A birding colleague’s recent report that he’d spotted a pair of long-tailed ducks on Windsor’s Lake Runnemede caught my attention. The sighting was noteworthy, because long-tailed ducks don’t occur often in the Upper Valley. When they are seen, it is only in migration traveling on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds or heading to their wintering quarters in coastal North American waters.
I happened to be in the area that day and headed over in hopes of seeing them. I am not 100% certain I did. What I thought was the pair, diving some 20 yards away from a flock of 40+ ring-necked ducks, was just enough beyond the range of my binoculars to make an accurate ID impossible.
Walking back to the car I found I could not think of the name long-tailed duck without also recalling its previous name “oldsquaw.” Never mind that the name oldsquaw had been banished in 2000 and replaced with long-tailed duck by the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) whose checklist is considered the leading authority on avian nomenclature. One can see why they did. Oldsquaw does have a derogatory cast, and as the AOU noted in its decision, the move was made “to conform with English usage in other parts of the world." But old habits die hard. It will always be oldsquaw somewhere in the dark recesses of my birding consciousness.
Thinking about the long-tailed duck name change got me musing about other colloquial bird names that have been regulated out of popular usage in the interest of well-ordered standardization. Some have not been retired all that long either. Roger Tory Peterson’s 1947 edition of A Field Guide to the Birds refers to the peregrine falcon as the duck hawk, a prosaic description of its hunting habits. Duck hawk does, however, lack a certain precision.
The raptor family seems to have had numbers of these once popular now regulated away colloquial names. Presumably they were given based on the type of prey each species took. There was sparrow hawk (now American Kestrel), pigeon hawk (now merlin), marsh hawk (now northern harrier), fish hawk (now osprey) and chicken hawk that, according to sources, could have been used to identify a Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk or red-tailed hawk.
Also gone are archaic duck names. The American wigeon used to be known as a baldpate referring to its white forehead in breeding plumage. The ruddy duck used to be known as a blue bill referencing the male’s bill color during breeding season. One of my favorite colloquial names came to me through a firsthand encounter with a lobsterman who had been chartered to take my then girlfriend and me out to see an island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. I had noticed numbers of large, brown ducks swimming and diving near the rocky, island shores and outcroppings that dotted the waters. I asked our host, “What kinds of ducks are those?’ He hesitated a moment and then replied, “Them’s sea ducks.” I later learned they were common eider. But the name sea duck made perfect sense in the context of a lobsterman’s work. They were the ducks he saw when out on the water hauling traps. That's all he needed or wanted to know.
Another favorite nickname of mine is that given to the double-crested cormorant. It is “shag.” Turns out, however, that my appreciation of it was based on the wrong interpretation. Researching the nickname shag’s origins, I found out the double-crested cormorant is part of a large family of birds widely distributed around the world. Some members of that group have crests on their heads. According to sources, British sailors called those crested birds shags, because shag was their slang for crest. That was news to me. I thought it was because cormorants can be trained to fish, something that still is practiced in Japan. Shag in that context seemed to be a much more prosaic and apt name.
Songbirds also have more than their share of “lost” names. The pewit has become the eastern wood pewee. A picturesque bird ID no longer used is the snowflake bird. We now know it as the snow bunting. How about whiskey jack or camp robber now known as the gray jay?
Of course, there is a commonsense reason to standardize avian names even if part of a colorful, descriptive past is lost. It makes communication and ID accuracy a lot easier. For example, a US Geological Survey study lists nine archaic names for our flashy northern cardinal including Arizona cardinal, common cardinal, eastern cardinal, Florida cardinal, Kentucky cardinal and so on. If you told someone you saw an "Arizona Cardinal," they might think you meant a football player. Similarly, standardization means we all know what someone means when they say they saw a Canada goose. In the past they could have called it a common wild goose, a Hutchins’ goose, a ring-necked goose or tundra goose.
Still, there's something evocative about those old names. Osprey may be the correct ID, but the name fish hawk conjures up a whole set of images of that beautiful bird plunging feet first into the water, emerging moments later with a fish firmly grasped in its talons as it flaps mightily upward with its prize.