NATURE NOTES - The naming of birds

WE spent some time birding on the Cumbrian coast last week and saw some fantastic birds!

One got me thinking!

Bird names – some are easy to sus how they came about eg great spotted woodpecker – it’s spotted, pecks wood and it’s larger than the other spotted woodpecker – the lesser!

So that makes sense as do a few others like kingfisher, blackbird, sparrowhawk, barn, tawny, little, long eared, short eared and snowy owl!

But what about ... robin, wren, swallow and a host of others? Then there are the scientific ‘birds’ such as the semipalmated sandpiper that gets its name from the slight webbing at the base of its toes.

Anyway one of the species we were watching last week has a very interesting history to its name – the knot or given its scientific name Calidris canutus (there’s a clue here for history buffs!).

One theory is that it gets its name from King Canute, Knot being another form of Canute.

The name would refer to the knot’s foraging along the tide line and the story of Canute and the tide. Another etymology is that the name is onomatopoeic, based on the bird’s grunting call note.

Knots are medium-sized wading birds, with a relatively short beak and legs when compared to some other waders.

In winter plumage, they are pale grey above and white beneath, with a strong pale stripe over each eye.

Their legs are pale green and their bills dark. Juveniles are tinged with buff below.

Breeding in the high Arctic, they are rarely seen here in breeding plumage, when they become a handsome brick-red, which earns them the name of red knot in America.

Knots do not breed in the UK, most of our wintering birds breed in northern Greenland and northeast Canada, where they nest on the barren tundra.

They usually lay their three or four eggs in the latter part of June. The eggs are incubated by both sexes.

Where they are abundant, knots can form huge flocks that can contain in excess of 100,000 birds – these flocks fly around twisting and turning in unison before finding a safe place to land.

They undertake one of the longest migrations of any animal from their Arctic breeding grounds to the coasts and estuaries of Europe, Africa and Australia where they spend the winter feasting on invertebrates.


The Knot does not regurgitate undigested hard parts of prey, as do many species of birds.

Instead it excretes the hard parts in the faeces it produces. Researchers have used faecal content to examine food consumption rates.

Two other birds that were everywhere on the mud flats were redshank and oystercatchers – guess how they got their names!