In one small area of the Yorkshire Dales are four pubs called The Black Swan, in Bedale, Leyburn, Masham and Middleham. When I encountered them ten years ago, I was intrigued. Why there? I still don’t know, but they sparked my interest in British pubs named after birds and bird-related things such as Feathers and Birdcage. There are relatively few of the latter, so for brevity I will refer to all of them as ‘pub birds’.
I now have a database of 650 pub birds from two sources. Random samples of all the pubs in an area, initially by consulting Yellow Pages and Thomson Directories (remember those?) and latterly using Google. There are 307 pub birds in a random sample of 6,846 pubs (4.5%). Then there are another 343 collected haphazardly as I travel about, or sent to me by friends. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of pubs in Britain fell from c. 60,000 to 45,000, so if there were c. 50,000 pubs during the decade of this study, about 2,250 of these should be named after birds. Thus, 650 is a large-enough sample to make some interesting generalisations.
I’ve seen the majority of the 650 pubs and photographed many. In Edinburgh, I asked a taxi driver to take me to the Doocot (‘Dovecot’). ‘What do you want to go there for?’ he enquired. I explained. ‘It’s burned down – insurance job,’ was his reply. It was being rebuilt, and it’s the only pub I’ve been chased away from when taking a photograph.
I visited the pubs because checking a list of names in a sample isn’t foolproof. Several pubs apparently named after birds are not, at least not directly. Examples include The Ostrich Inn in Bristol and The Swallow near Cheltenham (both sailing ships, presumably themselves named after birds) while The Little Owl (also just outside Cheltenham) is named after a racehorse. The opposite is also true: a pub can have a name that is apparently nothing to do with birds, but the pub sign has a bird on it. One that will be familiar to many birders is The George at Cley, with a stylised Brent Goose on its sign. Others include theRiverside near Bath (Wood Duck), The Scolt Head in London (Oystercatcher), and The Leaking Tap near Shrewsbury (Carrion Crow).
Other potential sources of error are stringy identifications. For some reason, birds of prey are frequently misidentified (i.e. the pub sign and the name are not the same species). The Eagle and Sun has a splendid sign but the bird on it isn’t an eagle (fig. 1). There are three pubs supposedly named after falcons (The Falcon in York, The Falcon at Clapham Junction, and The Old Falcon in Driffield), all of which have signs that depict an eagle – a stylised one in two cases and a Bald Eagle in the third.
Some of the pubs are named after birds, but the names are not species-specific, so that the total number of pubs attributed to individual species (discussed next) is fewer than the total number of pubs in the sample as a whole. The Falconers Rest in Leeds, two The Seabirds, one in Bridlington and one in Flamborough, and several (but not all) pubs called The Bird in Hand (a reference to falconry) are good examples.
Pub birds in order of abundance
Mute Swans and ‘double-barrelled’ names
The Mute Swan is by far the most frequent bird lending its name to a pub – there are 115 (17.7%) in the database, from just plain The Swan, Swan Inn or White Swan to fancier names, including the Swan with Two Nicks (Worcester); from Tudor times onwards, Mute Swans owned by Guilds were marked for identification by nicking their bills. Two called The Swan with Two Necks (Wakefield and Pendleton) are corruptions. Hardly any pub birds have nests or youngsters. Mute Swans are one exception, with the Swans Nest in Exminster, The Cygnet in York and the Swan and Three Cygnets in Durham. Mute Swans also join other species in pub names, for example the White Swan and Cuckoo in Shadwell (London). Double-barrelled names are a common feature of pubs (The Kangaroo and Sewing Machine is an ad-man’s joke). One plausible explanation for some is that they were originally two separate pubs that merged. More generally, the history of many pub names is lost in the mists of time. Local historians may know, but asking the person behind the bar is usually futile, and Googling the pub is rarely instructive.
Red Jungle Fowl
Hens to you and me. For 39 pubs (6.0%) they appear in two guises. Males make up the great majority, typically as cockfighting birds. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans claims to be the oldest pub in England (but it isn’t). We also have The Cockpit (St Paul’s, London), where the fights took place. They nicely illustrate the close links between ‘sporting’ interests, i.e. killing things, and pub names. Cockfighting was made illegal in England and Wales in 1835 but not for another 100 years in Scotland. More gentle connotations are implied by the Hen and Chickens in both Highbury (London) and Shrewsbury, and The Mole and Chicken near Shrewsbury.
‘Eagles probably feature on more flags and coats of arms than any other kind of bird’ (Cocker 2013). This is not so for pubs: eagles of all kinds are third in abundance, with a total of 37 pubs (and so ignominiously beaten by hens). Unspecified, or unidentifiable eagles occur in 24 pub names and signs (3.7%). They include various examples of Spread Eagle, Eagle and Child and just Eagle. My first experience of under-age drinking in a pub was in the Eagle and Child in Leyland. Golden Eagles are explicitly named, or clearly identifiable in seven pubs and Bald Eagles in five. The original pub in the nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel is The Eagle on the corner of Shepherdess Road and City Road in London. Its sign shows possibly either a Harpy or a Martial Eagle.
Some 29 pubs (4.5%) are Black Swans, the species that first got me interested in pub birds (fig. 2). They were thought astonishing birds when first discovered by Dutch explorers on the west coast of Australia in the seventeenth century; naming a pub after a strikingly unlikely bird would be one way of attracting customers. Cooper (1897) points out how the (now demolished) Black Swan on Coney Street in York ‘has flourished above 200 years, taking that name long before the actual bird was brought from Australia.’ They may also have caused a stir when the first captive birds were introduced to England as early as 1851 (Long 1981), making another reason to name pubs after them. Another pub called The Swan with Two Necks (see above), in Bristol, has a pair of Mute Swans on one side of its sign, and a pair of Black Swans on the other.
As with cockfighting, hunting, shooting and pubs have a close association: 24 (3.7%) are named after Pheasants. The oldest is the Lion and Pheasant, first recorded in 1707 (Wikipedia). The last (by then illegal) cockfight in Shrewsbury was in this pub in 1857. Grey Partridges are rarer (just 10, 1.5%), and while 20 of the Pheasant pubs use just the bird’s name, most of the Partridge ones are paired with another species, five with gun dogs (as in The Dog and Partridge near Skipton), one (not unexpectedly) Pear and Partridge (Wolverhampton) and a less obvious fruit, the Plum and Partridge near York. The only other gamebirds are both single pubs, The Moorcock Inn in Upper Wensleydale (Red Grouse) and The Blackcock Inn in Kielder (Black Grouse), both reflecting significant species in the local avifauna.
There are 19 pubs (2.9%) named after wild Mallards or their domestic descendants, and again for eight of these gun (or duck-decoy) dogs are involved, for example the Dog and Duck in Babbacombe and the Royal Dog and Duck in Flamborough; ‘Royal’ here is probably a reference to a King Charles Spaniel, used to attract ducks into decoys. It isn’t all relentless slaughter though. The Drunken Duck (Ambleside) commemorates a duck that got drunk from a leaking beer barrel; it was subsequently plucked by the innkeeper’s wife, who assumed it to be dead. However, it sobered up, and was kept warm in an outfit knitted by her until its feathers regrew. The Mucky Duck near Pickering has been renamed by some advertising genius as The White Swan.
Falcons are less popular than Eagles as pub birds; there are just 12 (1.8%) with Falcon in their name, of which three are definitely Peregrines, for example The Falcon Inn in Nottingham has a Peregrine Falcon on its sign, sitting on a falconer’s glove (more killing). There is a single pub called The Kestrel, just outside Harrogate. When first photographed it was a Common Kestrel, but by 2019 it had morphed into an American Kestrel. (It is rare, but not unique for the identity of other species to have changed when a pub sign is repainted. The White Swan in North Walsham used to be a Mute Swan and is now a Tundra Swan, and The Gull Inn in Framlington Pigot used to have a Common Gull on its sign and now it’s a larger, indeterminate Larus.)
Geese and Cuckoos
There are two species of domesticated geese in Britain, derived from Greylag and Swan Geese (Lack 1974). The Gaping Goose in Leeds is a Swan Goose. The rest are largely domesticated Greylags. Curiously there are two pubs called the Goose and Cuckoo, both in Wales (Abergavenny and Llangadog). The Cuckoo appears on its own just once, in Barnsbury, London.
Indian Peafowl (Peacock)
There are nine Peacocks in my database. The Peacock in Stepney (London) has the most beautiful sign (fig. 3). Peacocks provide a reality check on the estimate that my database holds about 29% of British pub birds. Cheke (2019) noted that there are a total of 42 pubs called The Peacock in England, so for this one species I’ve sampled 21.4%.
There are eight Ravens, none of them in mountainous areas and, The Tilly Raven in Shrewsbury aside, mostly just plain The Raven. There are four pubs named after Carrion Crows (including the Crafty Crow in Nottingham), The Jackdaw in Tadcaster and two called The Magpie (fig. 4). It isn’t at all obvious why these pubs are so named, and like their living namesakes, except Ravens, it’s hard to get excited about them.
Most pub birds are rare. We’ve already encountered species from single or a few pubs. The most abundant of the other tail-enders are Domestic or Feral Pigeons (5), Kingfishers (4), Pelicans (3, all of indeterminate species) and Song Thrushes, curiously all called Throstles Nest. Another 40 species feature in just one or two pubs. Space precludes mentioning most of them.
Some species, or groups of species, are rare probably because they are perceived as being ‘bad news’. They include a single The Cormorant in Porchester (a species of ill-omen; King 2013) and just seven Owls of four species (two Barn Owls, single Eagle Owl, Little Owl and Tawny Owl, plus two unspecified owls). ‘Owls carry upon their backs the whole weight of English folklore’ (Cocker & Mabey 2005).
We have already encountered a few alien (largely domesticated or feral) species. In addition, there is The Toucan in Soho (the Guinness Toco Toucan), one each of an indeterminate Parrot and Cockatoo, and two curiously named the George and Vulture, both in London. One of these has (possibly) a Hooded Vulture on its sign. The other, much older, pub has no sign but a wonderful history (Wikipedia). A wine merchant in George Yard had a live Vulture tethered as a sign outside his shop; the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed his livelihood and his vulture, as well as an adjacent pub called The George. Undeterred, the merchant negotiated with the pub landlord to join forces and create The George and Vulture.
More generally, unfamiliar ‘funny foreign’ species seem to have been avoided, with just two exceptions. The Cuckoo near Peterborough is a Jacobin Cuckoo, and The Birdcage in Lincoln has a rather lovely, stylised Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu (fig. 5).
Compared with the body-mass distribution of UK breeding birds (Gaston & Blackburn 2000), identifiable pub birds are significantly larger than expected (body-mass data from Dunning 1993; fig. 6). Size matters, but (correlated with size) other aspects of a bird’s natural history make it more likely to feature in the name of a pub. Being Royal, edible, exciting to hunt or with other sporting connotations, fierce and impressive all increase the chance of becoming a pub bird. Another way to say this is that pub birds are more often non-passerines than a random sample of Britain’s avifauna. If you are a Dunnock, forget it!
Cheke, A. 2019. A long-standing feral Indian Peafowl population in Oxfordshire, and a brief survey of the species in Britain. Brit. Birds 112: 337–348.
Cocker, M. 2013. Birds and People. Jonathan Cape, London.
–– & Mabey, R. 2005. Birds Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.
Cooper, T. P. 1897. The Old Inns and Inn Signs of York. Delite & Sons, York.
Dunning, J. B. Jr. 1993. CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses. CRC Press, Boca Raton.
Gaston, K. J., & Blackburn, T. M. 2000. Pattern and Process in Macroecology. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
King, R. J. 2013. The Devil’s Cormorant. A Natural History. University of New Hampshire Press, Durham.
Lack, D. 1974. Evolution Illustrated by Waterfowl. Blackwell, Oxford.
Long, J. L. 1981. Introduced Birds of the World. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
John Lawton, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
John Lawton is currently President of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and a Vice-President of RSPB. His last paid employment was as Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council. He has been birding for nearly 70 years.
Appendix 1. Scientific names of birds named in the text.
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Barn Owl Tyto alba
Black Grouse Lyrurus tetrix
Black Swan Cygnus atratus
Brent Goose Branta bernicla
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Common Cuckoo Cuculus canoris
Common Gull Larus canus
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Common Raven Corvus corax
Dunnock Prunella modularis
Eagle Owl Bubo bubo
Feral Pigeon Columbia livia
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Greylag Goose Anser anser
Grey Partridge Perdix perdix
Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja
Harris’s Hawk Parabuteo unicinctus
Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus
Indian Peafowl (Peacock) Pavo cristatus
Jackdaw Coloeus monedula
Jacobin Cuckoo Clamator jacobinus
Little Owl Athene noctua
Magpie Pica pica
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Martial Eagle Polematus bellicosus
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu Uraeginthus bengalus
Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus
Red Jungle Fowl (Hen) Gallus gallus
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
Swan Goose Anser cygnoides
Tawny Owl Strix aluco
Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco
Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus
Wood Duck Aix sponsa