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Dunnocks, Serins and Shitepokes, Oh My! (And, “White Arses?”)

By Nic.Korte

Previously, I did a bit of a riff on nonsensical bird names ( It seems we have the “Old World” to blame for many of them. Last summer, I visited France and Italy. It wasn’t a birding trip—but I found occasion to do some searching—and I always have a pair of binoculars. (A trip-mate once asked me, “Do you shower in your binoculars?”)

Learning local species is always a task for the traveling birder. For example, in Central and South America, there are many families unknown in the US such as antpittas, manikins, and euphonias. At least, these birds usually have names such as “Streak-crowned Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and White-vented Euphonia. If you learn what a Red-capped Manakin looks like, you probably have a good idea how you would recognize a “Long-tailed Manakin.”

Unfortunately, there is no logic to many names in Europe. There are no families consistent with names like Dunnock or Serin. The former is an accentor--a family unfamiliar to New World birders, but why call it a Dunnock? Apparently, in ancient British, “Dunnock” meant “little brown one.” A Serin is a small finch similar to our own goldfinches. In brief research, I did not learn the origin of its name.

Perhaps the best bird I saw on my trip was a Dotterel. 

According to Wikipedia the English used “dotterel” as a contemptuous label for a “doting old fool.” Dotterels (the bird!) permit a close approach and are easy to shoot. That was my experience. I almost stepped on the one I photographed.

Fortunately, not all of the ancient names have persisted. For example, the term “shitepoke,” commonly used for herons in the early days in the Americas, was a corruption of terms used in Scotland: “shiterow” and  “shitehereon”. These name’s described the birds’ habit of defecating when disturbed.

Another group of European species are wheatears. The name "wheatear" is not derived from "wheat" or any sense of "ear", but is a 16th-century linguistic corruption of "white" and "arse", referring to the prominent white rump found in most species. Although now nonsensical, that name was descriptive once upon a time.

At least Bee-eaters eat bees.  As the name suggests, Bee-eaters predominantly eat flying insects, especially bees and wasps.

Apparently, honey bees are their single most important dietary item.

But, what about the somewhat similarly-appearing Roller? I was unable to find the origin of its name, only that it was assigned by Linnaeus in the 1700s. 

Old World names can be irritating or fun, depending on your point-of-view. What is sad, however, is that populations of many European birds are crashing. Thirty years ago, the Roller nested in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Eastern Germany and the northern part of Russia. No more. The reasons for the decline include hunting and increasing urbanization. 

My travels in Southern France and Northwest Italy gave me some insight into some things Europeans have done well, and some not so well.  There are important lessons to be learned for those of us in the US.  

If you would like to hear more. Please attend the Grand Valley Audubon Society March Monthly Meeting: 7PM, March 16, 1st Presbyterian Church, 3940 27 ½ Road. 

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]


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