Reddy or not.

September 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

We've had a lovely week of warm, sunny weather (in the main), down here in the south of the UK, although strong winds over the last couple of days have started to take some of the leaves off the trees now.

That's a bit of a shame really (we could do with less wind) as this autumn was (is still?) shaping up to be quite spectacular in terms of foliage colour - the reds, oranges and yellows of autumn.

What with the wet, dull spring and most of summer, our trees have invested a lot of energy this year into producing lots of leaves full of carotenoids and of course chloroplasts (in a somewhat futile quest to photosynthesise at full speed) and that weather combined with a warm, sunny late summer means those leaves are full of sugars and might be that way come the first killing frosts.

When the leaves' chloroplasts begin to break down in the autumn, the chlorophyll contained within begins to change colour firstly (from green to red) and also the orange, yellow and brown carotenoids are unmasked - and we get a spectacular fireworks display of various colours during our autumns.

So yes.... we could do with a little less wind for the next fortnight or so really - to keep our trees in leaf and all "sugared up" for autumn proper!

Speaking of colours, especially red, I've had a bit of a "red weekend" so far.

Yesterday began with a dawn drive around the local countryside as the sun came up in a very clear sky. I was saddened to see the big, beautiful dog fox, a red fox to give it its full name (which I'd seen many times whilst watching the owls at the farm) had been kit by a car during the night and had died on the road.

I normally don't particularly care much for foxes (we keep chickens after all) but seeing this big, proud red fox, with his huge tail, lying prostrate on the tarmacadam choked me a little. He was certainly the best-looking (most healthy-looking) largest fox I've ever seen - with no trace of mange or battle scars and he was always a muscular (not lanky) son of a gun. I guess the vehicle must have given him a (very hard) glancing blow as lying on the road he looked in perfect nick still (apart from a wee trickle of blood from his mouth).

A real shame.

One of one hundred thousand

I took a photo of the fox (he was so beautiful even in death, how could I not) and returned home. Upon putting my front door key in the lock, I stopped and watched a pair of robins ("redbreasts") fight noisily on our front lawn - we have quite a few robins at our gaff - delightful wee birds which follow me and the hens around (if we're digging) - looking for worms and grubs.


As the sun rose into the sky and the whole of Berkshire warmed up, I found myself in the garden surrounded by red admiral butterflies and commas (butterflies) feasting on the rampant ivy flowers. At one point we had over a dozen red admirals and half a dozen commas all on one battered ivy-clad damson tree - the most butterflies I've ever seen at one time in our garden. (PLEASE keep your ivy and nettles - they're SO important to our insects - far more so than buddleja for example!)



Seeing that beautiful red fox lying on the road, with a little blood trickle issuing from his mouth, the red admirals and the robin (red breasts) got me thinking about colours yesterday (my brain is like a darter dragonfly sometimes - a ruddy darter in this case!)


Why do we call the fox (our fox here in the UK) the RED fox? It isn't red at all!

Similarly, what is RED about a robin's breast and is a "Red Admiral" truly RED?

There's more of course!

Does the "Red-backed shrike" look like it has a RED back to you or is it more of an orangey brown and are the redwings' flanks RED or a deep burned orange in colour.

Is the "red grouse" really RED?

Does the "Red-breasted merganser" really have a RED breast, is the "Red kite" not more of a dirty orange colour, what is RED about the neck of the "Red-necked phalarope", is the "redstart" RED or orange and what about those partridge legs.... you know the ones (by now!).... those RED legs of the "red-legged partridge".

In all the above cases (bar the partridge legs which really are an amazing shade of bright red), I would suggest (even though I know colour is beautifully subjective) that better names might go along the lines of:

Russet fox , Robin (orange breast), rust-backed shrike, dark-flanked thrush (redwing), mottled grouse (red grouse), speckled merganser, orange-tailed kite, rusty-necked phalarope and orangestart.

Now you may look at all the birds above and actually see RED, rather than orange or a rust colour - and thats the beauty of colour -everyone sees it differently, but I defy you to see anything red about a red fox or robin's breast!

It does seem to me that many of the vernacular or common names of our British birds (in particular) have been somewhat poorly given. Moths on the other hand are generally named quite beautifully (at least in the vernacular sense) - and correctly! Think "Scarlet tiger moth" or "Ruby Tiger". How about the "Orange swift", the "light orange underwing" or even"Crimson underwing".


Of course, some of our English-speaking vernacular names for animals do stem from their classical (Greek and/or Latin) scientific names - but many don't.

I won't go over all the examples above, but I will briefly (I hope!) discuss yesterday's beasties which got me thinking about the colour red....


The Red fox. (Vulpes vulpes).

Latin scientific name means "(true) fox (true) fox".  One can only assume the "Red" part of the English moniker is to distinguish our rust-coloured fox from ohhh... I don't know.... the swift fox maybe? The Arctic fox? The Bengal fox? Our fox is in no way shape or form RED, but rather like the robin below, I guess our (red) fox was so-called before we had many words for colours other than red, floating around our collective consciousness...


The robin ("redbreast") (Erithacus rubecula)

Scientific name means "Robin red". ("erithakos" meant "Robin" in ancient Greek... and "Ruber" meant "red" in Latin). The robin had always been called the "Redbreast" up until the 15th century when it became fashionable to attribute more "human names" to birds (in particular) - and Robin seemed to fit the bill (or beak... only waterbirds have bills).

In the sixteenth century, the word "orange" as a colour started to become used commonly - named after the newly-discovered and cultivated fruit of the same name. That's right, the orange colour was named after the fruit (not the other way 'round) - and the word orange is derived from the sanskrit  नारङ्ग nāraṅgaḥ "orange tree".The Sanskrit word is in turn borrowed from the Dravidian root for 'fragrant').

Before this word "Orange" (derived from "Naranja" see above) was introduced to the English-speaking world, the colour orange was referred to as ġeolurēad (yellow-red).

In a nutshell then, we refer to the robin's breast as being RED because when we started to name our birds, we had no word for orange!

This might explain quite a lot and go some way to half explaining the other poor vernacular names of the birds I listed above?



The Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta).

Greek scientific name meaning "Vanessa" (the girls name possibly derived from "Phanes" (pronounced FAN-NESS a Greek mystical divinity) and "Atalanta" a Classical Greek heroine (of which I'll mention in a bit more detail later). Many people think that the vernacular "Red Admiral" is derived not from its lady-like scientific names of course, but from the Royal Navy's "Admiral of the Red" or "Rear Admiral". I can see why this is though to be true - look at the Rear Admiral's flag, but generally the butterfly's "Red Admiral" name is more commonly thought to be a corruption of "Red Admirable". Nothing naval about it at all.

Still doesn't explain the word RED though does it? I spppose the Red Admiral's wing stripes are on the red side of orange, but look very closely and you might just agree with me when I say they are orange really. Not red.

Is this down to the fact that (like the robin above) the vernacular name for this butterfly came about before the word "Orange" was used in common parlance. Possibly but I am big and ugly enough to appreciate that when many people see a red admiral, they do indeed see red and not orange.


Now then.

The "Atalanta" Greek specific name is a great scientific name for this butterfly I think. Now the below may not be true (but I've always held this opinion, so please don't tell me it's wrong!

If you know your Greek mythology, you'll know Atalanta was a mythological Greek heroine who would only marry a man who could beat her in a footrace (I've shortened the story somewhat).  Atalanta was swift of foot and no man could catch her in a run; no-one that is until Hippomenes came along. Hippomenes asked the goddess Aphrodite to slow Atalanta down and Aphrodite responded by giving Hippomenes three irresistable golden apples. When the race began, Hippomenes rolled these juicy golden apples along the ground to the side of Atalanta and so irresistable were they that Atalanta slowed down to grab them. Hippomenes caught her and she was beaten and thus married. All down to Aphrodite's sweet golden apples you see.

But what has this story got to do with the butterfly?

You've probably got the picture by now, but Red Admirals often enjoying feasting on fermenting dropped fruit (such as apples) - so I've always thought that the butterfly was really nicely named after the Greek heroine who was lured to her marriage by following apples also.

(Like I say, I might be wrong in thinking that, but its always been a nice story for me to remember!)



Annnyyyyywaaaay..... I've rambled on for far too long this morning - I really just wanted to write about yesterday's RED (or orange!) day and mention the vagueries and subjectiveness of colour whilst  discussing the origin of the names of three of our "Red" animals which I watched yesterday.


Colours eh?

My wife has always maintained I'm on "the spectrum"!!!



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