If You Can’t Stand the Answer

One of a miscellany of short observations from a trip to Scotland.

That’s a great tit.

I try not to startle: the young man beside me is not looking at me (Go figure!), he’s staring at the bird feeder that regularly interrupts our procession to and from meals in the baronial hall. With repeated exposure and on-site identification assistance, I find that undifferentiated swarms of unfamiliar birds are gradually coalescing into discernible categories.



Greater spotted woodpecker.


A true robin, mind you, a member of the flycatcher family: not some ne’er-do-well, johnny-come-lately of a thrush with a red breast, probably named by some emigrant who didn’t care that it was twice the size of a Real Robin and in a different family altogether. Whew. We get the whole rant, more than once, from the resident Bird Guy. It’s still obviously a sore point after, what, three hundred years or so? Oh, quite a recent affront, then.

As each bird in turn becomes a member of a recognizable set, it is the as-yet-unidentified outliers that draw focus. Today, that would be the great tit, cavorting about the feeder, the ground and the adjacent bushes, with an occasional coal tit thrown in for contrast. And contrast they do, even to my uninformed eye, the former’s white cheeks standing clearly apart from the latter’s white spot on nape of neck. They look suspiciously like our black-capped chickadees and are, indeed, in the same (ahem) tit family.

I can’t help it: I can’t quite say it without a subvocal tit-ter, like a preschooler who has just discovered scatalogical humour. It sounds so silly: I mean, what was wrong with calling them ‘chickadees’, as any reasonable person would do?

Fast forward a few hours and we are on the beach on Black Isle, which is neither black nor an island, fueling my growing suspicions about Scots and Names of Things. As the wind pushes us to and fro, we see birds: they’re everywhere. Sparing my blushes, these are not the chickadee variants of the woodland feeder, but robust, long-legged birds wading resolutely in surf that requires resolution. Appealed to, Bird Guy, our guide for the day, speaks.

Oyster catchers.

Offshore, we see long-necked birds flying to and fro with rather better mastery of the wind than we can manage on the ground. The white ones stand out clearly against the dreary grey sky.

Gannets, Bird Guy pronounces, after a glance.

But there are others — dark grey and lanky, with even longer necks than the gannets.

Cormorants? I hazard.

Bird Guy looks across the inlet and shakes his head.

Nope. Shags.

There is no inflection in his voice at all: no trace of self-consciousness. I believe it may be time for me to stop asking.

PS: Interested in any of these birds? Just follow the links for more information:

great tit

coal tit



(true) robin

thrush with red breast

greater spotted woodpecker

oyster catcher




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4 Responses to If You Can’t Stand the Answer

  1. Jim taylor says:

    I think I must still be seven years old, somewhere down deep inside. It’s almost impossible not to play with puns and double entendres when parts of the body come up (oops!) in conversation.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Well, it isn’t the most sophisticated form of humour, that’s for sure, but maybe we should never look a funny horse in the mouth, as it were. I wonder what words we use without thinking that strike them as odd.

  2. Jim Robertson says:

    A square is a rectangle isn’t it ? Therefore a shag is a cormorant.

    Or at least that is how I would rationalize it.

    Yes the chickadees certainly are tits by another name….. But not all tits are chickadees….
    Then there is a the Costa Rican robin that has no red breast…..

    Let’s just call them all “LBJ’s” (Little blue/brown/black jobbies)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – No red breast? The nerve of that Costa Rican imposter! A thrush like our robin, I see from Wiki. Bird Guy knew all the birds by UK names and by North American names (where that applied). Of course, his job is to communicate with tourists (many but not all of whom will be foreigners), but he had come to it relatively recently. That suggested he just knew both sets of names. Pretty impressive.

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