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Birder Jargon Project: Ducks n’ whatnot

February 15, 2012

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.

  1. February 15, 2012 8:37 am

    There are a lot of colloquial names for birds included in Bird Studies at Old Cape May. For example, Buffleheads are (or were) known as Butter-balls, and Long-tailed Ducks are (or were) called South-southerlies. Hooded Merganser is (or was) a Hairy-head, and the other two mergansers were Shelldrakes.

  2. February 16, 2012 5:24 pm

    I love this post! Living as a bird-nerd in a house with a duck hunter has enlightened me to the mysterious ways and phrases from the world of duck hunting. Many you mentioned are used almost daily in my house. While there are so many obvious differences between a bird-watcher and a bird-hunter, I do thank goodness for all the conservation dollars that come from hunters and admit that I enjoy an occasional tasty wild duck meal. I know, blasphemy!

    I have a good one for you – all scoters, be them white-winged, surf, or black – are collectively called “coots” around here (Maine). I don’t understand this one at all – a coot is a coot, and a scoter is a scoter – and there have been many heated questionings at dinner when I feel robbed of species specifics while discussing the day’s sightings.

    Also around here, mergansers, be them red-breasted, common, or hooded – are referred to as “fishys”. And all divers are called “shelldrakes”. At least these are obviously based on dietary preference!

    Personally, I have adapted to this ‘fowl slanguage’, but would love it if they would give a little more in the name for all those lumped ducks. As in: white-winged coot, red-breasted fishy, or long-tailed shelldrake…sigh.

    Oooh, I can’t stop now…these come from off-shore fishermen, not duck hunters but are still too good not to share: storm-petrels are called “Jesus birds” (because they ‘walk’ on water) and shearwaters are “gooky birds” (because of the sounds they make when foraging on fish dressings). And lastly, cormorants are called “shags” but I am at a total loss for an explanation on that one.

    Good stuff!

    • February 16, 2012 7:30 pm

      Can’t help with much else, but shag was used by British sailors; it’s still the name of choice in New Zealand. Not sure if it’s true, but a birder friend in NZ said the earlier sailors called the cormorants with crests shags, as in shaggy head. Of course, in NZ the smaller varieties are often pointed out as “the wee shag on the rock.”

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