Folklore and myths

Do skylarks sing to attract insects? What is a Mavis? Found out the answers to these fascinating questions, and more...

Folklore and myths

Your questions

Could you tell me of any superstitions or English folklore associated with goldfinches please? chevron-down

Sent in by Steven Croft, Yorkshire. 28 August 2012


In the Anglo-Saxon times, Goldfinches were known as Thisteltuige or Thistle-tweaker, due to their fondness of thistles, teasels and knapweeds. Their long fine beaks allow them to extract otherwise inaccessible seeds from thistles and teasels. The Latin for thistle is Caduus and today forms part of the scientific name for a genus of thistle that includes musk thistle. Their modern name comes from the old English Goldfinc. The stripe of yellow on the wing is apparent even when the birds are flying.


The collective noun for a group of goldfinches is a charm, which comes from the Middle English charme and the Latin Carmen, meaning a magic song or spell. This alludes to their conversational twittering which is a blended sound like many voices.


Towards the end of his life the poet John Keats wrote of the beauty of goldfinches in his poem ‘I stood tip-toe upon a Little Hill’.


“Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings,
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.
Were I in such a place, I sure should pray
That nought less sweet, might call my thoughts away.”


What kind of bird is known as a 'tom tit'? chevron-down

Sent in by Jean Crossman, Nottingham. 3 December 2010


Tom tit is a shortened version of 'Tom titmouse', which is an old English folk name for the common UK garden visitor, the blue tit. This name also refers to the treecreeper in some parts of Ireland and the wren in Norfolk.


The word titmouse stems from the Middle English word titmose. Tit refers to any small object or creature and is of pre-7th century Norse origin.


Mose is also of Norse origins and comes from the word mase, meaning small bird. Gradually titmose became titmouse, with 'mouse' most likely referring to the bird's small size and its quick movements. The first known use of titmouse has been dated back to the 14th century and 'Tom titmouse', to around the 17th century.


The blue tit is one of many birds that regularly use nestboxes to breed in each spring. Blue tits may also use boxes to roost in during the autumn and winter.


Interestingly enough, tomtit is also the name of a small robin-like bird that is endemic to New Zealand. There are several subspecies of these tomtits, but all have large heads and short bills.


The North Island tomtit has a black head, back and wings and a white belly. Tomtits of the South Island and Chatham and Auckland Islands are similar to the North Island subspecies, but have a yellow band across their breast.

Somebody told me that there are 9,721 species of bird around the world. Is it true? chevron-down

Sent in by Anita Lopez, Australia. 28 April 2010


It can be difficult to put a precise figure on the number of birds species in the world. BirdLife International state that there are 9,865 bird species in the World. The number can change regularly due to species being 'split'.


For example, the Scottish crossbill has recently been split as a separate species from common crossbillWillow and marsh tits were also once thought to be the same species. There is still some debate about certain species' status.


Some of the birds in this total could be extinct. The ivory billed woodpecker, native to North America, could possibly be extinct but there is still hope of finding one. It is unusual for new species of birds to be found now, but this is always a possibility.


South America is the continent with the most bird species. The current British bird list is 588 species. This includes the common species to those which have only been recorded in the UK once like tufted puffin.

I get lots of goldfinches in my garden every day and was wondering where they go to at night as they fly off and I don't see them till the next day? chevron-down

Sent in by Cheryl Field, Stafford. 23 November 2009


Goldfinches, along with most other finches, tend to be more social outside the breeding season. They will feed and roost together. Diurnal birds usually start heading back to their preferred roost site as the light starts to fade in the evening.


Flocks of goldfinches roost together in the inner branches of trees, particularly oak and beech trees. Some roosts can contain hundreds of birds but generally they are smaller. Goldfinches often join with greenfincheschaffinches and linnets to form communal roosts. The roost site can change from one night to the next, but they can use the same on for prolonged periods.


Their roosts can be several miles away from where they feed so they have to do a lot of traveling. They leave early in the morning to feed and then usually have a rest during the day so they will find a suitable roost site in daylight as well.


Most songbirds will roost in trees or some kind of vegetation but roofs, sheds and nestboxes are also popular as roost sites for birds such as tits and starlings.

The barn owl at the wooded end of our garden is hooting for much of the night. Why does it do this as surely it alerts prey to its presence? chevron-down

Sent in by Graham Scott, Fife. 7 September 2009


The owl associated with hooting is in fact the tawny owl. The barn owl's best known call is a long, eerie shriek and in many areas it is known as the screech owl.


Tawny owls have the traditional owl-type call of 'to-wit-too-woo' and are real woodland birds, but can be found in churchyards, cities and, as you are well aware, large gardens. They are widespread throughout the UK although absent from the Scottish Highlands and Islands and from Ireland.


One fascinating thing about the hooting call of the tawny owl, described above, is that it is made by two birds. The first 'to-wit' is the female's call followed immediately by the 'to-woo' of the male. This is their contact call and the male has a short hoot to advertise territory. They regularly call to keep in contact with one another and to mark the boundaries of their territories.


Tawny owls favourite foods are mice and voles. In this, they are similar to the barn owl, but they will take a variety of other items from earthworms to small birds. When they are hunting though, they sit perfectly still on a perch and silently wait, sometimes for long periods.


They are perfectly adapted to take their prey by surprise as their plumage is thick and very soft with loose edges to the feathers allowing silent flight. Thick plumage must also be very beneficial during long winter nights when they sit immobile.

They need to eat small meals regularly, but when food is plentiful, they will store the surplus for later use. It is easy to discover what an owl has had for its supper as the indigested parts, such as bones, fur and feathers are coughed up as a pellet.


Tawny owls usually nest in hollows in trees, but, like the barn owl, they frequently use nestboxes which are a real bonus to them when natural nest sites are scarce.

Are sea gulls actually called sea gulls or is there another name for them? chevron-down

The word seagull is actually an informal way of referring to any of the species that belong to the family Laridae, the gulls. There is not actually a single species called the seagull.


It can be difficult to separate the many different species of gulls to the untrained eye but they all have subtle differences in size, leg colour, plumage and behaviour. You can compare them through our guide to the gull family.


We are blessed in the UK with a number of gull species, seven of which are known to breed here and at least ten other species are sporadic visitors to our shores. As gulls are a familiar sight across the UK many have local nicknames that reflect their plumage or behaviour.


Arguably the most familiar of our gulls is the large and belligerent herring gull - the one most likely to steal your chips at the beach! This bird creates mixed emotions in the UK. Love them or hate them, there is no denying that they are imposing birds with their striking plumage and loud calls. Some of the local names such as silver back or silvery gull stem from the light grey wing feathers but in some places they are also called the cat gull due to the mewing call they make.


The lesser black-backed gull has been known as the coddy moddy which is thought to be linked to the excitable manner with which it pursues schools of young fish such as cod.


The great black-backed gull is sometimes referred to as the goose gull which may be a reflection on the birds size as it is larger than some species of goose.


Another widely known gull is the black-headed gull which is smaller than the herring gull and is often found feeding inland on ploughed fields. They often share these ploughed fields with lapwings which may explain why they are sometimes referred to as the peewit gull, peewit being a widely used nickname for the lapwing. The black-headed gull is also known as the tumbling gull which hints at another interesting behaviour. During the summer months, these gulls often take to the skies inland and chase flying insects, performing amazing aerial maneuvers in order to catch emergent flying ants. Look out for this on hot summer evenings, particularly over grassland.

What is the meaning of featherpault? chevron-down

Sent in by Cliff Gorman, Cudworth, Barnsley, Yorkshire. 29 August 2008


Old folk names of birds arose from the need or wish to describe the bird, and the names usually derive from the bird's appearance, behaviour, or its habitat.


This is how great grey shrike became generally called butcher bird, describing its habit of storing its prey for later use by impaling them in thorns in bushes and trees. All the folk names for the bittern, including boom bird and bog blutter, refer to its far-carrying call and its wetland habitat. Great tits were known, among other names, as sharp saw, and swifts were known by a variation on the theme of devil's bird or devil screecher - packs of little demons hurtling through the air at breakneck speed screaming.


Reasons for other names are far more obscure. For instance, in northern England whooper swan was known as elk, and in Essex oystercatcher was called olive. Sometimes a name even changes species. In the past, if you were to talk about a corncrake in Sussex, you would be referring to a quail!


I have been unable to locate the term featherpault with reference to any bird at all. This may be a chiffchaff - in Yorkshire and Northumberland.


The name refers to the nest of these birds, which is a dome-shaped construction of grass, twigs, moss and other plant material, lined with fine grasses, animal hair and feathers. The feather lining will also be the origin of the name feather bed, which was used in Oxfordshire. Interestingly, feather poke was also widely used to describe long-tailed tits!


Use of standardised names for birds is fairly recent, brought about by the appearance of bird field guides, which required a means of referring to each bird without confusion. The rich variety of folk names has by and large fallen out of use, although some are still heard. Many people routinely use names like jenny wren, tomtit, robin redbreast and spuggie, and even seasoned birders are from time to time heard talking about dabchicks (little grebe) and peewits (lapwing).

Do skylarks sing to attract insects? chevron-down

Sent in by Marian Batchelor, Hertfordshire. 25 May 2007


'Aspiring bird, in thee I find
An emblem of the youthful mind,
Whose earliest voice, like thine is given
To notes of joy that mount to heaven;
But fetter'd by the toils of life,
Its sordid cares, its bitter strife,
It feels its noble efforts vain,
And sadly sinks to earth again.'

James Northcote, Fable XXXVI, from Fables, Original and Selected (1833)

The song of the skylark - as with other birds - serves different purposes and at different times of year. Song is given principally by the male and is used as a signal to attract a mate; to warn potential rivals of the presence of an occupied territory and also as a signal to deter predators. The skylark features heavily in myth and folklore, but - delightful though the notion is - the song is not used to attract insects.

With the possible exception of the nightingale, no birds' song has been more celebrated in music and poetry than that of the skylark. To look at, the skylark is a rather small, streaky and non-descript bird which, in keeping with other visually unprepossessing birds like the nightingale, delivers a remarkably rich and complex song. Unlike the nightingale however, which usually sings from deep within cover, the skylark will deliver its song in flight, making it a conspicuous bird of the British countryside.

The skylark is an exceptional mimic, and will often include within its song the calls of other birds which share its favoured habitat. Most common are the calls of waders such as curlew and redshank, but will also include snatches of the songs of linnet and corn bunting. This virtuosity made the skylark a popular cage bird in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, a practice that is thankfully now illegal.

The recent fortunes of the skylark have been equally calamitous: between 1972-1996, the UK breeding population declined by 75%, affording it a place on the UK's 'red-list' as a species of the highest conservation concern. To learn more about the reasons for the decline, and what the RSPB is doing to secure the future of these delightful songsters, click on the link to the right. 

What is a Mavis? Am I right in thinking it is a female song thrush? chevron-down

Sent in by John Giles, Salford, Lancashire. 23 February 2007


Mavis is indeed a colloquial name for the song thrush but but can refer to both male and female birds. It appears to have been used in East Anglia, Ireland and Scotland and is certainly a name for this thrush which I have heard before.


The name Mavis appears in Chaucer and was used by other Middle English poets. It comes from the French word mauvis and may be of Celtic origin.


It was used by Shakespeare, as was the word throstle for song thrush, which, in East Anglia, refers to the mistle thrush. Just to confuse things, in southwest Scotland Mavis is generally the word used for the mistle thrush with throstle referring to the song thrush.


Other names for the song thrush include dirsh, thrusher, thirstle and throggle and for the mistle thrush, skirlock, gawthrush, felfit and stormcock.

What is a Stormcock? chevron-down

Sent in by Angela Hawkes, Scotland. 25 January 2013


A stormcock is one of the many traditional names found in British folklore for a Mistle Thrush.


The name was traditionally used in the south of England especially in Hampshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.


The name derives from the fact that the Mistle Thrush, unlike most other birds, who seek shelter from stormy weather, actually seems to be stimulated by approaching storms and will sing or call lustily before and through bad weather.