The Lost Birds

By David Cook

What do the following birds have in common?


For children, these birds are all now lost from the language of the natural world via a linguistic hit job by Oxford University Press. Each was “made extinct”, becoming a Lost Bird, in recent years by its removal from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. These ten birds, along with other natural words such as acorn, brook, buttercup, pasture, primrose, tulip,  and many living words from nature were lost; replaced by allergic, blog, bullet point, MP3 player, and voicemail.  I don’t have anything against the latter words, but introducing blog and voicemail, should not come at the expense of limiting nature’s vocabulary.

I learned about the Lost Birds during a book signing by Terry Tempest Williams. She read a passage from her book the Hour of Land, a wonderful tribute to our national parks. On pages 360-361 she wrote:

“If you can remove words from a dictionary that are so alive with meaning and withhold them from our children, removing what is alive in the world becomes easy… The wild is no longer part of our vocabulary; nature becomes a forgotten language.”

I was unexpectedly moved and saddened by this loss, which seemed senseless. I know editors have finite space. If you add words, some will need to be deleted; I get that. But these words.  Dandelion and doe, fern and fungus, violet and vine; each expunged along with the Lost Birds.   Moreover, words like cauliflower, leek, spinach, radish were all removed as well. I wondered what the Oxford Junior Dictionary had against vegans.

Shortly after first encountering the Lost Birds via The Hour of Land, I met them again at the Santa Fe Botanial Garden. Michael Namingha, a local artist, created an installation called AWOL that placed signs in the garden for these vanquished words. Experiencing this exhibit shortly after hearing Terry Tempest Williams cemented the impact of what had been stolen; it was more than simply words in a dictionary. It was one more step in the continual distinacing between ourselves and the natural world, the wild, in our daily lives.

I did some more reading and came across the original story in the Guardian about the removal of these words. I then discovered Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’ marvelous book, The Lost Words. A spell book to conjure these missing words, it was gracefully written, beautifully illustrated and a wonderful way to keep these words alive for children. You can read more about this book here.

I wondered what I could do to keep alive the Lost Birds. During my recent Master Naturalist training, I was introduced to iNaturalist, an app that encourages people to observe the natural world, log their findings online, and share them with others. It’s similar to eBird, but it also incorporates social network features to easily share your observations of all species, not just birds.

I thought iNaturalist could be a great way to encourage people to find the Lost Words in the wild and share those observations with the world. I created a collection project–basically a giant query against the millions of observations in iNaturalist–that listed all observations of the Lost Words here in Austin, Texas.  During the first six months of this year, 500 observers have logged more than a 1,000 observations of over 50 species in the City of Austin alone.  You can visit this project here.

The Lost Birds may be gone from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, but they are alive and well outside, and people of all ages are finding and sharing these living treasures every day.  Moreover, they are identifying them by name, names like Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher and Carolina Wren. Fortunately, it takes much more than Oxford linguists to remove them from our lives.