Of Whiskey Jacks and Water Ouzels
There’s a reason why the name of Linnaeus is still spoken with respect more than two centuries after his death. Giving organisms standard names allowed precise communication across cultures and languages. In the birding community, standardization of common names has followed, and is an on-going project (with mixed success.) This is obviously very useful as well — especially now, when birders from vastly different regions communicate casually across the internet.
In some cases, this has increased beauty and precision, saving us from a morass in which every red bird is a Redbird and every blue jay is a Blue Jay. Peregrine Falcon is certainly more elegant than Duck Hawk. And the use of Long-tailed Duck for a waterfowl whose traditional name I decline to type is a small, but real, improvement in the state of civilization as a whole.
Not even all that blue, actually
On the other hand, whenever you standardize language or anything else, you run the risk of local nuance and poetry being lost. In order to avert that, I’d like to sing the praises of a few local common names of some Rocky Mountain birds.
Gray Jay: This drab but charismatic species demonstrates that the more a bird interacts with humans, the more colloquial names it will tend to pick up. Once known as the Canada Jay, but more interestingly by such tags as Camp Robber and Venison Hawk for its habit of hanging around humans and viewing them as a food source. Also known as Meat-bird, Moosebird, and Lumberjack. Best of all, sometimes called Whiskey Jack, a corruption of the Algonquin Wisakedjak, the name of a trickster manitou. (The deity himself, according to the all-knowing internet, was not associated with jays but with cranes.)
American Dipper: Anyone who knows their John Muir knows that the pleasingly archaic name Water Ouzel can be used for this species, as well as for its European cousin the White-throated Dipper. Outside of the Cinclus, Ouzel is also a common name sometimes applied to a variety of Turdus thrushes including the Common Blackbird of Europe, so the literal meaning of the name is “Water Thrush”. But it sounds so much more sophisticated to say Ouzel.
Assorted Galliformes: One of the bird-human interactions that tends to produce a lot of common names is hunting, and names bestowed by hunters will tend to focus on traits important to hunters: how do you find it, where do you find it, and how does it taste? Issues like taxonomy take the back seat. As a result, the White-tailed Ptarmigan is sometimes known as the Snow Grouse, while actual grouse are tagged as follows: Dusky Grouse = Hooter, Ruffed Grouse, = Drummer, Spruce Grouse = Fool-hen. This seems rather hard on the Spruce Grouse.
Fool-hen, guys? Really?
Clark’s Nutcracker: On the other hand, the folk vernacular can be surprisingly insightful about taxonomy and even convergent evolution, as when people call this non-standard corvid a Woodpecker Crow.
Swainson’s Hawk: Further east, where the mountains smooth into prairies, this bird demonstrates a common naming pattern for birds of prey: people call them after the creatures they prey on, dubbing this bird the Locust Hawk or Grasshopper Hawk. Likewise the Peregrine Falcon is the Duck Hawk as mentioned above, the American Kestrel is the Sparrowhawk, and the Osprey is the Fish Hawk.
Northern Flicker: And then there are the times when officialdom changes not only the name, but the whole species, away from the former conventional wisdom. Northern Flicker this species may well be, but Red-shafted Flicker is certainly more descriptive of the majority of the Montana population.
These are just a handful of the better-documented vernacular names. No doubt dozens of descriptive, evocative, and
hilarious handles for birds, some perhaps restricted to a single valley or even to one family, have been lost. Feel free to add any you know in the comments.
(photos courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Steller’s Jay by Lee Karney, Spruce Grouse by David Govtaski)