wake of Minos' ship -and was transformed into an unspecified water bird name of Ciris - perhaps a heron (or even a fish), classical scholars speculate.
But that didn't stop her father, as osprey or sea eagle, pursuing her - for all eternity.
Scylla, the heron or fish being pursued by Nisos in osprey or sea eagle form.

Much of the ancient world believed animals (birds included) to have been once human - but changed into animal (bird) form for all eternity - and the stories behind these humans explained the specific behaviour of the animals in question.

That said, various scholars (such as Sieke in his 1884-penned "De Niso et Scylla in a y es mutatis" for example) suggest that this story was a metaphor for the relationship between the sun and the moon in the sky (the golden or purple lock of Nisos' hair is the sun and Scylla is the moon) - there do seem to be similar examples of this ancient story-telling all over ancient Europe.


So Nisus (or Nisos) was a mythological Greek king, who turned into a sea eagle or osprey after his (human) death - to chase his deceitful daughter Scylla, who had turned into a heron (or a fish) for all eternity.

So why name a sparrowhawk (hardly a sea eagle or an osprey after all?) after King Nisos then?

To be honest, your guess is probably as good as (or even better than) mine.

One or more or four things seem to have occurred here....

1 - Linnaeus (the original sinner when it comes to coining the species nisus) was running out of Greek myths (when classifying birds) which involved Apollo's messenger, Circe, or the hawk - so any raptor myth would do for the sparrowhawk wouldn't it?

2 - The male sparrowhawk does have somewhat purple-coloured plumage - was Linnaeus nodding to the purple lock of Nisos when classifying the sparrowhawk as nisus? Perhaps.

3 - Linnaeus just made an error. Nisos was turned into an Osprey or sea eagle - and yet Linnaeus named the Osprey not after Nisos, but after Nisos' father, Pandion II instead.
He should have named the Osprey nisus (not Pandion), and named the sparrowhawk after something very different....

4 - The actual original myth of Nisos, Scylla and Minos has been lost over the passage of time.

I've done it again and waffled on like a right one.

I'll end it here, with the summary that the European sparrowhawk has a scientific name, which unfortunately means:
"Grasping Sea-eagle - bird form of (mythological) King Nisos".
Not the best of your work Linnaeus.
Not unless you were  actually doffing your zoologist's  and classical cap to the fact that the male sparrowhawk does look a bit purple - like Nisos' power lock.
I'd appreciate the romantic poetry of that, for sure.
But I'm far from convinced you did actually mean that.

Nope.Not one of your better days me old son.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Honey buzzard

Honey buzzard

Pernis apivorus

Linnaeus, 1758


The honey buzzard is a large, sexually dimorphic (male and female distinguishable) bird of prey that is actually more closely related to the cuckoo hawks, bazas and some kite species than the true buzzards of the Buteo genus. All of the above (bar Buteo) belong to the Perninae subfamily of the avian Accipitridae family.

The honey buzzard is so-named in the English-speaking world because it likes to eat wasp grubs (and bees also occasionally) - so might appear to be eating honey when it chows down on its favourite scran I guess.

There are a few breeding pairs in the UK each year, a few dozen at most - and each time Anna and I are in the New Forest, I keep my peepers peeled for this fantastic bird.
You see. They're not buzzards. They're not kites. They're not really hawks.
I think I like to think of them as "crested kite-hawks"... but then again I always like to march to a different beat...

They were once referred to as "perns" - indeed Aristotle and Hesychius both referred to a (particular (unspecified)) bird of prey as Pernes - and that of course would explain their generic and sub-family name.
So where does Pern(e), or Pernes/Pernis or Perninae stem from?

Pernis seems to go hand in hand with the Latin Pernix : "Persistent", "striving", "swift" and one could reasonably assume this was a rather apt name for the warm clime-favouring honey buzzards, with their nimble beak, long neck and unorthodox eating habit.

I guess the most famous modern use of the classical "perne" was at the pen of poet W.B. Yeats in his "Sailing to Byzantium" work, (third stanza typed below)

"O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity".

Most experts have oft-suggested that Yeats meant a bobbin ("perne") in a spin ("gyre") in the line above (utter tosh I think), but a few others are of the opinion that the old boy's (he was 61 when he penned the above) poem was full of references to classical nay mythical birds and esoteria.
I happen to agree - "perne in a gyre" to me means a honey buzzard in a spiralling flame-like flight (maybe even a thermal - honey buzzards love thermals) or even more plausible in terms of the poem's constant theme - a phoenix.
That sort of mystical imagery was right up Yeats' weird street.

It matters not I guess - we've dealt with Pernis long enough and I'm waffling  again.

What about the honey buzzard's specific name of apivorus?

A little easier this - from Latin Apis ("bee") and vorare ("to devour").
Do honey buzzards devour bees then?
Well... yes....  as I mentioned at the top of this blog post - occasionally.

They possess a chemical deterrent in their feathers which dissuades bees and wasps from stinging them and have a far more feathery face than other raptors, especially between beak and eye - so even if they are stung, it's a job for said stinging insect to push its sting through all those feathers.
That said, wasps, indeed hornets (not bees) generally form FAR more of a honey buzzard's diet, so a better specific name for this bird might have been vespa (wasp in Latin) vorus.

Right. That's enough.

The honey buzzard (or as you now should know it! - the "wasp-pern") has a scientific name which literally means:

"striving, nimble bird of prey that devours bees".

Saturday 2 February 2013

Rough-legged buzzard

Rough-legged buzzard

Buteo lagopus

Pontoppidan, 1763


With “Zoonames” I am attempting to create a little on-line reference site for anyone vaguely interested in the etymology behind certain British animals’ classical scientific names. Firstly British birds, then British moths and butterflies and from there who knows.

With that in mind, it might seem odd that I am now about to discuss the rough-legged buzzard – a raptor which most people won’t even see in the UK – and even if they did, they almost certainly wouldn’t appreciate the fact that it was a “rough-legged” buzzard and not a “common” buzzard.

This is primarily because I do appreciate the scientific name of the rough-legged buzzard and will return to both its generic and specific name a number of times in the "zoonames" odyssey.

Like most buzzards, (or hawks as our friends in "the states" call them), the rough-legged buzzards is a robust raptor with broad wings and a relatively short tail.
It can be distinguished from our "common buzzard" in that whilst like the common buzzard it has very variable plumage ("morphs") almost all rough-legs have a noticeable chestnut band on their pale(ish) front, all exhibit feathered legs to their toes, (unlike the common buzzards) and most hover regularly (proper hovering like a kestrel or an osprey - whereas common buzzards can hover but mostly choose not to).
Rough legs are rare winter visitors to the UK, primarily on the east of the country, as they migrate south from their breeding grounds in the tundra to warmer climes for the winter.

The English word "buzzard" is derived from the old French "Buisard", a derivative of "Buison" which itself has its roots in the Latin Buteo, meaning hawk or falcon (or buzzard).
You can see that in order to be true to its origin, we should really pronounce the rough-legged buzzard the rough-legged "bweezurd" or "boozurd", but let's not go there.

That covers Buteo - but what about lagopus?

Lago although meaning "lake" in contemporary Italian, Portugese and Spanish meant "hare" in classical Greek.
All hares, rabbits and pikas belong to the classical order "Lagomorpha" (hare-shape or form).
The rough-legged buzzard nods to the hare in its scientific name, purely because it has feathery legs as an adaptation to its tundra habitat (which I guess reminded early zoologists of the furry legs of a hare).

Talking of lago...
Everyone knows "Lego", right?
If you were ever to build a rabbit or hare (or pika I suppose) from "Lego" - you would indeed have built yourself a "Lego lago".

Some of you will have kids or long enough memories to know or remember "Duplo" - the company which makes large lego bricks.
Duplo has a rabbit as its logo.
Can you see where I'm going with this yet?
SOoooo.... Duplo does indeed have a "Lago lego logo".


Pus has its origins in classical Greek also  - stemming from pous, meaning "foot".

I think we're finally there.

The rough-legged buzzard has a scientific name which literally means:
"hare-footed hawk", or for me at least, the "harey-footed hawk"