Birder Jargon Project: Ducks n’ whatnot
If you were to create a giant Venn diagram encompassing the interests of birders and hunters there are very few groups of birds that would find themselves in the middle. Upland ground birds, of course, for their tasty flesh and excellent shootability (so I’m told), and waterfowl, for, well… the same reasons. Hunters, for all the time and effort that expend getting outside to practice their hobby, just don’t care much about birds. Sure, there are always exceptions, but for every hunter with a broader ecological interest in what’s going on around him, it seems like there are ten that are mostly interested in filling a feather bag with lots of little metal balls. And if my experience birding NWRs after hunters clear out is any indication, there’s very little discretion with regard to what the business end of the shotgun is pointed at when the trigger is pulled. Asking a hunter for the finer points of identifying Greater and Lesser Scaup in flight, or heck, expecting a subtle breakdown of the salient field marks of any female duck is expecting quite a bit more than you’re likely to get. You don’t ask a housepainter for their thoughts on post-cubist pictoral modernism, either.
That said, there’s cultural tradition of duck hunting that operates in parallel with birding, though it rarely overlaps. And like many traditions, there’s a language unique to it that’s as foreign to outsiders as many of our more bizarre birder jargon. It’s my opinion that it would be a shame to lose some of these colloquial names, as a language is much like a species in that its survival is dependent on its diversity, and these particular names offer a glimpse, and often a colorful one, into another way of thinking about birds. A bit more as a commodity, that’s true, but a word need not be saddled with that sort of pejorative connotation forever.
Anyway, my grandfather was one of those old duck hunters, and when I began birding my dad would occasionally drop one of those terms with regard to the rafts of ducks we were scoping. From this I learned that American Wigeon, for one, is often called Baldpate, a reference to the flash of white on the front of the drake’s head. A bit more research turned up Cottonhead as another reference to Wigeon. Both are a tad too long to ever replace the simplicity of the proper name, but Gad for Gadwall and Woody for Wood Duck are a pair of shooting terms that have made their way into the regular birding vernacular.
The bird pictured above has several names, all of which refer to that great honking bill. Spoonbill is a bit too close to another much desired species to enter regular usage, but Smilies or Boot Lip have a certain charm.
All the Mergansers are collectively referred to as Sawbills for that serrated bill of their’s, but apparently can also be called Zipperheads which sounds like a low-rent horror movie. Both Scaup are called Bluebills because that’s what you see when you’re peeking out of a blind. As mentioned earlier, parsing Greater from Lesser is probably not a priority, particularly if you hope to have them in the hand soon enough. And what of that much maligned Ring-necked Duck, whose name seems especially poorly chosen? To cut down on the confusion, hunters call them Ring-bills after their much more prominent field mark. So at least they’re in the right there.
Northern Pintails, arguably the classiest of the dabblers, has always gone by the name Sprig, which I can’t figure if it refers to their call or their springy tail, but either way is way too obscure for use in the birding community.
There are others, no doubt. Perhaps you know some I don’t? If so, please leave them in the comments.