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What is the meaning of featherpault?

Sent in by Cliff Gorman, Cudworth, Barnsley, Yorkshire

Old folk names of birds arose from the need or wish to describe the bird, and the names usually derive from the bird's appearance, behaviour, or its habitat.

This is how great grey shrike became generally called butcher bird, describing its habit of storing its prey for later use by impaling them in thorns in bushes and trees. All the folk names for the bittern, including boom bird and bog blutter, refer to its far-carrying call and its wetland habitat. Great tits were known, among other names, as sharp saw, and swifts were known by a variation on the theme of devil's bird or devil screecher - packs of little demons hurtling through the air at breakneck speed screaming.

Reasons for other names are far more obscure. For instance, in northern England whooper swan was known as elk, and in Essex oystercatcher was called olive. Sometimes a name even changes species. In the past, if you were to talk about a corncrake in Sussex, you would be referring to a quail!

I have been unable to locate the term featherpault with reference to any bird at all. This may be a chiffchaff - in Yorkshire and Northumberland.

The name refers to the nest of these birds, which is a dome-shaped construction of grass, twigs, moss and other plant material, lined with fine grasses, animal hair and feathers. The feather lining will also be the origin of the name feather bed, which was used in Oxfordshire. Interestingly, feather poke was also widely used to describe long-tailed tits!

Use of standardised names for birds is fairly recent, brought about by the appearance of bird field guides, which required a means of referring to each bird without confusion. The rich variety of folk names has by and large fallen out of use, although some are still heard. Many people routinely use names like jenny wren, tomtit, robin redbreast and spuggie, and even seasoned birders are from time to time heard talking about dabchicks (little grebe) and peewits (lapwing).

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