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Birder Jargon Project: Tails and Shoulders, Knees and Toes

July 13, 2011
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Within the broader birding community there are subsets within subsets.  There are gullers, and shorebirders, and those that live and breathe the offshore waters.  There are certain birds whose followers are practically cultish in their devotion; Hummingbirds, and Purple Martins and Bluebirds.  And there are, in a category unto themselves, the hawkwatchers.

Hawkwatching involves standing on an elevated platform or mountain, ideally along some sort of well-traveled migration route, and counting every raptor you see fly by.  It involves long hours in the sun.  It involves days where practically nothing passes by followed by days when the hawks are thick as gnats on a summer evening.  It requires a familiarity with raptors than very few birders have the opportunity to attain, and with all good friends, nicknames are made and used in that affable way that close companions have.  The hawks are no different.  After all, serious hawkwatchers spend hours, days, weeks with these birds.  They’re as recognizable as old friends and it’s only appropriate to treat them that way.  On top of that, on busy days calling out the full name of every passing hawk can leave you tongue-tied and tired so a nickname has a pragmatic value for the hawkwatcher as well.

You can always tell your birding companion is a present or former hawkwatcher because that shorthand, those nicknames, will leak through.  I grew up in the Midwest, hardly a traditional hawkwatching hotspot, so when I first moved to the east coast I was surprised when I good birding friend of mine took note of a passing Buteo and simply called, “Tail“.

I was taken aback.  Not that I needed him to add “Hawk” or anything, but the succinctness of the call surprised me.  Why not, though?  Red-tailed Hawk is the most well-known raptor on the continent, the highway sentinel, the fencepost sitter itself.  Why worry about the precision?  This bird certainly isn’t one for formalities.

But that’s only the beginning.  If Tail is Red-tail, then that screaming Buteo lineatus is simply “Shoulder“.  So that field trip leader isn’t randomly spouting body parts, s/he’s pointing out the raptor on the far tree. This shorthand really only applies to Tails and Shoulders, however, though the odd Rough-legged Hawk will go by “Roughie” or the more Euro “Roughleg” for birders in the far north.  That’s rarely one you’ll hear at hawkwatches outside of Minnesota though.  Interestingly, the most common migrating hawk in eastern North America, the Broad-winged Hawk, doesn’t go by “Wing”, though I’m singlehandedly trying to bring “Broadie” into wider use.  It’s been a long slog for that one.

Western Buteos generally don’t have the same sort of congenial nicknames, possibly because hawkwatches are fewer and farther between on the left coast, migration being a much more visible phenomena the farther east you go.  Besides, the major migratory raptor out west is the Swainson’s Hawk, and beyond being called “Swainson’s”, there’s really not a lot you can make of that name. Ferruginous Hawks will occasionally go by called “Ferrug”, but that’s not fun either.  Hawk nicknames, at least the Buteos, seems to be mostly an eastern idiosyncrasy.

Tails and Shoulders, not just a KFC order anymore.

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3 Comments
  1. July 13, 2011 1:49 pm

    Based on that title, you are clearly the father of a toddler.

    “Roughleg” seems to be more common here in NJ.

  2. Norm Jenson permalink
    July 14, 2011 12:56 pm

    I hear Swainson’s called Swainies or is it Swaney’s here in Utah.

  3. Nate permalink*
    July 14, 2011 1:10 pm

    @Patrick- Maybe I’m the only one pushing “roughies”. Since I see so many of them down here…

    @Norm- Swaneys! That great, I really like that one.

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