Sunday, 31 July 2011

Petrel...What's in a Name?

With some great sea watching behind me over the past two or three weeks, and a long time planned pelagic now approaching quickly, I’ve turned to my copy of Bird Families of the World/Albatrosses and Petrels across the World…Michael Brooke. (This is a copy which has been on the bookshelf for a while, largely unread until now). This along with televised cricket and a walk to the lake, filled in most of what on the whole was a none birding in the field weekend. With the European Storm Petrel passage along our coast seeming to be unprecedented with regard to numbers (within the memory of all/most), I found the opening chapter of the book interesting with regards to naming of birds.

The birds focussed upon by the book, which has some excellent colour plates, are all members of the order Procellariiformes, at least that is the usage adopted by the book. The term Procellariiforme is derived from the Latin procella which means storm, tempest or gale.

The actual origin of the term petrel would seem to be largely unknown. However there is some thought that the name is referring to when St Peter took a walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee (Mathew 14 : 29). An alternative explanation for the name formerly referred to as ‘pitteral’ is that it is derived from the bird’s pitter pattering habits. Seamen used to refer to Storm Petrels as Mother Carey's Chickens. This name is a corruption of 'Mater Cara', the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It seems that in some coastal areas there was a belief that the souls of the dead transmigrate into birds, and this was directed especially to petrels. In Brittany fishermen believed that skippers who treated their crew badly were doomed to flutter forever over the sea as petrels. Shearwaters of the Bosphorus were known by the French as ‘ames damnees’ meaning damned souls and therefore treated with superstition. Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner is related to such myths.

The only Albatross I have seen in the wild is the Atlantic Yellow- nosed Albatross. It came close to the boat I was on during a pelagic off the coast of Namibia. On the same pelagic I remember both Wilson’s and White-chinned Petrels close by the boat also. The Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross is one of the smaller albatrosses in the group known as ‘mollymawks’. The term mollymawk is derived from the Dutch ‘mal’ meaning foolish and ‘mok’, meaning gull. The term was originally given to the Northern Fulmar which clustered in a feeding frenzy around boats, foolishly allowing themselves to be killed.

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