HAVE you lived in Sussex all your life? If so, then you might have eight different names for the bird in my photo. I took the picture this week out of the kitchen window as she shuffled about in the oak leaves looking for crumbs. When I was a boy, I called this a hedge sparrow. All the village boys use that name in Stiffkey, on the Norfolk coast.
We used to hunt for her nest and found them easily, with their four beautiful sky blue eggs and the lovely round cup of moss in which she laid them. Then one day I was allowed to look at my grandfather’s egg collection, which he had made in the 1880s. The eggs of scores of wild birds were kept locked up in a glass and wooden cabinet that looked like the fan vaulting in a miniature cathedral.
Fur blue eggs nestled in a cup of pink cottonwool, but the name was wrong. The label said Hedge Accentor. That’s a funny name, thought I. I shan’t use that. My friends will laugh at me. I was only seven years old after all. I kept the name to myself. Grandfather had died just before I was born, so I couldn’t ask him.
Twenty years later I joined the Nature Conservancy and came to live in Sussex. I started logging every bird that bred on Kingley Vale, near Chichester and have done so ever since. One day I told my boss, who was a scientist: “Hedge sparrows are one of the common birds here in the valley. We have nineteen pairs.”
“Hedge sparrows?” queried the boss. “What are they?” I explained. “Oh, you mean dunnocks. That is the accepted word for the species.” Oh dear. Got that wrong.
One day an ancient birder with a pair of worn, brass-ringed binochulars he had used since 1920 came my way.
“Any hedge-bettys about?” he inquired. “What are they?” I asked. “Hedge-picks; you know hedge-mikes. Hedge spicks,” he said in the county accent, beginning to look exasperated.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied, thinking to my arrogant youngself: ‘What century is the old fogey in?’ Finally he blurted out:” Shuffle-wings, you know, dunnocks. Ha-ha, got you there, didn’t I? You might possibly use the family name of accentors?”
I was the one looking daft now.
He continued: “Back in the Twenties dunnocks were rare here in the Vale but I expect they have increased no end now that sheep and rabbits have gone and the brambles and long grass increased?” Exactly right. Well now the shuffle wings have declined again there as the old downland is restored and the herbage controlled. But they have also declined all over Britain too , and some even suggest cuckoos have declined as a result.
I have a pair or two of accentors in my garden because I encourage brambles, and am hoping for some broods of bettys, mikes, pips, shuffles in the spring, but will be careful to say dunnocks now as the fashion demands.
But what’s in a name?