I used to think this was a peculiarly Irish term of abuse – “Ya shitehawk ya” – with origins obscure and possibly whimsical. Some say it originally meant a manure pedlar. But it seems not; for the shitehawk is a real bird.
And not just any old bird either, but one of the most attractive and impressive of the smaller raptors – the red kite. This is a beautiful creature with ruddy feathers and a swift-like forked tail. It also happens to be a hawk for shite.
Or to put it in more scientific terms, as well as being a bird of prey it’s a carrion feeder, eating the bodies of animals it didn’t kill itself and other handy leftovers. A lot of the raptors double-job like this; after all if you’re built to chase down and murder living food you’re probably pretty high up the queue for the dead stuff too. Indeed debate still rages over whether their cousin¹ the Tyrannosaurus was mainly predator or scavenger. So the red kite is attracted to human settlements, because we pretty much live knee-deep in delicious detritus. It hovers – literally – about our dumps and middens.
It’s as a predator though, taking things people wanted to keep like rabbits and young chickens, that it became persecuted as vermin and was once in danger of extinction. Though not before British soldiers had a chance to apply the same vivid name to the carrion birds they met abroad. In India therefore the shitehawk was a vulture. And apparently the word persists in this role in parts of England, except applied to that new ubiquitous flying rat: the seagull.
I like that – I think I’ll refer to gulls as shitehawks from now on. The name suits those raucous opportunists (video) far better than it does the rare and pretty red kite.
- It’s true. Birds are basically just the dinosaurs that didn’t die out.
2 replies on “Shitehawk”
Actually, there precisely no contemporaneous evidence for the red kite having been called shitehawk before the modern era. The earliest mentions of shitehawks all come from the Raj and refer exclusively to the red kite’s cousin, the black kite. The inclusion of the vulture is a back construction and it is only in recent historical fiction that the red kite has been given this soubriquet.
It looks as though you are right. The OED has no citation before 1944. It seems likely that the first time the name was applied to a bird was in India, to the black hawk or maybe pestering scavengers generally.
Less certain is whether the term went unrecorded before that as an insult for people. If it’s a play on kite-hawk, probably not. But was anything ever called a kite-hawk?