When I look through the French doors of my Hexham home and watch the wood pigeons greedily gorging on the grass seeds I have painstakingly scattered on my threadbare lawn, it is hard to imagine these fat, waddling birds as close cousins to the elegant dove. But indeed, that is what they are.
Since the earliest times, the dove has been recognised as a monogamous creature which, together with its pure whiteness, has led to its adoption as a symbol of love, peace, and purity. In the Bible, Noah selected a white dove to find dry land. It eventually returned, bearing an olive branch which has since become the symbol of peace. And throughout history, the pretty white bird has been depicted fluttering around the heads and shoulders of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, also known by the Romans as Venus.
The dove also belongs to a rare group of creatures that practice monogamy. Like their close cousins, wood pigeons were also thought to pair up for life, sharing responsibility in the incubation and care of their young.
According to the 19th-century lexicographer, John Brockett, it is this latter reason that brings us the Northumbrian dialect word cushart for the wood pigeon. In his “Glossary of North Country Words”, he suggests its root is from the Anglo-Saxon word, cusceate meaning, one who is chaste.
The use of the word Cushart which, along with derivatives such as cushie, cusset, kowshut and the now-archaic term, cushy-dow, is mainly found in the southern half of Northumbria, having been noted in Teesdale, Durham, and Tyneside. It is also used in Scotland as evidenced by that great writer of the Scottish dialect, Robert Burns:
“Oh sweet are Coila’s haughs and woods,
When lintwhite chants amang the buds,
And junkin’ hares in amorous whids,
Their loves enjoy. While thro’ the braes the cushat croods,
Wi’ wailfu’ cry!”