As James and I work on our new Birds and Art tour, I’ve been putting in the odd moment learning the names of some of the many (very many!) birds we can hope to see in lovely Catalonia next April.
- Yellowhammers, William MacGillivray
Naturally, I started with my favorites, the emberizid buntings, and was startled to find several species of these best of all birds given one of the strangest of all names in Spanish: escribano, the copyist.
With that name, these birds join the host of clerical fowl, from lettered aracaris and secretary-birds to, just perhaps, prothonotary warblers. But what’s so literate about a bunting?
The sources I have been able to run down all agree — both a good sign and bad, that — that the Spanish name, varied sometimes to “escribidora” or “escribiente,” refers to the irregular dark markings on the egg, which resemble carelessly written letters and words.
And that stirs a dim memory, a memory confirmed with just a little sniffing around in the old books. In English, “writing bird,” “writing lark,” and “writing master” are all attested as names for the yellowhammer and the corn bunting.
In his 1875 Rambles and Adventures, George Christopher Davies explains in no uncertain terms why: his energetic schoolboys
found two or three larks’ nests and some yellowhammers’ or “writing masters,” as the country lads sometimes call them, from the scribblings on the egg shells.
Ten years later, Charles Swainson also listed the names “scribbling lark,” “écrivain,” and “schryver” for the yellowhammer, all of them due, he writes, to “the curious irregular lines on the egg, resembling writing.” Swann adds “writing linnet” and “scribbler,” again “from the scribble-like markings on its eggs.”
Wonderings never come alone. Might this also be the explanation for the strange epithet of the lark sparrow, grammacus? It’s a clever idea, but like so many other clever ideas, it doesn’t pan out at all. Thomas Say’s original description of this “pretty species of sparrow” makes it plain that the eponymous grammee, the “pen strokes,” are the heavy markings of the “lineated head” and, alas, have nothing to do with the sparrow’s eggs at all.
See what you learn once you get started?