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I seem to have covered several bird names on the blog recently, and that might be because our family was watching light-hearted bird documentary series, Hello Birdy, on the ABC, or maybe just because I love birds. Australia is lucky enough to have a staggering array of birds, many of them colourful, beautiful, intelligent, or unusual, and sadly, often under-appreciated. Here are some names that bring to mind a few of our feathered friends. Click on a likely link, and you will be taken to a YouTube video of each bird – there’s at least one for every entry.
The Brahminy Kite is a bird of prey and scavenger native to Australasia and Asia; in Australia they are found in coastal regions in the north. They are chestnut brown with a white head, breast, and tail tip, and typically nest in trees in mangrove swamps. The name Brahminy is due to their being found in India; it alludes to the Hindu Brahmin priestly caste, and is said BRAH-min-ee. The Brahminy Kite is the official mascot of Jakarta, in Indonesia, and in India is regarded as a representation of Garuda, the sacred bird of the supreme god Vishnu. I would not have considered this as a person’s name if I hadn’t seen a baby girl named Brahminy. It’s a bold choice, and its connection with a sacred bird is fascinating.
The Corella is a small, white cockatoo with a pink blush to its plumage. They are found from the central deserts to the eastern coastal plains, and are a familiar sight on farms and in cities. In some areas, Corellas have become so numerous they are considered a pest, being particularly destructive to trees and cereal crops. They congregate in large flocks, even up to several thousand, and make a high-pitched screeching noise which is ear-piercing when a flock all calls together, and can be heard for miles. Although they are noisy birds, they are very playful and have the joie de vivre that all parrots are blessed with. They are popular as pets, because they are good talkers, and excellent mimics. The word corella comes from the Wiradjuri language of central New South Wales. Corella has been used as a girl’s name since the 18th century, and is probably part of the Cor- group which is based on the Greek Kore, meaning “maiden”. The bird gives it a uniquely Australian flavour.
Here’s the dirty little secret about Doves: they’re just pigeons! Not only that, it’s unclear what makes some species of pigeons “doves”, because while we generally call smaller pigeons doves, that isn’t always the case. The confusion arises because the word pigeon is from Latin, and dove from Ancient Germanic, so they are two different words for the same thing (like autumn and fall). Nonetheless, their images are completely different: doves are symbols of peace, while pigeons are seen as disease-ridden pests (in fact, pigeons are no more disease-ridden than any other animal and pose no general health risk). Australia has a number of species identified as doves, and although we often think of doves as modest and grey, the Emerald Dove has striking green colouring, and the many varieties of Fruit Dove are likewise very colourful. There are also introduced species of dove, including those kept as pets. Dove has been used as a first name since the 17th century, and has been far more common for girls; a contemporary example is Disney actress Dove Cameron. Dove not only rhymes with love, but doves are used as symbols of love, since pigeons mate for life; the word dove can mean “sweetheart”. Perhaps because of this, doves were considered sacred to goddesses such as Venus. Another religious connection is that in Christian iconography, the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove.
Halcyon is the Latin name for the Tree Kingfishers, a large genus of birds found in Africa, Asia and Australasia, with Australasia having the most species. They are recognisable by their large heads and long pointed bills, and many are brightly coloured, often in iridescent blues and greens. The Laughing Kookaburra is a type of tree kingfisher, an iconic Australian bird with a raucous cackle that seems to epitomise the spirit of the bush. Halcyon is from the Greek for “kingfisher”, and is connected to a character from Greek mythology named Alcyone; the daughter of the winds, she married Ceyx, the son of the morning star. The pair were very much in love, and after Ceyx was lost at sea in a terrible storm, the unhappy Alcyone threw herself into the waves to end her life. The gods took pity on them, and changed both into kingfishers. According to legend, the “halcyon days” of midwinter, when storms cease, was when Alcyone laid her eggs, and her father restrained the winds so that she could do so safely. Because of this, the word halcyon (pronounced HAL-see-uhn) has come to mean “calm, serene, peaceful”, with our halcyon days those happy times we look back on with nostalgia. Halcyon has been used as a girl’s name since the 19th century: pretty and unusual, it gives Hallie as the nickname.
Lalage is the scientific name for the Trillers, native to Asia and Australasia; they are small birds, usually coloured black, white and grey. They are called Trillers because during the breeding season, the males make a cheerful, almost continuous, trilling call. Lalage is derived from Greek, and means “to babble, to prattle”, or, in the case of birds, “to chirp”. The name became known from an ode by Roman poet Horace, where he speaks of his love for a young girl, his “sweetly laughing, sweet talking Lalage”. It has been used a few times since as a literary name, most notably in Kipling’s Rimini. Lalage has had occasional use, and in Britain seems to have a fairly upper-class image: contemporary examples are photjournalist Lalage Snow, and fashion designer Lalage Beaumont. In English, this name is usually pronounced LAL-a-gee or LA-la-ghee – just remember it’s three syllables, emphasis on the first, hard g like girl, not soft like germ. This fascinating name fits in with L-L names like Lillian, and as Lalage was a very young courtesan, almost seems like a posh version of Lolita! Lallie, Lollie, and Lala could be nicknames.
Larks are plain brown birds to look at, but their great beauty is in their voices, for they are famous for their melodious singing. This has made them a favourite subject for poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s, To a Skylark, and to say someone sings “like a lark” is a great compliment to the range and joyousness of their notes. Traditionally, larks are a symbol for dawn and daybreak, as in “getting up with the lark”, and this has given them religious overtones, for just as dawn is the passage between night and day, it can also be seen as that between heaven and earth. In Renaissance paintings, larks were sometimes used as a symbol of Christ. Although Australia has many birds with lark as part of their name, our only true lark is Horsfield’s Bushlark, widely found in grasslands and open woodlands. It is much smaller than larks in the northern hemisphere, and doesn’t have quite such an impressive voice, although its songs are still rich and varied, and it is a good mimic as well. The Eurasian Skylark which features in Shelley’s verse has been introduced here. Lark has been used as a name since the 18th century, and is historically more common for boys, but is often now thought of as more feminine than masculine. It’s a simple, non-frilly nature name laden with symbolism, and is more often found in the middle.
Maggie is the affectionate name for the Australian Magpie. Although they look similar, it isn’t closely related to the European Magpie. Easily recognisable from their black and white plumage, magpies are very familiar in suburban life. Magpies are one of Australia’s favourite songbirds, because they have a complex, melodious warble, and will carol in chorus at dusk and dawn. They can also mimic other birds and animals, including human speech. Bold and sturdy, they are not typically wary of humans, and will happily accept (demand!) free food from us. They become unpopular in spring, as males can be so aggressive during breeding season that they swoop or even attack humans to warn them away. This is when feeding them pays off, as they can tell individual people apart, and won’t scare their buddies. The Magpie was a totem animal for the Indigenous people of the Illawarra, and is an official emblem of South Australia, appearing on the state flag. Magpies is a common name for sporting teams, and the cocky attitude of the Magpie is seen as indicative of the national character. Maggie is also a short form of Margaret. It was #174 in the 1900s, and was off the charts by the 1940s, returning in the 1970s. It has climbed steadily, and is currently in the 100s.
Orioles are a large family of birds found throughout the world, which come in a variety of colours. Australian Orioles are green, perfect for blending in with the trees. They are fruit-eating birds, and the Figbird is one of the Orioles, although it doesn’t only eat figs. Orioles and Figbirds are attracted to backyards with small fruit trees and bushes, and which have native trees such as eucalypti and wattle; they are a fairly common sight in suburbia. The word oriole is derived from the Latin for “gold”, because the Eurasian Golden Oriole is a bright yellow. Oriole is related to names like Aurelia and Auriol, which are from the same derivation, and looks a lot like Oriel, which may be seen as a variant of Auriol, but also has Irish and Germanic origins. Oriole seems like a way to retain the golden meaning, while also referencing the bird.
The Rainbird is the colloquial name for the Pacific Koel, a species of migratory cuckoo which arrives here in spring from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, and is found in north and eastern Australia. It’s called a Rainbird because of the belief that its rather mournful “whooping” call is a harbinger of wet weather. Males call for a mate during their breeding season, which coincides with the spring rains and the summer “wet season”, and are so loud they can be considered a nuisance. Like all cuckoos, Rainbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species so that they can be raised by the unsuspecting hosts; however, unlike most other cuckoos, the baby Rainbird doesn’t kill the host chicks. Rainbirds are rather goofy-looking birds; the males have glossy black plumage and bright red eyes. I have seen Rainbird used as a girl’s middle name, and think it makes a wonderful name for a spring or summer baby. It would work equally well for boys.
Rosellas are colourful parrots which are very familiar in suburbia. I think we might take them for granted, because they really are pretty, with a more pleasing range of calls than most parrots. Rosellas will be attracted to any garden that provides them with water, seeds and fruit, and can become so tame that they will eat out of your hand. This has led them to become common as pets, but in captivity they can become bored and aggressive, so I think it’s nicer to have them as backyard visitors. European settlers first saw Eastern Rosellas at Rose Hill (now called Parramatta), and called them Rosehill Parakeets; this evolved into Rosehillers, and eventually became Rosella. The Sydney suburb of Rozelle is named after them. Rosella is also a popular brand of tomato sauce, which sports an Eastern Rosella as its logo. By coincidence, Rosella is also an Italian name, an elaboration of Rosa, and looks like a combination of popular Rose and Ella.
The public’s favourite names were Lark, Maggie and Rosella, and their least favourite were Brahminy, Oriole and Lalage.
(Photo shows an Eastern Rosella)