Tuesday, 21 February 2012

What's in a Name.......Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose Branta lecopsis

This goose belongs to the genus Branta, species which are of largely black plumage, thus distinguishing it from those geese of the Anser genus, which are largely grey.

First classified taxonomically by Johann Mathaus Bechstein in 1803. The specific name lecopsis is derived from the Greek leuko, meaning white and opsis meaning faced.

‘In English the term ‘barnacle’ originally referred only to this species of goose and only later to the crustacean barnacles. It is sometimes claimed that the word comes from the Celtic word for limpet.’

The following is an early account of how it was thought Barnacle Geese came into being......................................................

They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber. Having thus been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away. I have seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber. This explanation originally appeared in Topographica Hibernica 1186

The above account began the myth that the geese were born of barnacles. This myth was believed for over 500 years and in some quarters, until the twentieth century! It seems the people of Kerry kept to this belief until the last century, perhaps for their own benefit. The ‘fishy’ origin in the myth allowed the locals to eat goose meat during Lent when the eating of flesh was otherwise forbidden. The locals also appear to have referred to Brent Geese as Barnacles, which seems to have allowed them to eat that goose during Lent too! (Info found in Birds Britannica/Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey). Tim Birkhead gives a fuller account of the information from Topographica Hibernica, in his Wisdom of Birds. It includes, ‘Bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh’.

Incidentally .........

Caerlaverock means ‘castle of the lark’. Laverock is a Scottish term for the Skylark

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