A Eurasian Curlew amongst grass with a blurred background, looking to one side with its bill open.

Y Gylfinir … and other Welsh names for Curlew

Did you know that 21 April is World Curlew Day! Isn’t there a day for everything? Why then does y gylfinir deserve a special day’?

As is frequently the case the standard Welsh term for the Curlew – y gylfinir – describes Britain’s largest wading bird perfectly: gylfin = bill, hir = long! It’s difficult to wrongly identify this big brown mottled bird due to its long slender downward curved bill.

A Eurasian Whimbrel against a blurry background.
Eurasian Whimbrel. (Photo by Hugh Harrop)

However its close relative, the Whimbrel - coegylfinir - (pictured above) also has a long bill, but is much smaller and only visits Wales on passage during the Spring and Autumn.

You may have seen y gylfinir searching for worms by poking its long, flexible and sensitive bill into expanses of mud flats on the coast.

Y gylfinir is one of approximately 13 Welsh terms which have been used in different parts of Wales for the Curlew. This may indicate that it is a bird which is particularly close to our hearts in Wales.

A clue as to why this may be so comes from a collection of names which refer not to its bill but to its call: chwibanogl y mynydd, chwibanwr, whibonog and whibanwr. These are all variations on the theme of ‘whistling’! It’s difficult to describe the call – you have to hear it for yourself – and it’s even more difficult to put one’s finger on the effect it has on us.

Poets and writers down the centuries have tried to accomplish this, including one of Wales’ most renowned poets, R Williams Parry in his poem Y Gylfinir:

Y Gylfinir (tr)

Your call is heard at mid-day
A wistful flute over the moor
Like a shepherd’s whistle far away
Your call is heard at midnight clear
Then hear we, as you swell your keen
The far-off barking of your unseen hounds

R. Williams Parry


From afar on the breeze your song wafts.
Swelling into a rippling melody,
it flows over my wounds,
and plucks,
carries me to float in another realm,
before your notes cascade,
in a long melancholic diminuendo,
to leave echoes shimmering gently,
a haze hanging above the moor.

What is your word-less song curlew,
which caresses my soul?
A celebration;
the remote boggy tracts are yours,
with whispers of your eventual farewell,
and the wind-swept wastelands you'll leave,
full of mute spirits,
and a hollowness inside me.

Siân Shakespear

The other Welsh names for curlew are versions of gylfinir: gylfiniog, glafinir, glofeinir and it’s possible that two of the others are derived from the English ‘curlew’: giarliw and cwrlig. One homely term is Pegi Pig Hir which translates as long billed Peggy.

Two names give rise to a bit of a quandry: cŵn Ebrill – April’s dogs and aderyn glaw – rainbird. T Gwynn Jones’ (1871 – 1949) collected pieces of folklore around Wales and this is his explanation for the first of these:

Cŵn Ebrill - April’s Dogs - is the name in some areas for curlew, particularly when the call is heard at nightime during early spring. The call isn’t unpleasant but I know of some who are horrified when they hear it, although they deny any knowledge of the Hounds of Hades, which at one time chased the souls of the dead through the sky.”

Whatever they are called, the sad fact is that Curlews are becoming ever scarcer by the year. The rate of decline is so much so, there is a danger there won’t be enough of a breeding population left for them to successfully nest and rear chicks on the wetlands and moors of Wales after 2033!

A photo of four Curlew eggs in a nest.
Curlew eggs in a nest.

This is why they need a special day dedicated to them, so that people become aware of them and their plight. There is considerable evidence that the first Curlew eggs hatch around 21st April.

People in and around the county of Conwy, who are either new Welsh speakers or fluent have an opportunity to learn more and perhaps see some Curlew on Hiraethog on 20 May 2024. Please contact judith@mentrauiaith.cymru of the Gwreiddiau Gwyllt - wild roots – project.

Siân Shakespear worked as the Engagement Officer for Cri’r Gylfinir/CurlewLIFE project at Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog for two and a half years. She is now the Project Manager for Gwreiddiau Gwyllt, a Heritage Lottery Funded project run by Mentrau Iaith Cymru (Welsh Language Enterprises) which works to raise awareness and increase the use of Welsh terms for wildlife by organising activities and collating Welsh language nature resources.

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