So here’s a nature riddle for you: A group of birdwatchers is making a list of birds they’ve seen so far that day. On the list are Duck Hawk, Marsh Hawk, Pigeon Hawk and Sparrow Hawk. What year is it?
Okay, closest decade then? If you answered anytime pre-1970 you would be pretty close to the correct date.
After that time, the birdwatchers would have had to change their list to indicate Peregrine Falcon, Harrier, Merlin and Kestrel. Same birds. Different names. What’s up with that?
When it comes to slapping a name on a wild critter or plant or anything in Nature, there are two lines of directions, one very precise and the other, shall we say, seems to be left up left up to the locals.
The precise method is the binomial (two name) system that scientists, biologists and other researchers around the world subscribe to.
Heavily promoted by Carl Linnaeus in the mid-1700s, the binomial system was invented to assist people in placing every species into a known order, the result being that every living thing has a binomial (two part) name, the first being the genus and the second being the species.
According to the rules of taxonomy (which is the science of identifying, naming and classifying living things) each species can have only one scientific name, however when it comes to common names there are no limits.
The local classic example is the spring wildflower Erythronium americanum, perhaps known to you as trout lily… or fawn lily… or adder’s tongue… or dog-toothed violet. Now that’s confusing.
Using mainly Greek or Latin words (considered by many to be ‘dead’ languages) a Genus grouping would be followed by a specific name, thus a certain bird would be Falco peregrinus while its close cousin would be Falco rusticolus. In this example the Peregrine Falcon is related to the Gyrfalcon via gross characteristics that they both share, yet enough differences have been noted between them to separate the two into distinct species.
About the same time period as the opening riddle, field guides were becoming popular. The switch from voluminous tomes of ornithological minutia over to ‘fit in your pack’ field books took the fancy of every person with a pair of binoculars.
The publishers knew that using the intimidating Latin or scientific names would not ensure great sales, so the more acceptable common name ‘system’ was used.
And so Falco peregrinus became Duck Hawk due to their trait of following the migrating flocks of waterfowl, and Circus cyancus became illustrated as Marsh Hawk, because of their favourite habitat to nest and hunt in.
The Pigeon Hawk and the Sparrow Hawk were similarly named for the prey they sought.
Some of these species were found all across North America, and unfortunately common names in one area were meaningless in another region. An example is Buzzard: that could refer to a Red-tailed Hawk or a Turkey Vulture, two very different birds indeed.
And so the American Ornithological Union stepped up and created a listing of commonly accepted common names so that the the common folk could compare their lists with common footing. In this case ‘buzzard’ was dropped completely and each of these birds received their official common names.
This updating was done across the whole spectrum of birds, and several names were changed. Which meant that your precious 1960 field guide with all those penciled in marginal notes was, well, no longer acceptable. You had to go buy a new and updated field guide if you wanted to be part of the in-crowd of birding.
This all came crashing down in a reality check last week as I stood with a gaggle of birders observing the early comings and goings of shorebirds and waterfowl. We were in the stages of packing up and moving on when a bird call was heard high overhead and all of us froze in place. Did I just hear what I think I heard?
Yep! A Peregrine falcon ripped across the skyscape and did a swoop down to the sandpipers. Ever try looking through binoculars while at the same time trying to focus your camera? We do not have enough eyes.
This falcon appeared to be a juvenile, a young one on its first migration. It dove at the small brown birds but did not strike. Just seemed to take pleasure in causing panic and mayhem on the beaches.
And then it took a swipe at a larger bird, that being a Marsh Hawk which had lazily drifted into the scene. I called out “marsh hawk” while the younger guy next to me wondered where it was in relation to the Harrier? Classic case of you say potatoes, I say tomatoes
Naming challenges aside, we all were in awe of the air show going on in front of us. The peregrine swooped and flew high, followed by a rocketing dive to the cattails where ducks and sandpipers fled in fear. The Marsh Hawk (if I may call it that) seemed to tolerate this intrusion and kept its steady glide over the cattail lined shores.
At one point the two birds of prey seemed to join forces, flying in tandem in an aerial patrol of the wetland. But I think it was the young Peregrine just wanting to hang out with its peer. A few moments later it left to race along the riverbank in a bravado show of its falcon speed.
Fall migration has begun and birdwatchers are brushing up on their identification skills (you try identifying an immature orange-crowned warbler at 50 metres with a 0.5 second viewing time between the tree leaves). Hope they all have the latest printing of their field guides.