Friday, 15 April 2011

Skua.......What's in a Name?

Shetland Bonxies

I’ve recently realised my ignorance of the Skua species and have set about correcting this to an extent, by reading Robert W Furness’s The Skuas, one of the Poyser series of ornithological books. A planned pelagic later this year was another reason for delving into the book, which I’m now half way through. It’s proving to be an excellent read so far. It’s given me a break from reading about waders. I’d only seen the odd Skua before my visit to Orkney and Shetland last year, but that trip certainly made a great difference, with me seeing numbers of Arctic Skua and even larger numbers of Great Skua. Sightings of these birds, especially when watched from high cliffs, remain in my mind high points of the trip. I was interested in what Furness had to say in particular about the naming of the ‘Bonxie’ and I’ve since looked at Birds Britannica again to learn even more about the naming of these birds. What follows owes much to what Mark Coker and Richard Mabey had to say in Birds Britannica.

The generic name Stercorarius I noted stems from a Latin word for dung. I’d learnt on my trip to the northern islands that terms such as Scootie Allan and Scootty Alin are used in relation to the Arctic Skua. Originally this was Scoutie which literally means shitty. The Welsh name for Great Skua is Sgiwen fawer which in English translates to dung skua. This all relates to the old misconception that skuas chased seabirds in order to catch and eat their excrement.

Moving away from ornithology I learn the British Fleet Air Arm’s first naval dive-bomber was named the Blackburn Skua. Not surprisingly taking its name from the Arctic Skua, because of the nature of the bird’s flight. The aircraft shot down the first enemy aircraft of World War Two and sixteen of these aircraft flew from Orkney to Norway in April 1940 and sank the German cruiser Konigsberg. This was the first time a major warship had been bombed and sunk in wartime. My brother, who is very interested in aircraft, reminded me of the merlin engines and kestrel aircraft. There are probably many more ornithological and aviation links.

The naming of the Pomarine Skua is interesting. It has been thought that the name was associated with Pomerania, the Baltic region shared by Germany and Poland. It is in fact a word originating from the Greek pomato, meaning lid, and rhinos, meaning nosed. This relates to the thin plates that overlay the base of the bill on all skuas. The longer name of pomatorhine skua was used until the mid twentieth century.

I can remember reading at some point that the term bonxie, used in Shetland (and now very widely) for Great Skua, meant bully. It seems to me now to be incorrect. It seems that bonxie was originally spelt as buncie and was a term used only in Shetland. This is thought to be derived from the Norse bunksi, meaning a heap or an untidy dumpy woman, which Furness says ‘describes the species on its breeding territory, though not in flight.’

Furness has some interesting comments to make about terms used for skuas, in particular in Iceland and the Faeroes, which can be used to some degree to date when the birds first appeared there. You may want to read the book to find out more. Hopefully I’ll finish the book over Easter and hopefully see some skuas on the pelagic. Keep watching for an action report from the ‘all weather birders’ later in the year.

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