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.

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