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.

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".

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