There was quite a splash in various British newspapers last week, lamenting what one described as the “final extinction” of the great bustard, a puzzling statement when reference books say it last bred in England in 1832. The real story was that a Wiltshire conservation trust had been trying for 30 years to reintroduce it, but had finally had to admit defeat.
It was a sad announcement. It would be good to have it back in the British list again because it’s so impressive: it’s Europe’s largest land bird, often weighing 25lb (12 kilos), the size of a turkey, with a fine courtship display in Spring. Its breeding area is now restricted to Spain, northern Germany and the central European plain and it is only a very occasional visitor to these shores, one that causes great excitement when it occurs.
It was once relatively common and was a prized dish, considered excellent eating; stuck with cloves, it was prepared by roasting or baking exactly like a turkey. Even the arrival of the turkey itself in the 1520s didn’t change that opinion, it being described as “much prized” in the 1690s. But by the 1750s it was becoming rare and was called “this curious fowl” in a cookery book of that date. It was too easy to hunt for its own survival despite being a shy bird. It needed lots of wide open flat countryside of a kind which vanished the best part of two centuries ago in England. In the late eighteenth century the bustard was hanging on in the open turnip fields of Wiltshire, with reports of flocks of fifty or more. But by the 1790s it was said to be very rare and shortly after it vanished for ever from the English countryside as well as the English dining table.
Having lamented the sad failure of the attempt to reintroduce it, the obvious question for a word specialist is how the bird got a name like bustard in the first place. The answer, it turns out, is one of those stories of transmission through several languages, each time being altered to fit the characteristic forms of its new linguistic surroundings. But attached to that story, common enough in itself, is a puzzle that nobody has yet solved.
It started out in Latin, where it was called avis tarda, “slow bird” (tarda is the origin of our tardy), a weird name for an animal that has powerful long legs that can drive it at a great speed (in England, sportsmen used to hunt them by running them down with greyhounds) and which can even fly quite powerfully when it’s forced to. The Latin name comes from Pliny, who said that was what the bird was called in Spain (“aves, quas Hispania tardas appellat”). There’s some suspicion that tarda is actually a name from somewhere else and isn’t the Latin for “slow” at all. On the other hand, the bird prefers to walk when it is not alarmed in a way that nearly all accounts in English call “stately”, so it may not be so ridiculous a description.
Over the years, the name drifted through the main European languages, at one time becoming abetarda or betarda in Portuguese, avutarda in Spanish, and ottarda in Italian, in each case with the second element retained but the first modified. The English name was originally bistarde, which was the old French name, which mutated to its modern form sometime in the fifteenth century.
But in the Germanic languages it has a significantly different name: for example, trap in Swedish, trapp in Danish, and Trappe in German. This word in its various forms is related to our tread (and also to trap) and it may be that the mysterious original recorded by Pliny was actually a reference in an ancient Germanic language to its tread — to the bird that walks in a stately manner, in fact. But who knows?