Sunday, July 11, 2010


I have always had a soft spot for the more literary side of birding: years ago I remember learning that the former common name for Lark Bunting was White-winged Prairie Blackbird. As a beginner, I really relished bird names that incorporated a key visual aspect of a bird and thus I was particularly pleased with this name. Admittedly, it reflected only the male of the species, but as a neophyte I was only looking at males! I suppose I have 'progressed' in the sense that I now look more at shape, location and other non-color aspects of a bird, but I still enjoy hearing--and using--other English names for a particular species.

Thus, for example, while looking up this Surf Scoter in the second, revised editon of Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, I was happy to discover that it is sometimes referred to as 'Skunk-head Coot'. Apparently that is not a former name, it's just an appellation common enough in Peterson's time to merit inclusion in his guide. And it does reflect a key aspect of the male bird: his head is indeed "Black, with one or two white patches on the crown of head..." (Peterson, 50).

This individual was swimming around in mid April in English Bay, Vancouver and as I am now in the SW desert awaiting the monsoon, I am fantasizing and writing about ocean birds!. I did learn a little more: in the 1947 Peterson Guide, the entry below Surf Scoter is American Scoter (Oidemia nigra americana), a name that doesn't occur in Sibley. This got my research instincts flowing and with the help of my husband I now know that this 'American Scoter' was re-named Melanitta nigra sometime after 1957. Then, in 2005 the British Ornithologists' Union split this taxon into Melanitta nigra (Old World species), Common Scoter, and Melanitta americana (New World species), Black Scoter. So, as far as I can tell, there is no 'American Scoter' name anymore. I suppose none of this information is crucial to my enjoyment--or field identification--of the actual birds, but it is always interesting to me how much discussion and study is behind the names which provide many of us with a sense of satisfaction when we match them to the 'correct' bird.