Total Pageviews

Feb 4, 2008

Changing people into birds

During my research for writing a family history book, I was warned that what one found, in census records, was not always what it seemed. Being a birder makes me take notice when I run across people named after birds. Now let me bring these two thoughts together.

Old distant relatives of my wife, Swan Pitman and Starling Shanks, show up in the 1881 British Census and the 1911 Census of Canada, respectively. What a beautiful name for a girl: Swan. What a rascally name for a boy: Starling. Indeed, but these were not the names given to them by their parents. They were the names given to them by census enumerators.

Swan was, in reality, Susan. She was Susan in the 1871 and 1891 censuses, but amazingly, in between, she was Swan in the 1881 census. If one looks closely at a copy of the 1881 enumerator's handwritten entry, it quickly becomes apparent that the second "s" in Susan was sloppily squeezed into a single stroke of the pen. When the very narrow, squished "s" was tagged onto the "u" in Susan, the result was an unintentional interlaced letter that looked like a "w", and so Susan became Swan. Take a pen or pencil and write Susan quickly. It's not hard to see how easily this could have happened.

As for Starling, his real name was Sterling. He was Sterling on his birth certificate and all other records and documents I have found. Once again, a look at the original 1911 handwritten census form shows that an "a" was put in Sterling, instead of an "e". I, for one, think Sterling is a wonderfully impressive name for a man, but there's something about Starling. They say that some census-takers were nearly illiterate in the mid-1800s, but still... there's something also about Swan.

Have a great day and please feed the birds.



Bigwom said...

I have the feeder, and I have the seeds, but the backyard seems so far away.

Jesse said...


For Lily, we were actually toying with the name 'Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker', but we didn't want her to be one of a dozen in her nursery school.

The blog looks great, by the way! Wonderful title picture.