1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Knot (bird)

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KNOT, a Limicoline bird very abundant at certain seasons on the shores of Britain and many countries of the northern hemisphere. Camden in the edition of his Britannia published in 1607 (p. 408) inserted a passage not found in the earlier issues of that work, connecting the name with that of King Canute, and this account of its origin has been usually received. But no other evidence in its favour is forthcoming, and Camden’s statement is merely the expression of an opinion,[1] so that there is perhaps ground for believing him to have been mistaken, and that the clue afforded by Sir Thomas Browne, who (c. 1672) wrote the name “Gnatts or Knots,” may be the true one.[2] Still the statement was so determinedly repeated by successive authors that Linnaeus followed them in calling the species Tringa canutus, and so it remains with nearly all modern ornithologists.[3] Rather larger than a snipe, but with a shorter bill and legs, the knot visits the coasts of some parts of Europe, Asia and North America at times in vast flocks; and, though in temperate climates a good many remain throughout the winter, these are nothing in proportion to those that arrive towards the end of spring, in England generally about the 15th of May, and after staying a few days pass northward to their summer quarters, while early in autumn the young of the year throng to the same places in still greater numbers, being followed a little later by their parents. In winter the plumage is ashy-grey above (save the rump, which is white) and white beneath. In summer the feathers of the back are black, broadly margined with light orange-red, mixed with white, those of the rump white, more or less tinged with red, and the lower parts are of a nearly uniform deep bay or chestnut. The birds which winter in temperate climates seldom attain the brilliancy of colour exhibited by those which arrive from the south; the luxuriance generated by the heat of a tropical sun seems needed to develop the full richness of hue. The young when they come from their birthplace are clothed in ashy-grey above, each feather banded with dull black and ochreous, while the breast is more or less deeply tinged with warm buff. Much curiosity has long existed among zoologists as to the egg of the knot, of which not a single identified or authenticated specimen is known to exist in collections. The species was found breeding abundantly on the North Georgian (now commonly called the Parry) Islands by Parry’s Arctic expedition, as well as soon after on Melville Peninsula by Captain Lyons, and again during the voyage of Sir George Nares on the northern coast of Grinnell Land and the shores of Smith Sound, where Major Feilden obtained examples of the newly hatched young (Ibis, 1877, p. 407), and observed that the parents fed largely on the buds of Saxifraga oppositifolia. These are the only localities in which this species is known to breed, for on none of the arctic lands lying to the north of Europe or Asia has it been unquestionably observed.[4] In winter its wanderings are very extensive, as it is recorded from Surinam, Brazil, Walfisch Bay in South Africa, China, Queensland and New Zealand. Formerly this species was extensively netted in England, and the birds fattened for the table, where they were esteemed a great delicacy, as witness the entries in the Northumberland and Le Strange Household Books; and the British Museum contains an old treatise on the subject: “The maner of kepyng of knotts, after Sir William Askew and my Lady, given to my Lord Darcy, 25 Hen. VIII.” (MSS. Sloane, 1592, 8 cat. 663).  (A. N.) 

  1. His words are simply “Knotts, i. Canuti aues, vt opinor e Dania enim aduolare creduntur.” In the margin the name is spelt “Cnotts,” and he possibly thought it had to do with a well-known story of that king. Knots undoubtedly frequent the sea-shore, where Canute is said on one occasion to have taken up his station, but they generally retreat, and that nimbly, before the advancing surf, which he is said in the story not to have done.
  2. In this connexion we may compare the French maringouin, ordinarily a gnat or mosquito, but also, among the French Creoles of America, a small shore-bird, either a Tringa or an Aegialitis, according to Descourtilz (Voyage, ii. 249). See also Littré’s Dictionnaire, s.v.
  3. There are few of the Limicolae, to which group the knot belongs, that present greater changes of plumage according to age or season, and hence before these phases were understood the species became encumbered with many synonyms, as Tringa cinerea, ferruginea, grisea, islandica, naevia and so forth. The confusion thus caused was mainly cleared away by Montagu and Temminck.
  4. The Tringa canutus of Payer’s expedition seems more likely to have been T. maritima, which species is not named among the birds of Franz Josef Land, though it can hardly fail to occur there.